Sunday 12 July 2009

Bottling joy, an every day experience

Apricot jam

What do you do when you have loads of fruit? Make jam. Lady de B and I bought most of the fruit for Stuart’s party at New Covent Garden Market as it was cheaper to buy a whole tray wholesale than a few punnets retail. This meant we had lots left over. So on Tuesday night, we got together for our own little preserves festival. In a few hours, we had a shelf full of strawberry jam, raspberry jam and apricot and vanilla jam, along with peach and almond chutney to go with the cheeses at Paula’s wedding in September. We were a two-woman WI.

Preparing peach and almond chutney.From this.

One of the (many) things I love about Lady de B is that she’s my autodial person for produce. When rhubarb, blackcurrants, quince, medlars or walnuts arrive in the market, I can call her in a high state of excitement and she doesn’t think I’m mad. And it’s a reciprocal agreement. In January, I got a near-breathless call from her announcing she’d seen Seville oranges in Borough Market. The marmalade season was upon us. I dug out the preserving pan, stocked up on sugar, fished out a box of jars from the cellar.

The day before our planned marmalade extravaganza, Séan was admitted to hospital and my life of gentle, joyful domesticity vanished for five sombre weeks. The ping of the kitchen timer was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of monitors. I was in a foreign land of blue linoleum corridors and waiting. Waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting to speak to consultants, all the time my mouth filled with the sour taste of fear.

Our friends and families were wonderful. His room was filled with cards and visitors. Flowers and fruit arrived in amounts that would have done New Covent Garden proud. We watched movies, reruns of Friends, Obama’s joyful inauguration. We played Scrabble, read, held hands. Lady de B even smuggled Barney into the little garden at the back of the hospital so man and dog could share a few happy hours together. Friends invited me for supper, picked up laundry, walked the dog, fed the cats.

But each evening, home alone, I felt raw with longing for our ordinary life together. Eating dinner, going to the flower market, planning parties and holidays. It seemed like a distant country. Looking back was too painful; looking forward too full of terrifying uncertainty. Every night, as I spooned chopped fruit into Tupperware boxes and washed pyjamas for the next day, I felt numb.

Now he’s home and well and I feel a small rush of happiness every day at 7pm when I hear his key turn in the lock. He still drives me mad. Within a one metre radius of the laundry basket is not the same as in the laundry basket. Unless we’ve received some sort of nature reserve status of which I’m unaware, that lawn needs cutting. A few light bulbs in the hallway chandelier would be nice. It’s normal.

On Tuesday night - as Vanessa and I chopped and stirred, filling the kitchen with sweet, spicy clouds of steam - I felt joyful, as if I were bottling happiness. Forget fancy cars, diamonds and designer shoes. Curling up under our Moroccan blanket on the sofa to watch a film, breakfast together in the park on Saturday mornings, Sundays spent reading the paper, drinking tea and talking nonsense with friends, a few jars of jam. These are my riches, my bounty, my daily blessings.

Apricot and vanilla jam

Apricot jam on hot-buttered home-made toast Apricot jam on my homemade raisin and walnut bread.

We created this recipe from Lady de B’s copy of Mrs Beeton which was given to her mother by her grandmother and then passed on to her. I couldn’t resist adding a few tweaks, as I prefer French-style softer set jams which contain less sugar and really allow the fruit to shine. If you prefer a thicker, English-style jam, simply increase the weight of the sugar so you have the same amount of sugar as fruit and boil a little longer. We also added some vanilla because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing?

Makes about 20 jars

2kg apricots
1.8kg sugar
Juice of a lemon
250ml water
2 vanilla pods, split lengthways
A small knob of unsalted butter

Halve the apricots (reserving a small handful of kernels) and layer them in your pan with the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla pods. Pour over the water and leave to macerate for an hour or so. While you’re waiting, put a few saucers in the freezer and crack the reserved kernels. Blanch the white, almondy bit inside the kernels in some boiling water for a minute and put them on one side.

Warm the apricot mixture over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar then boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. You know you’re there when a dollop of jam on one of the chilled saucers wrinkles when you push it with your finger. I like to take it off the heat when it just starts to wrinkle as it’s so hot it continues to cook a bit afterwards. Add the blanched kernels. Don't bother skimming off any scum that forms, just stir in a bit of butter at the end which will disperse it. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars and seal. We also retrieved the vanilla pods, snipped them into smaller pieces and added the pieces to some of the jars.

A good night's work

Our little harvest festival of chutneys and jams.


  1. I could read you all day,my dear Ms Spoon - words drip like jam from the jar in sweet, rich measure. I had no idea about Sean - whew! What a harsh time to have endured, and what a happy ending to be able to share.
    Thank you so much for your kind words - most people don't understand my emotions (esp me Mum) so talking problems out is a hard task at times. The dog that I found and then happliy returned to the rightful owners a week later is still being missed. I llok for her every morning automatically before I must remind myself that she has gone home. SHE understood me, appreciated me and brought my tender side to the forefront everyday. She reminded me that I had a singular life, a vision of my own to fulfill and a strong desire to be firmly about that process.
    Mum lives down the street, lost my Dad 2 years ago, and I see her everyday, unlike the other sibs in the area. I was MIA (sort of) for the last week due to the found dog and life, and she was having none of it.Very emotionally toxic.Ouch.
    One day, I will have a man, a relatinship, a full life and I will be a "little" less free to be there as I have been very diligently for the last 2.5 years. I really saw how MY clock is ticking this last week, and that I have life choices to make that have nothing to do with Mum. So did she. Ahhhhhhhh
    thanks for the pep talk and for listening...
    love the jam
    have always wanted to begin cannning
    the whole sterilzing process still seems a little scary (what a wuss!)

