There is much pleasure to be had in making a batch of jam: the languorous stirring of softening fruit and melting sugar; the methodical cleaning of the pots; the slow, rich dribble of the scarlet jam into warm jars and the prickle of sticky steam on your face. As someone for whom a state of gentle chaos is a way of life there is a feeling of awe at the sight of a neat row of newly made jams labelled 'Strawberry 2008' in your own fair hand.
Making jam is not dissimilar to making a loaf in as much as it can change your opinion of your own cooking. There is the same sense of accomplishment and quiet amazement that you, the last person on earth to bake or preserve, has got a supposedly mysterious craft so deliciously right. And as you press that sticky label on the last jar there comes a sense of doing something a bit 'grown up'.
I fight the idea that I might have become the sort of man who makes jam in much the same way as I feel the need to knock cake decorating or flower arranging. It's probably just a guy thing. In many ways there is a certain alchemy in producing a good conserve - knowing the right ratio of fruit to sugar, the length of time to boil the fruit, the sort of pan to use and most importantly when to stop. More than that, to know the ripeness of your fruit and therefore its pectin content so you can gauge how much sugar you can get away with.
Of course you can make jam in order to preserve a glut of fruit, a squirrel-store of red gorgeousness to get you through the grey, sodden days of winter. But I have a new suggestion, too - the idea that jam need not only be about the need to preserve, but also about the here and now. It is the bringing to the table of a pretty bowl of glowing liquid fruit and sugar to spoon, still warm and etched with pink froth on to a floury, scallop-edged scone or to break the surface of a perfect dish of plain yogurt, or to dip into its depths a piece of toasted panettone or a hand-torn lump of malt bread, crumpet or sugared twist of puff pastry. Your slippery potion can be spooned over a piece of golden sponge; used to fill a dainty pastry case or peep, tantalizingly, from the open crack of a Devonshire split.
The thing to get right is the amount of sugar to fruit. But then, that is less crucial in a jam to be eaten the day, or even the week it is made. No longer is the sugar only there to keep the fruit from spoiling, its presence is there to create a syrup to suspend the fruit and to take off its edge of acidity.
Experts, and god alone knows there's plenty of 'em, suggest equal weight of strawberries to sugar, but I use less. And lemon juice instead of pectin. (Strawberries, particularly ripe ones, are low in the natural setting agent.) You will get a softer set, more like liquid honey than the sort that wins prizes as country shows. But I want jam that falls off the spoon with a sigh rather than stuff that bounces around like a hyperactive wine gum. The British jam maker is obsessed with setting, which they seem to favour over the softer, more louche style of jam preferred by the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
A large saucepan will work in lieu of a proper jam pan, but you need to pay what might seem extraordinary attention to your jars. They need to be beyond clean, dried not with a cloth but in the oven; filled whilst warm (you should not be able to pick them up with bare hands); and sealed immediately with a wax disc and a dampened circle of cellophane that will shrink as tight as a drum skin as it cools. This is not an affectation, it is essential to stop the air and any mould spores getting to the surface of the preserve.
For a less sweet jam you could introduce a few redcurrants. They have more pectin than strawberries and so you should expect a slightly firmer set. I put them in much later than the berries, so that they don't collapse completely, but keep their shape.
Less sugar-laden jams which are made for instant use can be kept in the fridge for a few days, where they will shine at you each time you open the door, begging you to dip a piece of cake, a rectangle of toasted brioche, a finger even, into the glowing strawberry scented depths.
A less sweet jam for eating immediately
The jam I make is high on fruit, low on the sweet stuff. I bring it to the table still warm from the stove, a pretty dish of it with a faint pink froth on its brow. It won't keep. It is not meant to.
125g granulated sugar
a squeeze of lemon juice
Rinse and hull the strawberries, but don't dry them. Pile them into a stainless steel or enamel pan with the sugar. Roughly crush the fruit with your hands or a fork then place the pan over a low to medium heat. Stir occasionally for 15-20 minutes, spooning off the pink froth as you go. The jam should be thick enough to fall slowly from the spoon, like syrup, but nowhere near thick enough to set.
Pour into a bowl and serve with scones, (where it will drip down your fingers), or slices cut from a sponge cake, spoon over goats' yogurt or allow to cool and stir into a mess of whipped cream, fresh berries and crumbled meringue.
A traditional strawberry jam
Again a fairly light set jam. I keep this in the fridge, which thickens it up slightly.
800g granulated sugar
the juice of a large lemon
Wash and hull the berries. Keep the small ones whole, and halve or even quarter the large ones. Put them into a stainless-steel pan with the sugar and lemon juice and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly for 15 minutes, or until the fruit is starting to look soft and translucent.
Skim off the pink froth that appears on the top then spoon into the sterilised jars, seal carefully (see below) and leave to cool.
A few notes on sealing
It is absolutely essential that you prepare your jars correctly if the jam is to keep. You can either warm the thoroughly washed jars in a cooling oven, thereby sterilising them, or you can immerse them in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Either way the storage jars must be both scrupulously clean and warm when you pour the hot jam into them. Seal the jars with a disc of waxed or greaseproof paper that you have cut earlier.
The transparent jam covers that can be bought in kitchenware shops and supermarkets should be applied whilst the jam is still warm so that they shrink over the top of the jar and create an air-tight seal.