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Plum Jam 2009


ON THE GENTLE ART OF JAM-MAKING


Nothing cheers up a winter morning like a jar of plum jam on the breakfast table. The brilliant colour alone would do the trick, even if the jam tasted of nothing, which, having been made from fruit picked from the plum tree in our garden, it doesn't. On toast, it is thick and sweet, yet not too sweet; its fruit-and-spice aroma triggers memories of summer mornings spent lolling on a quilt spread in the shade of the loaded plum tree, reading and eating the fresh, ripe fruit.

Jam-making has been a life-long passion, handed down from my mother and grandmother, both of whom bottled peaches and filled frugally recycled jars with fig and apricot jam in summer. In the UK, each winter, I would make a batch of marmalade, enough to last us the year. The finished golden jars were squirreled away in a dark cupboard like pirate treasure. The recipe I used was one Germaine Greer published in her column in the Weekend Telegraph. As well as her deliberately labour-intensive instructions for producing jars of perfect amber-coloured jam, Greer had written so seductively of the process of marmalade-making that I went straight out that very afternoon and purchased a couple of kilos of the ugly, bitter Seville oranges the recipe requires. It was only when I brought them home that I realised I would need a good-sized preserving pan, so it was into the car again and off to Jurby Junk, a palace of a second-hand shop, unique on the Isle of Man and perhaps even in the world.

Located in the wind-swept north western corner of the island, Jurby Junk inhabits a couple of old aircraft hangers on an airstrip left over from World War II, the original runways and taxiways used now for motorcycle and kart racing. For as long as I have known it Jurby Junk has been owned and run by Stella Pixton, daughter of the intrepid pioneer aviator, Howard Pixton , so it's geographical location seems especially appropriate.

From my first visit, in the late 1980s, Stella would be there seven days a week, presiding over the ancient till in her fingerless gloves, fingertips grey from wrapping second-hand items in sheets of old newspaper. The place, with its concrete floor, was bone-chillingly cold in winter, which might be why Stella dressed head-to-toe in leather - black for winter, and white for summer. I never saw her dressed in anything else.

The beauty of the place, and the thing that amazed tourists, was the sheer volume of stuff for sale. The old hangar was crammed, floor to ceiling, with tables balanced on top of other tables and each one groaning beneath its cargo of junk. Handy ladders, strategically placed, allowed intrepid shoppers to explore the upper layers where choice pieces of china and glass lurked upon dusty surfaces up near the ceiling. Sinister-looking gas masks left over from the war dangled in rows; there were ranks of musty, moth-eaten furs of every description. At ground level, the aisles were lined with bins that overflowed with buttons, postcards, reels of cotton. You name it, it was there in quantity, and Stella knew her stock down to the very last button.

I once bought half a dozen tins of paint from her, so ancient it was lead-based long after lead products had been outlawed. One colour in particular transformed our kitchen dresser to a shade of blue I have tried to match ever since, without success. Over time, I collected a mismatched dinner service of blue and white china, old pieces from the English potteries that once kept Stoke-on-Trent busy, gorgeous patterns from establishments that have long since closed their doors. Each piece cost no more than a quid or two back then, although in recent times good pieces have become scarce and correspondingly expensive, even at Jurby Junk.

On the afternoon of the first batch of marmalade, my quest for a preserving pan was successful, as I knew it would be; there were pans of all descriptions to choose from, stacked like two aluminium towers in a back corner. The one I chose cost 10, less than a quarter of the price of a new one from the kitchenware shop in Douglas. I have it still, and even when it is not in service, which is most of the time, the sight of it in the pantry gives me a warm prickle of anticipation of the jam-making days to come.

In a year or two, when our fledgling apple and quince trees mature, there will be other jams, jellies, and chutney to make. At S.E. Waite & Son in Norwood, a great old-fashioned store where I go to stock up on new jam pot covers, the proprietor tells me that preserving kits have been flying off the shelves in recent times. A few years back, they'd be lucky to sell one or two in a season; now they can hardly keep up with demand. It seems that the recent economic downturn has sparked a new appreciation of home-grown fruit; where once the harvest produced in suburban gardens would be left to the birds by owners too busy, too affluent, to bother bottling and preserving, economic pressure has kick-started their enthusiasm.

Perhaps it won't be long before all those ornamental pear trees, so beloved of garden designers, will be grubbed out and replaced with fruit-bearing trees which are every bit as ornamental and a darn sight more useful. Apple and quince trees, once ubiquitous, might even begin to reappear in suburban back yards, although they are quite decorative enough to be planted at the front. Dwarf stock varieties don't require much space and with close planting it is amazing how many apple trees can be squeezed into even a small garden. With careful planning, it should be possible to pick home-grown apples for five or six months of the year, or that's my dream. I will have to see how it pans out, over time.

Just at the moment, I feel a spell of jam-making coming on. Although I haven't spotted any Seville oranges this side of the equator, with the riches on offer at Adelaide's central market I should be able to source some. Then it will be time to dust off the preserving pan and spend a few blissful hours enveloped in a cloud of essential oil as I finely slice and slice and slice, and stir, until the moment described by Germaine Greer when the warmed sugar is added and the mixture suddenly turns 'as transparent as molten glass'.

Then there will be the post jam-making joy of contemplating a row of freshly-covered jam pots lined up on the kitchen counter. It's a sight to draw you to the kitchen late at night for one final peek; a sight that brings on a small rush of pride that is particular to those of us who practise the gentle art of jam-making.
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Jurby Junk, Isle of Man - 2009







Jurby Junk, Isle of Man - 2009