Jam Tomorrow Jam Yesterday

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 21, 2010 |

Could you do me a favor? Please, if you know me in real life, don't ever say you never read my blog and then ask what I've been up to. I know you're just being polite, and I know that if you never read this website it's unlikely you'll ever take note of this request. It's not that I'm bothered by you not reading: I actually find that refreshing. I'm totally cool with it. It's just that when you ask what I've been doing lately I can never seem to think of anything to say that doesn't make me want to reach out and grab your fist to punch me in the jaw. I am legitimately happy with what I'm doing with my life right now, but the minute I have to articulate what I've been up to out loud I realize how silly it all sounds and then I remember I've been sharing such silliness with the entire Internet for years. I guess that's why I love my blog: it lets everyone who actually cares know exactly what I've been doing, so I never, ever have to talk about it.

But occasionally someone still asks. "Oh, you know," I'll say. "We're just about over the hump with the potty training. . ." It's taken me far longer than it should have to learn that a grown man cannot utter the word potty in the presence of another without any subsequent conversation being drowned out by the horrible sucking sound of his testicles shriveling to the size of a subatomic neutrino.

An old friend who lives far away got stuck at the airport a few days ago and when I went to see him at his hotel he said, "So I haven't read your blog in like three months; what have you been up to?"

I shrugged and spoke truthfully, "Oh you know, just jamming."

I could have left it at that and hoped this guy thought I was talking about guitars or something, but I lived with him during those few misguided months I spent trying to learn to play the banjo, so he knew better than to think that I could "jam" on anything more sophisticated than a kazoo. I could have tried to say it in a Jamaican accent, I guess, but from me that would have sounded even lamer than jamming on a kazoo. So I went with the truth: "Yeah, I've been making a lot of jam."

It's right here that I should insert some lame statement about how I'm comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that I love making jam, but the reality is that I'm not. I've been a stay-at-home dad for nearly four years, and I'm afraid that at this point any sense I have of feeling masculine is akin to a Scottish Terrier remembering what it feels like to be a wolf. Sure I tear things apart or try to build something once in awhile, but the reality is that day in and day out I'm far more likely to be found wearing an apron and sterilizing the lids of my mason jars. If that doesn't sound emasculating enough to you, try to imagine me doing it while singing this song to the kids, often with the dance moves.

There, I hope that kills any strange notion you might have that a man making jam could actually be macho or sexy. But for whatever reason, I have really been enjoying it. It's relaxing. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. It will let us enjoy the fruits we picked this summer next January. And it appeals to my completist tendencies: at some point I decided I would try to make jam out of every possible fruit that grows locally, and that has meant a lot of fun day trips to u-pick farms out in the country (I've already written about picking strawberries, sour cherries, and mulberries). But it's also driven me to go after some more exotic fruit, like our recent attempt to pick red currants and gooseberries.

Read More (it gets sexier. much sexier.)

I'm so serious about this that we went to the only u-pick gooseberry farm in Michigan on the first day that gooseberries were available for picking. Truth be told, I had no idea what a gooseberry tasted like. I just knew I had to get me some. I thought we left early enough that morning, but I hadn't considered the Germans.

When we arrived, the gooseberry bushes were picked clean. Throngs of leather-gloved Germans were methodically lifting every gooseberry leaf in search of some possible berry their brethren might have missed. My German is a bit rusty, but I swear I heard one of them tell the others that it was okay to pick up the ones that were rotting on the ground. I had no idea Germans were so crazy for gooseberries, and our hopes of crafting some homemade gooseberry jam sunk as we watched our early-rising Teutonic competition hauling multiple buckets of the berries up to the payment counter, leaving us nothing but prickly, bare bushes.

Before they could turn their cruel Prussian eyes towards the currants nearby, we picked a bucketful.  My son wasn't very happy about it. He enjoys u-picking because he just gets to sit there and eat, and the red and black currants were bitter and not easy to pick. At one point I wandered over to the gooseberry bushes and actually found one that the Germans had missed. I gave it to my daughter, who'd been curious all week what a gooseberry tasted like.

"It's delicious," she sighed, and we went back to picking the bitter, nasty little red currants.

The boy wandered over to a rusty old tractor and climbed all over it while the girl walked along a row of rhubarb growing at the far edge of the field. "Look Pops," she shouted: "Gooseberries!"

Sure enough, growing in the corner of the field were four gooseberry bushes bursting with fruit that the Germans hadn't yet discovered. Two German couples were still milling around the bare bushes and I feared they heard my daughter's pronouncement and my children would soon be bowled over in a berry-induced Blitzkrieg. We picked furiously, unsure of how long it would be before the Germans noticed our discovery. As our bucket filled, I began to wonder if I wasn't picking as many as I could more out of a desire to beat the Germans than to actually use the berries. I tasted one, and then continued lifting the thorny branches and bleeding from the cuts in my hand as I harvested more. They were delicious. Larger and tougher-skinned than a table grape, very sweet but slightly bitter. The flavor was subtle and unique.

Once our bucket was completely full, I walked over to some fellow Yanks among the currants who looked disappointed by the lack of gooseberries. "Pssst," I said out German earshot: "There's a whole bunch of gooseberries over there." Then Gram kicked over my bucket:

When we got home we washed the berries and picked off what remained of the stems.

Then I threw the gooseberries in a pot and added a few cups of sugar, lemon juice, and a bit of vanilla:

The coloring of the berries reminded me of rhubarb, and we'd picked some rhubarb too so I experimented a bit and made a small batch of gooseberry-rhubarb jam too.

While the gooseberries were reducing I turned my attention to the currants, and googling for red currant jam recipes I came across the story of the House of Dutriez's confiture de groseilles made in Bar-le-Duc, a town in northeastern France. I have to retract that statement earlier about jam-making not being very sexy. Bar-le-Duc red currant jam is extremely sexy. It costs $40 for a 3oz jar and it was enjoyed by the French royalty long before they started losing their heads. Mary Queen of Scots called it "a ray of sun in a crystal jar." What makes this jam so incredible is the way it's prepared. Red currants have these nasty hard little seeds that make the jam quite fibrous. Dutriez still uses a time-honored method developed by 13th-century monks for removing the seeds while keeping the currants themselves intact: a goose quill is inserted into each currant to remove the seeds without damaging the skin and flesh of the fruit. A Dutriez employee can spend all day de-seeding just a few pounds of currants. It's one of the most decadent things I've ever read about.

image source: FXCuisine

Sadly, I did not have a goose quill or an entire afternoon to spend removing seeds from the red currants we picked that day. I did my best with a pocket knife (I'm sure Mr. Dutriez would cluck his disapproval) on a few berries and then said, "Fuck it," and tossed the rest into the pot with some sugar.

I let the jam chill for a few days and bought some brioche from Avalon International Breads to try with it. We had some friends visit from Paris last summer and they said Avalon's brioche was among the best they'd ever tasted so I figured it might make my seedy jam better. The color was beautiful, and it tasted great even though the seeds definitely affected the texture. Someday, when I am old and rich I am definitely going to buy a jar of Dutriez's confiture de groseilles and eat that shit like caviar. Until then, I have about 12 jars of my own.

I tried the gooseberry jam on the brioche next, and it was even better:

Then my wife and kids finished the loaf before I could try any others.

This summer so far we've made batches of strawberry, rhubarb, strawberry-rhubarb, blackberry, mulberry, red cherry, mixed berry, blueberry, red raspberry, and golden raspberry & apricot. I saw both of those fruits next to each other---freshly picked from a Michigan farm---at the farmer's market and knew that I would be spending my Saturday afternoon over boiling pots:

This past weekend I also canned my first batch of tomato sauce from fresh garden tomatoes and we've been making pickles too. After my mulberry jam post, I received a lot of e-mails from people asking about the canning process. I'd never canned before this year, and all I can say is that if it's something that interests you, you should definitely try it. I just use the standard stove top water bath method and it's not nearly as hard as it seems.

And now when the apocalypse comes, I have a new proficiency that might just keep me alive while the roving biker gangs in charge are skull fucking all the lawyers.