Thursday, June 30, 2011

Food Memories: Blackberry jam

They say that a person's sense of smell is able to evoke the strongest memories, but I think one's sense of taste comes in a close second.

Growing up, I would get sent to stay with my grandparents for a week each summer (being the only child in the neighborhood certainly tested my ability to entertain myself!). The one thing I remember most is my grandmother's boysenberry jam.

Photo credit: Merced Sun-Star - Mark Crosse

They had a large boysenberry bush in the backyard along the fence and there were jars of the stuff lining a shelf in the garage, each with a large paraffin wax puck sealing the top. I can vividly remember watching her stab a knife into the wax to pry it loose and seeing the gorgeous deep red/purple color of the jam against the white of the wax. And of course, the taste... it was wonderfully sweet, but with a sun-warmed lusciousness that I have not tasted in any other jam, even those I've made myself. She would go out and pick the berries off the bush, clean and process them all in the same afternoon. And somewhere in that process she managed to capture a very distinct, very fleeting taste of summer.

Since moving to Montreal, I have searched in vain for boysenberries... they simply don't seem to exist here. If you're wondering, a boysenberry is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry... they look more like blackberries, and taste pretty much like putting a ripe raspberry and blackberry in your mouth at the same time. I'm really not sure why they're so hard to find here... they seem to import every other fruit under the sun from California, why not these as well? Are they confiscated at the border? Is there some sort of boysenberry embargo?

Anyway, the other day at the market I saw blackberries on sale and I was struck with the urge to try my hand at my grandmother's jam. I expected it wouldn't be exactly the same, being a different berry, but I bought three baskets and a packet of freezer-jam pectin* and headed home with the goods. As often happens with berries, when I poured them out into a collander to rinse them, I found a few that were starting to mold. Normally a few squidgy berries would be no big deal, just chuck them and use the rest; however since I was making freezer jam, it meant there was no heat to kill off any spores hanging out on the other berries. I didn't particularly want to open a jar of the stuff later on to find it growing a fur coat.

Then I remembered an article I'd read recently on ways to prolong the life of fresh berries. I decided to try the 'thermotherapy' technique on the blackberries. It basically means simply dunking them in a hot water bath to kill off any little undersirables while allowing the berries to remain intact. So I bought a pot of water to just shy of a boil and working in batches, dunked the berries in the water for about 30 seconds, then put them in a collander to drain and cool. This isn't the ideal solution for berries you plan on using fresh and whole... regardless of how gentle you are, you're still dunking them in hot water and end up with slightly poached berries. But since I would be mashing them up anyway, it worked perfectly for me. I then followed the directions for the freezer jam and got three nice jars of the stuff.

I promptly made some toast to take it for a test drive... the first bite told me I hadn't nailed my grandmother's recipe (no big surprise there, but I had hoped), but even still it's very good stuff. Next time I think I might try mixing blackberries and raspberries (since that's what a boysenberry is anyway, right?) and see what I end up with. After all, a girl can never have too much jam! ;)

* I have not yet mastered the art of making jam without professional help (in the form of prepared pectin, not psychiatrists :P ). And for jams made with delicate fruits like summer berries, I prefer the taste of the freezer-style jams over the kind that requires cooking; it retains more of the summer-y flavor.

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