Greengages take me back to my childhood and my nan’s house in Ipswich. The echoing sound of my footsteps as I walked up the alleyway to her back gate. The click of the latch, the smell of her cool damp yard full of bright green moss. To the right, the green back door and an enamel bath hanging on the wall. Opening the back door and always met by the sight of an apron stretched across her broad backside, her sleeves rolled up and elbow deep in pastry or bread dough. The same knife for cutting butter. The same spoon for measuring. The same carving knife for carving. The same pickle fork for piercing pickled onions in the bottom of the jar. The same knife box that sits on my work surface as I write this.
Straight ahead was her long thin garden separated from its neighbour by a single strand of thin galvanised wire. First, a brick cold-frame full of geraniums and nasturtium. The crazy paving around various trip hazards in that first part of the garden. Then her greenhouse – tomato and cucumber plants scrambling out the door in the summer. The chickens scratching in the dusty earth. My grandad’s shed full of parerphenalia, rusty tins, an iron shoe form clamped to the bench. I never met him but I felt I knew him as a practical man by the things that were in his shed.
The vegetable garden with grass pathways. And then, the plum, apple and greengage trees at the end. Always long grass and sharp stinging nettles. Always a blue and white enamel bowl near the trees. The fragrance of the fresh fruit, and sometimes almost cooked on the branches in the heat of the sun. And fallen fruit turning purple with cream mould peppering its surface. The air buzzing with lazy wasps.
Back in the kitchen I would help lever out the stones, slice the fruit in half and drop them into the pressure cooker pan that was always used for jam making. The proportions my nan told me was always to use 50% sugar to the weight of fruit. I’d be encouraged to stir at the beginning whilst the sugar melted, then cease stirring. I’d watch the scum rise to the top and then dissipate; the fruit rolling over and over in the liquid. And then nan would encourage me to notice the nature of the liquid – how it would change as it reached setting point; have a less furious bubble; become more of a burp and a plop than a boil; where the liquid became almost oily and viscous. This, she said, is when you know it’s ready. She never used a cold saucer or a sugar thermometer to test her setting point. The most she did was dip in the wooden spoon to see if – the liquid having reached the thick bubble stage – after three or four drips, the last one just hung on the spoon in suspended animation. Now you know it’s time to turn off the heat, she said. And drop in a knob of butter to quell the scum. She rarely scooped the scum off the top, just waited for it to subside with the help of the butter. If there was still some there after 10 minutes, then it was scooped off with a shallow metal spoon.
I think I learned this ‘trust your instinct’ method of cooking from her – watching, noticing changes, taking things off the heat early with lids clamped on, taking meat out of the oven earlier than the recipe says, letting it rest for half an hour, the difference in the liquid from the first vigorous boil to the point at which jam is ready to set. I guess what she knew was the chemistry of cooking without ever being taught it.
Always leave the jam to cool for 15 minutes before bottling up. And don’t forget to label it. Yesterday I ate blackcurrant jam when I was expecting damson. Good – but not damson!