All that jam

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on March 10, 2018

Very strawberry   -  Shutterstock/Yulia

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE

A teaspoon of this spread is the stuff of both childhood and grown-up food fantasies

Why would anyone have bread and butter, when they can have bread and butter with jam? That certainly is one of the great mysteries of the universe.

For jam is a miracle in a teaspoon. It’s the crowning glory of the English afternoon tea. The burst of brightness in the otherwise stodgy PBJ sandwich. The happy heart of a plump doughnut, Victorian sponge sandwich or flaky tart. The grisly bit of the dead man’s arm (better known as jam roly poly). The secret ingredient in so many steak and chicken creations. And, of course, the most important food group on the breakfast table.

Don’t take my word for it. Check the history books and you’ll find a legion of jam fans.

Joan of Arc believed that quince jam before battle gave her courage. Mary, queen of Scots, ate marmalade as a cure for seasickness.

The captains of ships undertaking long voyages stocked up on jam — a handy source of vitamin C that prevented diseases among the sailors.

While Nostradamus, before he turned all gloomy-doomy and prophetic, wrote a book entitled Treatise on Make Up and Jam. The first part of this treatise focused on the art of making toothpaste, hair colour and love-potions involving the blood of seven male sparrows. The second part concentrated on the art of making jams and jellies and included recipes such as ‘To do Jelly of Cherries that is so Clear & Vermillion like a fine Rubey, & of Goodness, Taste & Virtue Excellent, that the Cherries will Preserve Long in Perfection without adding anything but the Fruit: & will be fit to present to a King for their Supreme Excellence’.

All of which sounds very elegant and tasteful — especially to one who grew up on the rather rudimentary jams that graced the shelves of Variety Stores and Sahakari Bhandar. These were mixed fruit jams, strawberry jams and pineapple jams, all jewel-toned, satisfyingly sweet and entirely artificial. They had as much to do with the fruit on the label as the moon has to do with cheese.

We consumed these jams by the toastful, but knew they weren’t the real thing. The real thing we got a couple of times a year. When friends returned from Mahabaleshwar with jars of crimson jam dotted with plump, chewy strawberries. Or when my grandmother’s cook found cheap pineapples at Crawford Market and decided to treat us to a batch of golden murabba. And, of course, when my mother took a deep breath and made a large vat of her addictive, syrupy strawberry jam, studded with fruit.

The flavour of that jam was unmatched and eight jars were usually consumed within a month. So it’s come as a huge shock that the jammy crowd would have sniffed and dismissed it as a runny concoction, “more of a conserve than a jam”.

The British, it seems, are fussy about their jams, and an incredible number of words have been expended on the best way to achieve a consistency that is set but spreadable. On Jamie Oliver vs Nigella Lawson. On the intricacies of pectin and food thermometers. (Pectin is the stuff that helps jam set, but is only found in acidic fruit. So, for example, strawberry jam will never achieve that thick, sit-primly-on-a-toast consistency unless you use lemon juice or pectin-enriched sugar.)

Perhaps because it is so beloved, strawberry jam has become the subject of a Great Food Debate. There are chefs who cook their jam for four minutes, and others who fiddle with it for three days. There are those who insist that the strawberries should be mashed, and others who leave them whole. There are those who flavour the jam with vanilla seeds and others who add vinegar. And then there are those who feel that it’s fine and dandy if the strawberry jam tastes of just strawberries.

These differences of opinion make sense when you think about the long, roving history of jam. The first cookbook that we know about — Of Culinary Matters, which was written in fourth-century Rome — contains a recipe for fruit simmered in honey. But the techniques and flourishes that jam-makers use today were developed in the Middle East and carried back to Europe by the Crusaders. Marmalade, too, was first made in Portugal from whole, beaten oranges suspended in a transparent jelly — and started out as a dessert rather than a breakfast dish.

Mercifully, we’ve come a long way since the days of bitter oranges blobbing in jelly. Or coloured sugar-water masquerading as fruit. We’ve even swung the other way, some might complain. As a result, you might set out for a pot of blackberry jam, and return with bacon jam, laced with onion, coffee and whiskey. Or plum jam prettified with edible glitter. Or brambleberry and chocolate mint jam. Or even carrot cake jam.

Surveys indicate that strawberry jam remains the hot favourite — followed by flavours like grape, raspberry and apricot. So brave contenders like beer jam, rose petal jelly and violet-walnut preserve have some ground to cover. Still, even though I may never ever taste them, it thrills me to know that there’s a bottle of cloudberry jam and plenty spicy jalapeno jam out there.

Watermelon jam

I ding-donged wildly between chicken in chilli jam and jam roly poly. But finally settled on a recipe for watermelon jam

4 cups of chopped watermelon, without seeds or rind 1/8 cup lemon juice

50g pectin

2 cups sugar


1. Purée the watermelon in a blender. Then put into a pot with lemon juice.

2. On the side, whisk the pectin with half the sugar and then add to the watermelon. Bring to a rolling boil and then stir in the remaining sugar.

3. Boil and stir for another minute. Take it off the gas, let it cool a bit and then pour into dry, clean jars.

This jam will last for about a month in the fridge.

Published on September 01, 2017

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor