Wednesday September 09th 2009, 4:33 pm

fresh figs in a box

The other day someone twittered something about how in this country we never have enough fresh figs to warrant cooking them and that it is a waste to use them any other way than fresh. When I was writing my jam making book last year, I made fig jam for the very first time. At first I didn’t think that the taste was much to write home about and it did take me a while to key into the subtlety of the flavour, but once I had, I became totally hooked. Fresh figs are really lovely and fig jam is very different but just as lovely, with a slightly earthy, flat but fruity taste. The colour when made into jam is really superb, a rich raspberry pink shade dotted through with tiny seeds. I now only have to think about fig jam and I positively yearn for it.

fresh figs

Possibly this year is an especially good year for them here in the UK. I read something in the local paper about a man in Cheltenham who has had a bumper crop and here at Taurus, Georgie in the pottery presented me with a lovely shallow box full of ripe figs picked from a tree in her garden, which I was thrilled to accept. Two or three of them were overly squidgey so I of course had to eat them immediately, but the rest I have made into jam. As a glut refers to a large quantity, a sea of something that it is almost impossible to cope with and use up before it goes off and is wasted, I have to disagree with the twitterer’s statement, as there is definitely a limit to how many figs can be eaten in time, in their fresh state.
Today, I took a jar of jam to give to Georgie, as a thank you for her gift. She said she had some more figs for me if I want them as they will only rot on the tree otherwise. What a treat.

fig jam setting in a vintage glass jar

Figs are low in pectin, so need a little help to make into jam with a decent set. I prefer a jam with a softish set anyway and I’m not expecting my fig jam to hang around for months in the larder, so the addition of some lemon juice is all that is required. You can use preserving sugar, which has pectin added to it, instead of the regular variety for a thicker set if you prefer.

Fig Jam
Makes 1.5kg (3 1/4lbs)

1kg (2lb 4oz) figs, stalks removed and chopped into 1cm size bits
800g (1lb 12oz) sugar, warmed
juice of 2 lemons

Place the figs in a pan with 4 tablespoons of water and heat gently to release the juices, adding more water if necessary to prevent the fruit catching on the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook through until pink and juicy with the skins soft. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
Add the sugar and the lemon juice and stir through to help dissolve the sugar, then leave in a covered bowl in a cool place for 12-24 hours.
Prepare your jars (and lids), making sure they are squeaky clean and dry before placing them on their sides in a cool oven for 20 minutes or so before they are required. It is a good idea to place your jam funnel and ladle in the oven as well, so everything you use is hot and sterilised.
Pour the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and warm through, stirring to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved, before allowing it to reach boiling point. Boil gently to setting point; you can turn up the heat only so long as you watch it very carefully to be sure your precious jam doesn’t burn. Pour into hot jars, cover and seal. Remember to label (not my strong point!).
One of my favourite ways of serving fig jam is on toasted cinnamon and raisin bagels. For some reason this combo is superb. I have photographed it here dolloped onto toasted teacakes. The teacakes served in the cafe, here at Taurus, are always handmade, so they come a pretty close second choice.

fig jam is fab on a toasted teacake

Sunday August 23rd 2009, 9:31 pm

wild damsons

Greengages have always been a mystery to me, my only experience of them being when I was at primary school and for a fleeting moment you could get Penny Arrows in greengage flavour. For anyone unfamiliar with this retro confection, it was a strap of flavoured toffee available from the ‘penny tray’ in the sweet shop on the way home. Plain toffee was the regular flavour but they introduced others from time to time for short runs. I could just about cope with butterscotch, or even banana flavoured Penny Arrows but greengage was a step too far, quite weird and highly scented. That was my first taste of what I thought was the flavour of greengage and it very nearly scarred me for life.
The other day, Irene, my neighbour, asked me if I could take some greengages off her hands, as she wasn’t able to use all the ones she had been given. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and promptly received a small bag full of washed and sorted fruit. With the Aylburton village horticultural show now only a week away I’ve been busy all week trying to cook up what will hopefully be a prize winner for the show.
These greengages, apparently a wild cultivar, were very small and round, each fruit no bigger than 3cm in diameter and there was 650g of fruit. I decided to add just vanilla and sugar. I sniffed the fruits to see if they bore any resemblance to the Penny Arrows of my youth and thankfully they didn’t. This wasn’t a lot of fruit to play with and I could have done with using a smaller pan than my preserving pan, as the bubbling syrup almost burnt during the rolling boil stage, so the recipe that follows has been doubled up to a more manageable quantity.
Cooked greengages are rather odd, the flesh an unattractive shade of slimy yellowish green and the skins go brown as they cook. Wanting the jam to have a good appearance for the village show, I made the decision to put the cooked fruit through my trusty and much loved food mill to give a better looking result. Jam made this way does still have some texture but the overall appearance is even and foamy. It makes a jam that is very easy to eat but you can leave the stones and skins in if you prefer for a more textured whole fruit in syrup finish.
I have to say, the finished product is absolutely wow, still slightly tart, zingy, sherberty and packed with flavour. I don’t know whether larger cultivated fruits would make a jam quite this fabulous, I’m on the look out for some to compare. If you can find the fruit, do give this recipe a go.

Wild Greengage & Vanilla Jam Makes approx 1.3Kg (3 lbs)
1.3Kg greengages
2 vanilla pods
approximately 800g sugar

Choose ripe to slightly underripe fruit, washed and sorted and place in a pan with the vanilla pods and 3 tablespoons of water. Cook gently to start the juices flowing, adding more water if necessary to stop the fruit catching on the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently until the fruit is cooked through and juicy, approximately 10 – 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover the pan and set aside in a cool place for between 12-24 hours.
The fruits will have split during cooking. With clean, washed hands fish around amongst the fruit and remove all the stones and the vanilla pods. Force the fruit through a food mill or a sieve so the skins are left in the food mill and you end up with a bowl of funny looking puree! Weigh it. You should have approximately 870g. You can match this amount with sugar but I prefer to use less, so I used 85-90% sugar to fruit = 780g sugar. Put the sugar in a bowl in the oven to warm along with the clean dry jars.
Split the vanilla pods and scrape out the seeds. Place them and the pods back in the puree and warm through before adding the sugar. Keep stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved, then turn up the heat and boil until the jam reaches setting point, keeping an eye on it to be sure it doesn’t burn. (Test a splodge of jam on a cold plate or use a jam thermometer for this. Refer to my book if you haven’t done this before.) It only took about 5 minutes to boil the syrup to a softish set, so do watch that you don’t cook too fiercely or the jam will burn. If you cook it on further you will be able to achieve a thicker set more like a fruit butter or cheese. Take care removing the pods then pour into jars and seal. Label when cold.