There is something inescapably Edwardian about jam. Like kippers and big yellow pats of butter and cold cutlets and shallow china plates of indeterminate, tepid broth, it has an aftertaste of dust, of high windows with sunlight shafting through, of maid’s aprons and walks in the rose garden and cross-class affairs conducted in alcoves.
It’s inescapably English, too; Bonne Maman might try and convince you that preserve is the preserve of red-cheeked, sassy-eyed rural French maids who mulch apricots while wearing milkmaid Chanel; Rosa Möller will insist that the hardy hausfraus of Mecklenburg are the only true creators of pumpernickel-perfecting spread; and those wholesome Michigan Zingermans may be adamant that their Early Glow strawberries, brewed by patient farmers with denim-clad freckled broods, make for the best condiment around, but we have Paddington Bear, Eddie Izzard, and the Queen of Hearts.
We Brits have always been compulsive potters, picklers and preservers, eeking out the fickle produce of our seasonal isle with sugar and salt, syrup and vinegar. Forget Proustian madeleines; our native food is the past, a library of edible specimens from some long-withered bounty suspended in jars.
This is why the perfect jam has to be homemade. On a grey spring morning we have a deep and ancient need to ingest the fruits of our loved ones’ labour, the late summertime contentment and care and Archers-in-the-background calm of our aunt or sister or friend stirring their pot (jam has to be homemade, but is of course never homemade by you). We pull forth the crusty jar, peel off its gingham hat (pinging the tiny elastic band through the air, never to be found again), and dig deep of our hedgerows, our allotments and the sweat of our kin.
This is no time for the ingenuous expense of an organic Daylesford damson, or a ladylike lime marmalade someone bought you from Harrods at the airport; even the nostalgia value of a five-year-old neon pink pot of Robertsons will ultimately leave you stickily forlorn.
This is the time for Uncle Richard’s sunberries, cut through with gooseberry sharp, eaten in a cool cupboard, secretly, with a spoon.