Well actually it all started when I saw a few straggly blackberries hanging on a hedge as I drove back to the cottage. Blackberries! I thought. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with your children – blonde heads gilded by the Autumn sun as they bend eagerly over rustic baskets filled with luscious, purple-black fruit – we can make jam! I thought.
An extended shopping expedition was in order. Flushed with excitement, I made my way to Lakeland (my favourite kitchen shop). Imagine my delight! A whole aisle devoted to jam making implements, everything from preserving saucepans to jelly strainers. I also loaded up on those gorgeous jars with the lids that bolt down with a strange wire contraption. (I now know them as the ubiquitous Mason jars) I also chucked into my basket a couple of bottles for making sloe gin (Sloe gin! There must be some sloe bushes? trees? nearby.) And finally, as an afterthought, I picked up the latest WI preserving book with delicious looking pictures on the cover. Big mistake.
So the picking of the blackberries was a disaster. Having worked Joe (6) up to a pitch of feverish excitement and having acquired the perfect rustic basket, we set out on a gloriously sunny day to garner our blackberries. I was convinced the best place to go would be the edge of the farmer’s field that joined our garden. Unfortunately for Joe I kept forgetting that the long grass, although only just over knee height for me, was hitting Joe square in the face. He bore this uncomplainingly for about twenty minutes before roaring to be taken home.
My bright chatter held him off for another ten minutes by which time we’d circumnavigated all the woods round the house before finally coming across one group of brambles directly opposite the front door. Sadly, it was a sorry sight. After much searching Joe and I came up with four scrawny berries each which looked pretty rubbish in the basket, nestling as they did against four old leaves and a Cbeebies magazine that Joe insisted we take in case we got tired.
Giving up on the blackberries but still determined, I went to the local farm shop and bought so many punnets of strawberries that I had to get one of the lads to help me carry them to the car. ‘Making jam tonight then?’ he asked in amusement as he slammed the boot shut. Driving home I realised that I didn’t have any scales. Too late to buy any but determined, I spent a very hot anxious hour shelling – hullung? – piles of strawberries and trying to work out if they weighed as much as the bag of sugar that I knew weighed 500 grams. That’s an interesting thing; did you know that to make jam you combine ONE KILO of sugar for every kilo of fruit? That’s a lot of sugar.
Anyway, finally made the jam. Am still not really sure why five tonnes of strawberries that filled a whole boot only filled two and a half of my lovely jars, but I was very proud of them nonetheless.
The following weekend I was leafing through the WI book and found a recipe for pickled onions. Eyeing up the rows of jars on the windowsill I was struck by a brainwave – Rob (my husband) loves pickled onions! I’ll make them next.
After buying a 5 kilo bag of pickling onions, again from the local farm shop, I managed to make six jars. The house stank of vinegar – my fingers reeked of onions – and don’t go near the car boot. (Leaving 5 kilos of pickling onions in there for a week or so has left the most peculiar smell that still hasn’t gone away)
I was so proud of my efforts I uploaded pictures of my jam and onions onto my Facebook page. I was shocked at the hoots of derision from friends who aren’t really used to seeing me as anything remotely related to the W.I.
The thing is, they can mock all they like, but I’ve LOVED pottering about in my kitchen making things to be savoured in the winter. I am disgustingly smug that my pickled onions were really crunchy – despite my mother-in-law’s dire warnings that home made pickled onions always went soggy. (The secret is to soak them overnight in salt water, apparently.) OK, so there were some disasters, my first attempt at peaches in brandy looked like mushroom brains in slimy gunge, but the latest lot almost look like the ones in the shops (if you ignore the strange violet caves where the stones were, oh, and the floating bits of peach – don’t know how that happened) I’m really looking forward to having them ‘warmed, and served over ice cream’ as recommended by my reliable guide: Carol Tennant.
I still have a few jars left and will make that blackberry jam even if I have to buy them from the damn farm shop. I’m also still quite keen to make sloe gin (every time I think about it I keep quoting ‘Under Milk Wood), and overheard the postman saying to the neighbour that he had loads of sloes at the bottom of his garden. I’m planning on following him home. Also, I’ve just found an amazing recipe for something called Rumtopf which looks absolutely fantastic. Apparently you have to use a special ceramic jar – I wonder if Lakeland sells them…