A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine told me about a conversation she’d had with some German tourists; they’d been surprised at the huge crop of berries in the hedgerows, and at how little use was being made of the excess – apparently they felt that the branches would have been stripped bare in Germany. This made me stop and look and, yes, there was still a lot of fruit in relatively good condition. So I dug out my walking boots, a bag and a useful stick and got the last berries in, just before the weather turned.
Let me confess something. I’m not the best jam maker in the world. My damson is respectable, but I don’t eat a lot of jam and I’ve not really bothered to perfect my technique (you can’t make Marmite at home, alas). I do, however, enjoy making jellies. It may be largely aesthetic, though not having to pick seeds out of your teeth in an unladylike manner also comes into play. And my autumn jelly is sooo pretty; I can’t think how I had overlooked making it this year. So when I set off with my stick and bag I had a clear picture of what I wanted to find. Almost anything.
‘Almost anything’ isn’t fair, though. The jelly does need structure; it’s not a sling everything in and see what happens, compost heap of a jelly. Too many blackberries, for instance, tend to dominate and I often make a straight blackberry jelly with those as well. It also needs a certain proportion of crab apples for the set, and though my trees have been a bit straggly this year they managed to yield enough (a mystery; it’s been a good apple year in general). For the rest – well, I use whatever is available within reason. Elderberries can go in too, though I tend to save those for my elixir.
Autumn Jelly – five small jars
500g mixed autumn fruits – rose hips, haws, sloes, rowan berries, a few blackberries
500g crab apples
sugar – the quantity depends on how much juice you get; see below…
Remove as many leaves and stalks from your hedgerow haul as possible, but there’s no need to be too finicky about small things like sloe stems. Roughly chop the apples if they are wildings – bigger than classic crabs, they are the product of ordinary apples discarded by passers by; just as good but need more chopping – otherwise, just halve them. Put all the fruit in a large pan, add the water and bring to a simmer. Cook until everything is soft and then allow the mixture to cool a little. Set up a jelly bag and stand or, if you’re like me, create one using muslin, string, and the legs of an upturned chair. Put a bowl beneath the bag and carefully ladle the contents of the pan into the jelly bag. Allow it to drip overnight.
In the morning, remove the jelly bag – for a really clear jelly, make sure you do not squeeze the bag before doing this – and discard the contents. Pour the liquid into a measuring jug; for this quantity of fruit, expect about 700ml. Then weigh out the sugar, 75g for every 100ml of liquid. Put the juice into a heavy-bottomed pan and bring it to the boil, adding the sugar just as it reaches that point. Stir carefully until the sugar has dissolved, then stop stirring and let the jelly boil vigorously until it reaches setting point; this should take about 7-8 minutes. Take the pan off the heat while testing for a set – I do this by putting a little jelly on a chilled dish, turning it upside-down over the pan and seeing if the jelly drips off; if it does, I boil it a little more. Once it’s fine, skim the jelly of any foam and pot it into warm sterilised jars, sealing immediately.
I love this jelly with cold roast chicken and a baked potato. Why did I think of that? I’ve only just had breakfast…
There is something deeply satisfying about making preserves. Every year the peak season seems to coincide with all sorts of other complications, but the one year I threw my hands up in horror and produced nothing I felt deprived (and guilty too). This year I’ve gone a little bit bonkers and have five different types of chutney – that bumper apple crop again – as well as this jelly and some damson jam. Could this behaviour be the human equivalent of a squirrel stashing nuts? If so, I generally like to think I have greater mental capacity than the average squirrel – after all, they forget where they stash things and rely on encountering them by accident. And then I cleared out the understairs store and found two jars of chutney from 2009. Ahem. Delicious, by the way.