Hobart’s foreshore used to abound with jam. Vast copper pots simmered away, tucked just inside the doorways of the beautiful sandstone buildings that still line streets next to the waterfront. The smell alone would have been amazing. IXL and Henry Jones were amongst the brands making conserves near the port. The scene, one of vast quantities of small fruit, grown where I now live south of Hobart in the rolling hills of the Huon Valley, being manhandled off the boats in Constitution Dock or at Princes Wharf, and barrowed up to the famed jam houses of the era, resonates with me still, even though the jam pots of old have long gone.
Once a way of preserving the surfeit of the seasons, jam is now a sticky indulgence. But the romance of fresh fruit, simmered for a minimum amount of time, and kept for years, stays with us. Who doesn’t love the fragrance of strawberries, trapped in a jar and smothered on hot toast? A croissant would be a lesser thing if it weren’t for the magic of apricot jam. I’ve always had good jam in the house, made by friends, or bought for what seemed like too much money; things that embellish so many meals. When I moved to Tasmania I found myself thrust into a culture where seasons matter. Where too many cucumbers need a home beyond this week. Where wild quince hang on to too many trees; food for parrots when the quince could, if turned into comfits (like little jubes), be the food of Gods.
We live in a society where we don’t need to preserve food like we once did. We can freeze berries. We can buy ingredients all year. We can import mustard. But what I learned in my first year of living closer to the soil is that if you craft some things yourself, if you stock the pantry with something you’ve made, from produce that is at its peak when you preserved it, it’s a sign of a life well lived. A sign of dignity at the dining table.
A few dill pickles will add more than just flavour to your toasted cheese sandwich. They’ll add cred. A crabapple jelly will marry with the perfect pork and duck terrine and turn a lunch into an occasion. A hot summer day is better with your own homemade cordial, and there’s little that is better than some cider mustard with a roasted rib-eye of beef on a cold winter’s night.
Like most developed nations, we are blessed. If our pickles run out, or the last of the jam gets a bit of mould on it, we won’t starve. But just because our supermarkets groan under the amount of food on the shelves, just because we can outsource every single thing that we put in our mouths, doesn’t mean we should ignore the origins of our preserves. Sometimes it’s a badge of honour to put up your own pickled onions, something to pull from the shelf and gift to friends for months to come. Knowing just how few ingredients - things that look like real food (not multiple chemicals with skulls and crossbones on them) - go into a decent pancake syrup, is a powerful force. Being able to appreciate the quality of vinegar in your own worcestershire sauce, to see how it changes as it ages, being able to dribble a tiny amount of mushroom ketchup on some fried potatoes and taste a little bit of greatness, this adds depth to our lives.
That you can trap the essence of a raspberry in a jar, the pungency of a chilli in a sauce, or the heady fragrance of lemons in a chutney, is not going to change the world. But every day, as you raid the pantry ... you’ll find your eating enhanced.
I’m a great believer that food is a civilising force. We share meals and hence we share stories. We cook, we share our history; long lines of ancestors before us expressing their skills, their knowledge of seasons, in the food we now choose to cook. Our muse can be found in the traditions of our cuisines, and for most of us, whether you’re tied to a desk all week, or a factory floor, or a paddock growing wheat, what we eat on our time off can help define who we are, what we care about and those we cherish.
Preserving food is an ancient act. It’s an act of minor rebellion and small miracle. That you can trap the essence of a raspberry in a jar, the pungency of a chilli in a sauce, or the heady fragrance of lemons in a chutney, is not going to change the world. But every day, as you raid the pantry to find things you’ve preserved and that can grace your table, you’ll find your eating enhanced. Preserves can make every day cooking easier, adding depth or complexity or that simple something other to meals that could otherwise be mundane.
I’m still learning to make jam, despite the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years. But that’s half the joy. Just like sourdough, where a simple concoction of flour, water and salt can become a sublime yet ever variable loaf, jam is more than just a combination of fruit and sugar. It’s a pastime with no finish line. It’s a pleasure with no boundaries. It’s a fundamental that you can spend your whole life perfecting.
When we spent a few days preserving food for the pictures in Not Just Jam, testing the recipes as we went, I felt the joy of the kitchen. Now, months later, I feel the joy of the eating. A little goes a long way, and now our shelves groan with passata and chilli sauce. There are countless jars of apple marmalade and bottles of blackcurrant and fennel syrup. What I have is a living example of the cultures that make up my background and influence, the ingredients that abound in my region, and the flavours that define my cooking. What I have, from only a few hours in the kitchen, is something which can embellish every meal for the next year or more. And for that, I must thank not only nature, but the people who came before.
Inspired to get in the kitchen? Try these recipes from Matthew's new book: