My first summer in Aberdeen was much like a first love. I experienced what a strawberry really, really tasted like, simply couldn’t get enough and wanted it with me all the time. Three punnets were on the go at a shot, freshly plucked from a local farm and sold in the farm shop along a winding country road. The kind where daffodils lined the edges and seem to nod daftly at everything that passed them. The whole scenery around this shop – the setting with the lush fields, separated by stone dykes in perpetual residence, dotted with fluffy sheep or hefty cows, surprisingly clear blue skies and the scent of fresh raspberries and strawberries in the air – was the epitome of the cliched British picture in my mind. I loved it all; I miss it deeply. I miss the serene, reviving beauty of the natural, green landscape, be it farmed or those wisely left as they always were. I miss the berries. My favourite way with those strawberries, is pouring lightly sweetened single cream over them, with just a barely perceptible hint of vanilla scenting a bowlful. To this day, when I unexpectedly get the scent of strawberries, I see the open valleys and rolling hills on the edges of Aberdeen city.
The Scotsman’s grandfather was a keen, avid gardener. On one side of his narrow, long garden sat a vegetable patch. In a corner great shards of thick, pink-green stalks and massive pink veined green leaves shot out of the earth. He hacked away at some of the rhubarb stalks and handed it over to me, saying that he loved rhubarb jam. I had read somewhere previously, that rhubarb and strawberry make a lovely combination and decided to get them acquainted in a jam pot. A few tweaks and several jam jars later, I came upon a balance I liked, as did the grandfather and have been making this jam ever since. The tart, yet fruity acidity of the rhubarb seems to bring out an almost perfumed strawberry flavour. The scent of this jam cooking to me is the essence of summer. Make it and you’ll understand.
I don’t have access to a lot of fruit for jam making. Considering that everything is more or less imported, it means the fruit isn’t at its best when it reaches here but I am still paying a premium for its occupation on the shelf irrespective of quality. So, when the bug hits me, I make jam, but in small batches, usually no more than 4 x 250 ml jars at one go. These keeps things manageable as strawberry jams are notorious for setting, so a massive pot would just take so long to come to setting point, that all its delicate flavour would be destroyed. Also, it allows me to use much less sugar as it doesn’t hang around that long. I think this produces a stronger flavoured jam too, where the fruit flavour isn’t dampened by a undiscriminating blanket of sweetness.
Now, should you, like me, suffer from having no source of real strawberries, know that good quality frozen strawbs, as well as frozen rhubarb work superbly well in this recipe too. I’ve often knocked up a fair few batches during the winter months with frozen packets of fruit. Simply defrost and proceed as per the recipe, adding a bit more lemon juice for pectin content. Only point to note is that it might take a bit longer to set.
A point on setting points – I don’t really give too much of a hoot. Unless you are submitting your jars for a preserves contest, it really shouldn’t become the be-all and end-all of jam making. In chasing that rather elusive magic setting point, your jam can easily move from perfect to pastilles. Might as well lessen the stakes. I actually much, much prefer a softer set. Soft mind, not runny. The kind where the indentation of a spoon’s scoop is slowly blurred and softened, eventually evening out. Soft enough to sit lusciously on top of a vanilla or coconut milk scented, silky rice pudding, plopped generously over fluffy freshly baked scones or to charm a bowl of bolstering porridge. I suppose this jam sits more on the side of a preserve, with suspended chunks of the fruit in its body. Tis a glorious thing.
The quantity I give here yielded four jars. Within two weeks, I am down to my last one. I screeched at The Scotsman not to finish it as he spread two slices of bread thickly. I hadn’t taken a shot of the finished product yet. Before you roll your eyes at my food blogger’s lunacy, consider that he has had his fill of two previous jars (my mother hauled the third away with her after a short trip to Doha). I can say with confidence, that he absolutely adores this jam, my brothers and mother have finished their jar within a matter of days and the kids think I am incredibly clever making such a delicious jam all by my simple self. Nothing like kids to put a compliment into perspective! It also makes the loveliest gifts to give from your kitchen.
Hopefully, we might get away to the UK for the summer. With temperatures already at 50deg C, the cold hit of horizontal scottish rain would be a relief! Until then, the taste of a stolen teaspoon of Strawberry and Rhubarb Jam, eaten just so, will take me there.
Strawberry & Rhubarb Jam
500 gms fresh or frozen strawberries, halved if large. Slightly underripe fresh berries are perfect as they set easier.
500gms fresh or frozen rhubarb
750gm of sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice (optional)
4 x 250gm jars with lids
Place all the ingredients except the lemon juice in a large bowl. Mix well, cover and leave to macerate for 2 hours, until the fruits have softened and released their juices.
When the time is up, wash your jars with hot, soapy water, drain well and put onto a baking tray lined with an old kitchen towel. Place into an oven preheated to 150 deg C and leave there till needed. Wash the lids too. Drain and wipe clean with kitchen paper. Place two small saucers into your freezer. This will come into use to check setting levels later.
Put the fruit mix and lemon juice if using, into a large, heavy bottomed pot. Aluminium is not recommended as it will react with the acids. You can use enamel lined pans as long as it isn’t chipped. Stainless steel is the preferred option.
Put the heat on medium and allow the sugar to melt, stirring often. Once melted and no crystals are left, turn up the heat as high as it will go. Bring to a rolling boil, scraping the surface to remove any foamy scum. Stir frequently, to stop it catching. If you have a thermometer, then setting point will be reached at 104-105deg C. If not, then when you see the mixture thicken and the bubbles are bigger and noisier, turn down the heat and put a small blob on the frozen saucer. In half a minute, run your fingertip from one end of the blob to the other. If you see wrinkles on the surface, then setting point has been reached. If not, then boil for a bit longer, checking for setting point frequently. Take the pot off the heat, take your jars out of the oven and decant the jam into the jars, preferably with the use of a funnel. Close the jars with the lids tightly. Store in a cool, dark place as light can change the colour as well as spoil the preserve.
About using frozen fruit; the flavour will be good, but the fresh stuff is rather brilliant. So I urge you to make this with fresh if you can. Also, frozen fruit will take a longer time to set. I would recommend going for a soft set particularly in this case, otherwise your jam will lean towards candied fruit!
Don’t be constrained by the amounts here. I often use less strawberry and more rhubarb or the other way around. Tis all good!