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
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.