The last days of the summer holidays were frenetic. Jobs put off from back in July had to be done. The saplings needed stouter stakes to help them withstand the ferocious winter winds – this took one morning. The overlong reeds in the field needed cutting down – another morning. There was the usual cleaning and tidying prior to closing the shutters until next time – maybe a day-and-a-half. And to these, add an annual dilemma. At this time of the year the blackberries and quinces ripen but it takes time to make preserves. The temptation was irresistible – two days.
The blackberry jam, which was very much my domain, was straightforward. Late one afternoon we picked a small basketful of berries from the local hedgerows. The berries were smaller than last year, but more plentiful and juicier. That evening the jam was cooked, bottled and labelled and at breakfast next morning we had our first ‘tasting’. It had set just right, and was full of gritty seeds that I like, though are not to everybody’s taste. The jam was savoured on a fresh baguette with salted butter and eyes closed – delicious.
Dealing with the quinces was a different matter, almost an emotional affair. The tree, with its classical irregular, yellow-green, pear-shaped fruit, was part of us. We planted it in 2006 and the amount of fruit produced had increased year by year. Then, twelve months ago, it was given the last rights. Its fruit went brown, its leaves were curly and its trunk wobbled. The diagnosis was a lethal fungal infection. We sprayed the leaves with a blight medicine and it survived. This year its fruit packed the branches, bowing them to breaking point. Bag upon bag of quinces were picked and while we kept tons, much more was distributed amongst friends. Quince trees are rare around our patch.
The cooking was the domain of my wife and my sister. It began in the afternoon and I was around at the start as they rubbed off the fine fluff covering the skin and then spent hours cutting up the flesh for boiling in a large jam-making vat. Just before midnight I went up to bed, falling asleep to the sound of giggles and laughter downstairs, cause or causes unknown.
Next morning I went down to find the kitchen a war zone. All the worktops had been invaded by jam-making paraphernalia and the remnants of the previous evening’s work. A quince ‘mush’ was packaged up in four, makeshift ‘muslin’ bags, with three made from quality Russian tea towels and the fourth from one of my now-rejected finer cotton shirts. The bags were hanging from hooks normally used for oven gloves, pans and suchlike. From the bags a clear amber liqueur dripped into assorted containers. Supplies of coffee, tea and sugar had been removed to a distant dresser. A lidded kitchen compost tub was by the outside door. The tea towels had vanished (commandeered!) and the plastic dish rack normally resident on the draining board was on the floor and stubbing my toes.
The battlefield remained for most of the next day as the dripping continued. With sugar, the liqueur was eventually converted into around 12 litres of quince jelly and the mush, after much working and sieving and further cooking, into 7 kg of quince cheese or ‘membrillo’. Like the blackberry jam, both were delicious. In addition, all were beautiful: the bramble jam a deep wine red, the jelly a clear warm scarlet, and the cheese a mysterious soft garnet.
It is clearly essential to shut up shop at the end of the holidays, but mothballing homes and preserving fruit have a very different feeling. For me it is the difference between sterile drudgery and the magical creativity involved in saving the autumn bounty for the next months. As I see it, this magic, which our forbears would have enjoyed too, deserves the highest priority.