  2. What a clever, touching, and emotionally honest piece of writing, especially after the gorgeous party bpost where it seems you live a wonderfully golden life. But in truth here you show that you pan for gold in what can be a challenging life, and somehow you pass the golden touch to other people.

    Can I have a jar of the jam for B??

  3. I have some tears in my eyes...that was just beautiful :) Your jam sounds amazing as well and hope I can get myself to make some!

  4. Oh deary - after reading my diatribe above, please "can" me - oh my!!
    hugs and jam kisses

  5. you poor thing sounds like you have been through a tough time, will pray for you you preserves look awesome, you need a follower icon LOL

  6. Dearest Lady P - I'd never 'can' you, darling, though I would encourage you to give canning a go. It's really not difficult and so much fun - all I do to sterilize the jars is boil them for a bit, keep them warm in the oven, then bottle up the hot jam and seal immediately. No pesky waterbaths or anything and it keeps very well.

    It's hard to forge an authentic, independent life sometimes without trampling on the feelings of others, but it's possible and worth the struggle. I'm delighted the 'Zoro masked pup' was found by her owners, though I understand you miss her. Have you thought, I'm sure there are rescue places filled with little dogs who would thrive with a little Lady P love? I'd never encourage anyone to undertake dog ownership lightly, but if it's right for you, sharing your home with a dog is like a daily masterclass in joy.

    Mum - How does the song go? 'Into each life some rain must fall', but you get on with it and seize every opportunity for happiness. I have so many wonderful people (not least, YOU) in my life, so many blessings, I always feel lucky. And tell Daddy I have a jar of apricot jam with his name on it, and it's a big one!

    Girlichef - Thank you, dear, and do give the jam a go. It's marvellous!

    C&C - Thanks so much for your kindness. You know, in the darkest days a piece of scripture, from Isaiah, I remembered from school kept popping into my head 'See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;your walls are ever before me' and it was enormously comforting. And I've added a follower icon, just for you, and any other happy spoons out there...

    Love and a million licked spoons to all of you, Dxx

  7. It's very, very difficult to type with tears dripping down one's face, but I'll manfully struggle on because I need you to know that you are a @#$# Brilliant writer and that if you don't write a book, I shall surely and quite personally fly to London and sit on your sofa, demanding Pimm's cups and eating you out of house and home much like Penelope's suitors until you do. Well, I might do that anyway, but you get my point. Debora, this is so wonderfully moving AND so much beyond the normal "food writing" as to reach (dare I say it?) the level of authors who blend life with foodstuffs like M.F.K Fisher (that is her name, right?) and Elizabeth Whosit (oh, dear only defense is that it's Monday! You know who I mean!!!). You are my idol!


  8. Karen - Oh you! If that's what it takes to get you on a plane, then that's what it takes... Thank you so much dearest - your comments mean the world to me.

    Love, Dxx

  9. I think I know what you were going through...I had Bruce in the hospital and I had to think it was almost worse for me than for him (but not really). It's so hard to be the caretaker and worrier and Lucky Sean that he had you...and you both have a happy ending. Had to laugh about the laundry basket--those little things do add up, don't they!!! Yum on the jams, too!

  10. This was so, so touching Debora. It is also a wonderful reminder that riches come with the simple things and someone you love.

    A x

  11. you take my breath away with your honesty and vulnerability. amazing woman, even more amazing writer. wow.

  12. I have an award for you on my blog and am following ya great Scripture by the way God knows what to put in your heart to give you stength

  13. Catherine - So sorry to hear about Bruce. I hope he's doing better now and thank you so much for your thoughtful words. Well, the laundry situation is still on the critical list, but last night Sean walked around the whole house to check every lightbulb was working. Blog Power!
    Avril - Thank you, Miss JOY.
    Marty - Thank you so much, lovely lady. You're a doll.
    C&C - How very kind you are, thank you for the award and the following!

  14. What an efficient pair you and Lady de B sound. Honestly a shelf full in a couple of hours. Amazing! I love making jams as you know and it is one of those things that I simply cannot "knock up". Your bounty looks gorgeous and I must say adding vanilla pods is completely new to me. Is it as delish as it sounds? I'm so proud of your efforts. WEll done.
    I hope all is well with your Sean. I do know how you feel as my hubby was admitted urgently last February and he spent a week in hospital. The doctors discovered he had a really unusual condition and he had a couple of minor ops in the hope that he wouldn't need the "really big" operation. So far so good, but one never knows what lies around the bend.
    Best wishes to you both from the other side of the world.
    Love Mariana xxxxx

    PS. One metre from the basket is really good. Try three rooms away!!

  15. Hello Mariana - DO try the vanilla pods. It works wonderfully with strawberry jam too. Sean is great now and we're back to our 'normal' crazy life, for which I am forever grateful. I hope your husband is well too, and continues to be well. As you say, we never know what's round the bend which makes it even more important to cherish the road we're on. You made me laugh about the laundry! Still, if that's the worst thing they ever do, I guess we're pretty lucky.
    Love to you too. So glad you're back, Dxx


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