Friday, August 25, 2006

Mirabelle Jam, and Preserving Memories

Lise had a little smile on her face when she told us how long to cook the mirabelles, like she was remembering. A thousand images and thoughts were flashing before her eyes as she dictated that recipe. Unless we had a lot more time and Lise had the knowledge that these little details are indeed significant, it was impossible for her to transmit them in a truly instructive way. No doubt, her stove and her particular bassine à confiture, and the fruits they chose to put up at whatever degree of ripeness, were details that could not be fit into the 20 minutes we sat perched on the cast iron garden chairs visiting with her.

To Lise, it was the time spent cooking the jam that counted, because their big copper pot was just a gleaming visual detail in her memory, and how hot the enormous ancient coal fed stove would get in the Grande Cuisine was only relative to the other sense memories that were coming to her mind and giving the rich tone to her voice. Indeed these details are all parts of the jam making process, and need to be understood. Many of them are best learned at the stove, and cannot be explained otherwise. Something very important to to know about jam recipes is that the ones that give approximate times to cook are coming from the minds of people with memories that haven't been fully translated to words.

Lise has stories to tell, lots. I hope Sebastien takes the time and energy to sit with his grandmother and let her know clearly that he is interested to hear them. Before we left, she reminded Aude that she would have to bring back the basket they had taken from the shed after they were finished with it. "Well of course!" chided Aude.

"That basket has a story", said Lise. My ears perked at that and I repeated: "A story?" This prompted a clue to something very big, but only briefly recounted by Lise. The basket was woven by a German soldier when he was kept prisoner in the chateau before they signed the Armistice. The soldier was friendly with the Polish cook they had working in the kitchen. They managed to communicate, with some common language and he spent a great deal of time with her. He wove the basket for her. There was Aude, standing there with that basket full of mirabelles, radiating a story.

We do small batches of jam and jelly, different flavors throughout the year like rhubarb and strawberry, whatever fruit is in season or available when we need some, always simple flavors, and never souped up with exotic spices, because Loic prefers to keep this particular detail simple. It is a part of his routine, and he likes it a certain way. We make small batches, eat what we cook just afterwards, and rarely do we make a batch that will be big enough to save or give. Times like the Mirabelle Emergency are definitely exceptions.

The fact that every fruit has different levels of natural sugar, acidity, and fiber content is the reason why in addition to boiling the fruit and sugar to a certain temperature to get the sugar water ratio, we also test the stewing fruits to see how they will behave when they cool down and tell when this particular batch is ready. There are many ways to do this, including dropping the jam into cold water to observe the way it falls, the classic French way often described in the of dipping your fingers in cold water and then putting a drop of the hot jam on your finger and observing the quality of the strands it produces when pressed between finger and thumb and pulled apart, (I don't recommend this because nothing is more dangerous and blister provoking than hot sugar!), or the saucer test, which is perfectly easy to do and my preferred method. The saucer test involves taking a teaspoonful of your hot cooking jam onto a chilled saucer and then tipping the saucer to see if it drips. If it gels and stays in a nice bulbous knob on the plate, it's ready.

When a jar of jam is first opened, it is never the consistency that we normally associate with jam. It is perfectly normal for many a home cooked jam that does not have added pectin to be a bit runny and juicy at room temperature. Once you put it away in the fridge it solidifies to the jammy spread we love.

To learn more about basic foods like Jam and home preserves, I always go to the source - the very basic old books that have been around a long time. One of my favorites of this kind that exists now in English is La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. It is a good reference to read up about the different stages of jam making, and I often refer to it to get tips on particular fruits when I've got some jam to make.

Here is Lise's recipe for
Mirabelle Jam
Yields roughly 2.5 liters of Jam.

2 kilos or 4.5 pounds of Mirabelles
1.6 kilos or 3.5 pounds of granulated sugar

Pit the mirabelles and pour the sugar over them, then lightly turn the fruits with a spoon to coat all of the fruit. Let this sit in a covered bowl overnight. The fruits will release a good amount of juice. The next morning, in a large pot, bring the sugared fruits to a boil and cook until it reaches 220F, stirring occasionally to keep the fruit from burning. Starting at 219F, use the saucer test to see if it will gel, and repeat every few minutes until it passes the test. Ladle very hot into clean jars, seal, and cool, upside down (to create a vaccume seal).
The jar on the left has already been opened, and the jar on the right has not been opened yet and features its vaccume seal.

If we give a jam for ready eating right away, we just label it with the name of the fruit, but if we heat treat the jars for saving, the name of the fruit and the date goes on the jar.


wheresmymind said...

Man..seems everyone is preserving something out in blogland these days :)

Anonymous said...

mmm, delicious! Love the story. Makes me nostalgic!

