There is an apricot tree at our friend’s house – that in early summer – is so laden with fruit the branches sag. I’ve never seen apricots so large and orange or tasted fruit so sweet and warm from sunshine. At the end of the season my friend’s little white dog is orange from rolling in fallen apricots. They have a lemon tree, fig tree and almond tree too. It’s the kind of backyard I like to lean over the lane fence and look into – and steal fruit from.
This summer Sarah and I clambered to the heights of the apricot tree picking. We left with 9 kilos of perfectly ripe fruit, scratchy arms and legs, and bellies just as full as the bags we carried.
We made jam. It’s an involved process, but much easier than it sounds. We cut the fruit, heated a scary amount of sugar and left two large pots of it to bubble away on the stovetop. The fruit needs to be boiled with the inner apricot kernels, one for each jar to be bottled. This involves some delicate hammering – with the kernel nestled in a tea towel to break the outer shell but keep the soft, fragrant inner kernel whole. Don’t worry about accidentally smashing the first couple to smithereens; it takes a while to get the hang of it. The cleaning and sterilising of the jars, is a process, but there is definitely something satisfying about hearing the jam sizzle as it is spooned into a hot, dry jar and seeing all the jars full, pretty and sealed.
The satisfaction of preserving fruit is connected, I think, to a time when there was a different idea about waste. I was given a jam spoon by an old boyfriend’s granny – it’s shaped to a point at the end, and with ridges at the top, so that every tiny little bit of jam can be extracted from the jar. The process of preserving fruit at harvest time, a time of plenty, for the sparse winter months to come appeals to me. Normally when we make jam we give most of the jars away to friends but we hoarded these golden jars and now, on cold mornings, we can still taste summer in that apricot jam spread on toast or scones.
This recipe is adapted from The Cooks Companion by Stephanie Alexander, the book we turn to for basics, or when we don’t know what to cook but have a heap of in season ingredients from the Victoria Markets.
Following Alexander’s advice we resisted the temptation to make one big batch of jam and instead made two separate batches, doubling the amounts below for each batch.
1.5 kg apricots, firm and ripe
1 cup of water
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1.5 kg of sugar
Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Wash apricots, then quarter, removing stones. Wrap half the stones in a napkin and crack them with a hammer or meat mallet. Extract kernels and set aside.
Put fruit water and lemon juice into a non-reactive saucepan and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer until fruit is tender, about 20 minutes – or longer if you don’t want your jam with chunks of fruit in it.
Meanwhile, put sugar into a clean baking dish and warm to hand-hot in the oven. Add warmed sugar and reserved kernels to pan, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then boil rapidly until setting stage is reached.
Setting stage is easy to test by putting a small plate in the fridge or freezer, then spoon a small amount of jam onto the cold plate and leave for a moment. If you can run your finger through the jam on the plate, and if the jam stays in two distinct halves, it’s ready.
To sterilise jars, wash in warm soapy water, then dry in the oven. Ladle jam into hot, sterilised jars, distributing a kernels to each, and seal.