Wild Fruits, Tame Table: Jellies and Jams

27 Jan

Howdy Gals — So, before we came to London I had these deluded hopes of finding the place covered with blackberries like Seattle – don’t ask me why, maybe because of the great lakes? When we got here there weren’t any blackberries, but milkweed, mint, chicory, and black walnuts grow everywhere in London. Best of all there’s wild grapes – tiny sweet clusters on their sprawling vines that choke out the trees like bittersweet. It turns out that those same wild grapes were good news for the medieval Norsemen that came and settled along the North East Coast of Canada a thousand years ago. According to one of the Old Icelandic Sagas I’m reading in class, they found so many grapes here that they named the country Vinland. I’m pretty psyched about that, as you might imagine.

Wild Cherries from Prospect Park

People v Picket Fence is all about taking the restaurant out of brunch, poaching your eggs at home and sitting as long as you please with your friends in your living room, with the bill already paid. When it comes to one essential component of the breakfast table, I find you can cut out the grocery store too, with more pleasure than trouble.

I’m talking about jams, jellies, marmalades and spreads. I love jam. Toast to my mind is a jam vehicle, and I tend to notice whether the diner’s little jam dispensers with the specially-sized pockets that fit exactly so many of those square jam packets with the peel-off-tops contain raspberry, grape, or if I’m really unlucky – nothing but apple jelly. Spreads tend to be  expensive items given their ubiquity on tables. A jar of store-bought jam made with just fruit and sugar like Bonne Maman runs about four-fifty per thirteen ounce jar – notice how they market that home made look on the website, too. You can get thirty-three ounces of Welch’s grape jelly for half that cost, but you’re getting a spread that tastes, to me anyway, more like straight sugar than fruit. Most farmers’ markets have a jam stand, and usually it’s excellent stuff, but it’s always more expensive.  I’ve seen anywhere from five to eight dollars for an eight ounce jar. If I have it, I’m always up to paying more for a really superior spread – something like Beth’s Mighty Hot Pepper Jelly that you can’t get anywhere else, and that really is better than almost anything you can find to put on bread.

As it turns out though, making jam isn’t terribly hard. A trip to the pick your own orchard and a Google search for jam recipes, and you can usually set yourself up with spreads for table and for giving away to last you several months.

I like wild fruit jam even better. Having grown up in New York City, I always get a thrill from just going out and finding something to eat growing out of the park or the sidewalk. I skip the pectin and use green apple peel instead, and if those are crab apples, it’s possible to make a jam where the only store-bought ingredient is the sugar.

You shoulda seen the other guy

Wherever you are, with perhaps the sole exception of the northern tip of Newfoundland, there’s some kind of wild fruit growing. When we first moved to Brooklyn, for example, Becky and Zoe and I noticed all the cherry trees blooming in Prospect park (they were impossible to ignore – something like fluffy white fireworks). a month or so later, the trees were loaded with dark, bitter little fruits. We picked three shopping-bags-full and made a black cherry preserve that’s good with a creamy cheese – though too bitter for regular toast use. It was worth having a highly specialized jam for the time we had picking it all. A bunch of school kids on a field day got curious and ended up helping us. By the end of the afternoon everyone was covered in cherry juice.

I had a great if somewhat prickly time picking beach plums and rose hips by the roadside with Beck for two batches of jam this summer. We ended up with eight one-cup jars of beautiful dark plum jam and four of fragrant, radiant rose and orange marmalade. They’ve come in handy for gifts and breakfasts over the months, and replaced a brunch luxury item with something cheap and shareable.

You can usually use any conventional fruit jam recipe for your wild fruit, with some adjustments – you might need to spend more time cutting worms out of your apples, for example. It’s good to do this over conversation or a movie. Check out the web page of the inimitable Wildman Steve Brill for more tips on picking beach plums and other wild fruits and vegetables. We used this recipe (with apples instead of pectin) from NPR for our beach plum jam. When September comes around again, I’m looking forward to grape jelly from those little vinland grapes.

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One Response to “Wild Fruits, Tame Table: Jellies and Jams”

  1. Julia January 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Awesome work, guys. Zoe’s cardamom apple peel jelly is one of my body memories from Montreal.

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