Unknown said...

Lucy, you miust write a book!

Anonymous said...

Actually, Mirabelle is my absolute favourite jam and you are one of the few persons who know how to make it. So far I only got the jam from my Mom and no-one else seems to know this fruit (at least here in Germany...). I will definitely try to make it myself this fall once we have Mirabelles!

Simona Inserra said...


Anonymous said...

since our mirabelle tree died a few years ago, iv missed it so much. now found a wild harvist and lost my resipy for mirabelle jam.
new computers and realy found this a great web page.
Sharing resipys and jam is a wonderfull thing.thank you.

Taimyra Batz said...

I am an international student in Lyon and I have tried this jam too. I was amazed by the big, sugary and tasty pieces of fruit. I truly recommend eating this jam with some yaourt nature or fromage frais, it's nice as a dessert and a combination for the win.

Anonymous said...

@Ulrike: We just bought some at the Wochenmarkt here (Berlin). Looking forward to the results of this recipe (tomorrow).

-Kevin P.

Anonymous said...

@Ulrike: It is really popular and known in Schwabenland, Germany. We make Mirabellen Marmelade every year.
It is also commonly found in south east England, where I have also made jam. I think many of these things have fallen out of favour or fashion, which is perhaps the reason why you had never heard of it.

cheryl said...

Are Mirabelles plums? I have never seen them in the U.S.
(I live in New Jersey) so I was wondering what they taste like.
If I ever do locate them, (and I hope I do) I would certainly like to try the jam and, oh my goodness, that amazing Mirabelle Punch!
If indeed, they are only to be found in France, then I think it would be worth the trip, right around harvest time, just to feast on these little jewels.

L Vanel said...

Yes, Cheryl, mirabelles are little golden plums. They are delicious, keep your eye out for them this summer!

Unknown said...

I love Mirabelle's :) they make a lovely vodka ;) de-stone the fruit and add to vodka, leave for 4 weeks or more before draining away fruit to be left with a gorgeous liqueur.

Trisha said...

I've got my mirabelles stoned and halved and am about to put the sugar on and leave overnight.
I have two questions:
1) I've looked at several recipies but none mention putting the stones into a muslin bag and including during the boiling to release the pectin and help set the jam, so would it be wrong to do this?
2) I don't like really sweet jams, so can I safely reduce the added sugar?

Thanks in advance.

L Vanel said...

Hi Trisha. No, it would not be wrong to put the stones in a muslin bag and include during boiling. In fact it's a wonderful thing to do, from a ritual standpoint, something that will improve your jam making experience. Mirabelles are naturally high in pectin, however, so not including the pits in the mixture will not adversely affect your jam in any way. Yes, you can reduce the sugar to the point where you like it, knowing that using less sugar may produce more of a compote than a confiture. If you like it that way, do it that way, and if you do not plan to keep it for long, it's perfectly fine. If you are planning to can and keep your jam for long term storage, you would not have to heat treat your jars with the above-mentioned ratio of sugar, but if you do reduce it, know that it may need to be heat or pressure treated for long term storage. The sugar puts bacterial growth in check.

Trisha said...

Thank you for the quick reply.

Trisha said...

I've made my jam and it tastes great. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi, I wonder if you might give me some advice. I'm in Southern England and attempted to make Mirabelle jam for the first time today. I used a kilo and a half of fruit to a kilo and a half of sugar. Unfortunately the skins of the fruit became tough strands and I had to strain the fruit in the end leaving me with a smooth jam, not what I wanted at all but I couldn't leave the skins in it. Should I have peeled them first? It a shame because my tree is dripping in fruit! Any advice would be most welcome. Thanks, Jan

L Vanel said...

Dear Jan, I would not peel the fruit. Can you imagine the agony? I'm so sorry you are having trouble with the texture of the skins of your fruit in your jam, however. I wonder if you let them ripen a little more before making the jam it would help. Our jam always has the skins floating in it, and we consider it a part of the texture of the jam. Perhaps, if you don't like the texture of the skins, you could skim them out at the end of cooking as you did above, then somehow render them more acceptable by mincing them small, then mixing them back into the jam? Wish I could help more.

Unknown said...

Thanks for you reply. I will try leaving them to ripen a little more. Great page by the way! 

Unknown said...

I made this jam this weekend, l have never made anything that has sat in sugar all night, it has turned out fantastic, so tasty. I also made plum jelly, my tree has never been so bountiful, l am also going to make plum wine. I live in Hornchurch, Essex, UK l'm really glad l found your website and know now the true name of my plum tree ''Mirabelle' thank you so much for sharing. Lisax 21/8/2017

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