September, one of my favourite months, and as John Keats so emphatically writes in his “Ode to Autumn”..….” Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”……..and indeed, for most gardeners it is a month of mellow fruitfulness – a veritable cornucopia of fruit, herbs and vegetables.
And if the season is a boon for gardeners, it is even more fruitful for cooks, especially “jamming” cooks, as in preserving. I am one of those cooks; I look forward to September with anticipation, as well as with a certain amount of dread, as I know that I will be chained to the gas hob in the back room of my house, fondly called “The Jam Factory”, for several weeks. But, once all the jars have been bought and sterilised, my fruit has been picked, washed, pitted and chopped, and my sugar supplies have been secured, I love being tucked away in the back room, sat at an old scrubbed wooden table, with a pot of tea, (or coffee) as well as my favourite music or radio shows to keep me company.
There is a sense of great satisfaction in preserving what you have grown (or bought locally), the knowledge that there will be jars of glowing jams and jellies to grace the winter breakfast table, as well pots of spiced, mellow chutneys to adorn the Christmas cheese board; and, many of my home-made preserves are given as gifts throughout the festive season, with my friends and family starting to drop hints as to what they “cannot live without” well before my last quince has been picked and chopped!
Apples, crab apples, blackberries, elderberries, plums, damsons, figs, quince, raspberries, pears, marrows, onions, shallots, late tomatoes, garlic and beetroot, these are the mainstay of the autumn preserves kitchen, and I am lucky enough to have a small orchard in my walled back garden with apples, pears and quince, as well as a huge (and very prolific) fig tree, rows of raspberry canes, a bramble hedge, two elder trees and my herbs and home-grown veggies of course.
Jams, jellies, fruit cheeses, chutneys, pickles and relishes are planned with each basket or box of fruit or veg that is deposited (by my husband) on the kitchen table! Jam jars are lined up, sterilised, and ready to receive their autumn bounty, screw lids are to hand, as well as my “special” pen (an old calligraphy pen) with assorted “mop cap” paper covers and decorative labels. A battered old notebook records what I make each year, with dates and yields, and sundry notes next to each entry make for entertaining reading, as I record the weather, where the fruit and veg come from – so, many a “plump brambles picked by the back lane of the old school house” has made it to that notebook for posterity!
I am a traditional preserver; I love recipes that have stood the test of time – lychees and raspberries with a “hint” of chilli and a “dusting” of cumin seeds may have their place in an exotic restaurant for a “fusion” dessert, but for me, traditional old recipes are usually the best. That’s NOT to say that I don’t experiment with flavours – and herbs and spices, as well as chillies, DO make it in to my preserving pan, but usually in the form of a chutney, pickle or relish. I LOVE vanilla (and other warn spice notes such as cardamom and mace) in jams and jellies, but I usually find that fruit cheeses need no adornment other than the sugar that will preserve their natural fruitfulness.
One of my most requested preserve is my Elizabethan Quince Cheese, and I have a collection of old moulds and containers that I make my quince cheese in every year. Other popular recipes that emerge from “The Jam Factory” and that are on my family and friends “must have” lists for Christmas gift giving are: Quince and Ginger Marmalade with Rosewater, (the rosewater being a nod to our rich and exotic culinary past in the UK) and my Old Fashioned Scottish Apple and Ginger Chutney. My Home-made Quince Jelly is also in the Lavender and Lovage Top Ten of Preserves!
But one of the most bountiful of trees in my garden is the elder tree; in the spring it gives me fragrant blossom, from which I make my annual batch of elderflower cordial/syrup, as well as gooseberry and elderflower jam and jelly, and in the autumn, it provides me (and the birds) with bunches of heavy, glossy berries…..perfect for wine, and the preserves pantry. I LOVE elderberry jelly with cheese and charcuterie, but this richly flavoured jelly is wonderful when added to game casseroles and winter stews; I also make a winter tonic with elderberries and lemons, and it makes a warming hot drink on a cold evening, and is a soothing beverage when honey is added for those suffering from coughs and colds. Elderberries are a little on the bitter side when made as a “pure” jelly, so I always make mine with apples and lemons, and, I often add a splash of cassis at the end, for a boozy flourish!
Another favourite ingredient for my preserving fest, is the humble and much maligned marrow; the most popular chutney recipe that I regularly make, is with marrows – my Irish Marrow Chutney is a huge hit, and the original recipe comes from a very old preserving book belong to my mum. The chutney is packed with raisins, onions, spices, root ginger, dates, figs and of course, marrow. A generous slug of Irish whiskey is added towards the end of the cooking process (I have used Scotch before too!) and although chutneys are usually best eaten after two month’s “maturing” time, this chutney is mild and mellow enough to be enjoyed after two to three weeks.
It’s my Elderberry and Apple Jelly recipe I am sharing with you today, as well as some seasonal snap shots of my garden, and my preserves. Elderberries seem to be very prolific this year, so, it is well worth making a batch or three of this delightful jelly, for winter cooking, as well as for gifts for food fanatical friends! Just a note about our birds; I NEVER “strip” the fruit from hedgerows (or the trees in my garden), I love living in harmony with wildlife, and I always make sure that I leave plenty of berries for our feathered friends, after all, it IS their pantry for winter feeding! I will see you next month with some seasonal decorative ideas……..I hope you try this recipe and enjoy the fruits of the autumn hedgerow.
NB: Setting point: I use the cold saucer method to check setting point – place 2 or 3 saucers in the freezer and then take the jelly off the heat when you want to check that setting point has been reached. Spoon some jelly onto a cold saucer and then push the jelly with your finger, if the jelly wrinkles and looks set, then setting point has been reached. You can also use a sugar thermometer; the jelly will be set when it has reached 106C on the thermometer.
Thanks for reading!