Whether you call it jam, jelly or preserve – this delicious treat is another traditional method of larder preservation. From the very proper English scones with jam and cream to your humble jam on toast, this old favourite is enjoyed worldwide by people from all walks of life.
But did you know this humble treat had a rather illustrious beginning? Although historians can’t pinpoint an exact date, it is widely believed that cooks in the Middle East were the first to make fruit jams and preserves. It might have been during the 4th Century or even earlier. The first mention of fruit preserves (made using honey) can be found in the oldest surviving cookbook from antiquity called “De Re Coquinaria” – The Art of Cooking. The book is believed to date back to the late 4th or early 5th century and is attributed to one Marcus Gavius Apicius - the famed epicure who lived during the reign of Tiberius, early in the first century AD.
In its simplest form jam is simply fruit that was heated and sweetened, cooled then stored. Whilst honey was the sweetener of choice for jams and preserves in ancient times, once sugar was discovered, that became the preferred ingredient. The use of sugar cane for domestic purposes actually dates back to Papua New Guinea some 10,000 years ago. However, the first recorded mention of sugar in England was much later in history - in the year 1099 and was a result of the Crusades. Crusaders coming home talked of how pleasant this ‘new spice’ was and brought back the technique of jam-making they’d learned from the Middle East. And so began the worldwide fascination (or some might call it fixation!) with sugar that exists to this day.
In its early days the very expensive price of sugar at the time of the Crusades and for countless years after, meant that jams and preserves would have been a treat enjoyed only by royalty and the very wealthy. Louis the XIV is believed to have thrown lavish royal feasts that ended with jams and marmalades made using fruits from his royal gardens at Versailles and eaten with silver spoons from silver dishes.
Even marmalade is believed to have been created in 1561 by the physician to Mary, Queen of Scots - as a remedy for her seasickness. It has even been suggested that the word marmalade derives from the words “Marie est malade” (Mary is sick), but it’s a lot more likely that it was derived from the Portuguese word marmelo – meaning quince. Joan of Arc is also believed to have eaten quince jam before going into battle to fill her with courage.
So, sugar (and in turn jams and preserves) were basically a luxury commodity that didn’t trickle down to ‘commoners’ until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. People could finally afford to use sugar in cooking and for sweetening their tea and coffee. Large-scale jam production really took off during this time and the artform was perfected over the following decades.
Unfortunately, when sugar prices soared again in the 1970’s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) became a cheaper alternative for mass produced jams and preserves. In fact, it has taken more than 30 years for health professionals and consumers to raise awareness of its negative side effects and to begin removing HFCS from many foods.
Back to the idea of Larder Love and the notion of ‘harvesting and storing’ fresh food just as our ancestors did and how we can apply their simple methods to our own modern kitchen; making and storing your own delicious home-made jams and preserves is possibly one of the easiest traditional preservation techniques. Once you have your preferred fruit washed and prepared and some sterilised glass jars and lids, you’re pretty much ready to go!
With many summer fruits now in season in Australia, there’s no shortage of fresh fruit to make your own delicious preserves that you can enjoy year-round. From old favourites like strawberry and apricot, to grape, blackberry or fig – you’ll definitely find enough variety to experiment with and preserve your own sticky goodness.
Most importantly before you start making home-made jam you must sterilise the jars and lids. The easiest way to do this is by immersing everything in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes.
To get you started we’ve found this simple Jamie Oliver strawberry jam recipe that’s sure to be a winner.
500 g high pectin sugar (jam setting sugar)
1 kg ripe strawberries, washed and leafy tops removed
For the method, head to Jamie’s website here.
Storing the jam for your larder requires an added step not contained in the Jamie Oliver recipe which you will need to follow to make sure the jam lasts longer. After filling your jars with jam and putting the lids on you will actually need to submerge them again in boiling water for 5 minutes. This will ensure your jam lasts for 6 or even 12 months - although the colour will darken as the jam ages.
Looking to the past and understanding its journey certainly makes you appreciate jam in its many artisan forms we enjoy today; from the European royalty who regaled in it, to the army troops who used it to sustain them during times of war, to the early settlers who relied on it for its nutritional value when food was scarce.
Jam is such a versatile food to have in your larder and it’s a great technique for the budding home cook to embrace. It can be used in many recipes, given as gifts, or simply enjoyed on its own on buttered toast – yum!
Happy preserving and cooking and keep checking our social pages for some more great content.