I was torn between jelly and chutney. I was eventually won over by the jelly’s limpid beauty, the slow drip through muslin, the wobble. Chutney tends to be quite polarising, I find. I’m never entirely sure what to do with it, what to eat it with and who to give it to if I make it. And the flavours can be aggressive, sour, bullying. I’m obviously not doing it right. About jelly, there is something of autumn, distilled. A jar of pale amber or wine-red brings to mind rosehips and crab apples, sloes, rowan berries and warming spices. And stained glass windows.
To clarify, I am talking about jelly as a preserve rather than, say, jelly and ice cream. This version is lovely with roast meat or with a sharp, dry cheese. There is also nothing to stop you melting it over a crumpet for breakfast. Think deep, rather than sweet. Because many of the hedgerow fruits are low in pectin, it makes sense to combine them with apples. There are no hard and fast rules about what to use in these so-called ‘bramble’ jellies, except that apples will help them gel. And always go for something bittersweet and a bit tannic. Windfalls with all the bad bits cut out would do just fine.
I am now in LA where there are no hedgerows. We have a nectarine tree ravaged by squirrels and some small but softening lemons on the tree. The sky feels very low and close. There is not much air. I am somewhat jellied myself, having been hauled off for questioning at immigration control on my arrival at LAX airport. I swayed and an angry man jabbed questions at me. They were all simple questions, laced with the playful acid of too many long and boring hours spent in an airless room. What do I do? Why was I in England? Why did I come back? Where do I live? Tell me again – you do what? At the best of times, I find these questions hard to answer, but after an eleven hour flight, they become truly existential. This man was like Kierkegaard with a shaved head. If the circumstances had been different I might have opened up a bit.
So, I hope you will forgive me for harping on about hedgerows and hawthorns. And apples. I still can’t get over this apple tree I found while out on a walk, en route to Alfriston. These apples had the hulking shoulders of the Bramley, but they were rosy, tawny, not green. I later juiced them and they were sharp but honeyed, creamy like Guinness with a pinky-red colour under the froth.
There may well be lovely apples here and I will enjoy discovering more about them over the coming weeks. But after a month of riding my brake-less bike through wind tunnels, gorging myself on autumn and being inside such a tactile landscape again, I suspect it may take me a while to land.
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Wild Bunch, The Guardian
1kg tart apples, washed and cut into chunks (don’t peel or core them)
1kg blackberries, rosehips, haws, sloes, elderberries, or rowan berries
(if these are hard to come by, you could try blueberries or cranberries)
Herbs (mint, thyme or rosemary work well)
Fills 4-5 small jars
Put the apples and berries in a preserving pan (or heavy-bottomed pan). You will need to roughly chop the rosehips beforehand, if you’re including them. Add enough water almost to cover the fruit. Tuck in the herbs, if using, and bring to a simmer. Leave to cook gently until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Tip into a jelly bag or into a sieve lined with muslin (cheesecloth) and leave overnight to drip. Don’t squeeze it if you want your jelly to be clear.
Prepare your jars by washing them in hot, soapy water, then put them in a low oven to dry out and heat up. Put a saucer in the fridge or freezer. Measure the juice and transfer to the clean pan. For every 600ml of juice, add 450g of sugar. Bring slowly to the boil to ensure the sugar properly dissolves, then boil hard for eight minutes. To test for a set, turn the heat off and drip a little jelly on the now-cold saucer. Push the jelly with your finger. If there is a ‘skin’ that wrinkles, then it’s reached setting point. Don’t be overly concerned with this; you don’t want totally solid jelly. A bit of sway is nice. Pot into hot jars and seal immediately. Leave to cool, label and store in a dark place. Use within a year and put in the fridge once opened.