Soul Cooking: Past meets Present in a Jam Jar

My father began his career in food processing in the early 1960s. His journey began in the pineapple fields and cannery of Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon, southern Philippines. As a mechanical engineer, his fascination for all things industrial was unlimited, though I failed to ask him whether food was ever part of his equation or it was just a happy coincidence. Whatever the reason, he landed with pineapples, and specialised on the life of this fruit from inception to consumption and it became his obsession. One of the most dangerous things you could do if you had very little time on your hands was to ask Daddy anything about pineapples. You might as well have cancelled any appointment thereafter because you were going to be trapped for the next three hours, or so.

Pineapples paid for most of my reconstructive surgeries and were also responsible for taking us beyond the Philippine borders and landed us in Kenya. After that East African stint, Daddy was promoted and re-assigned to Mexico, but much to all our surprise, there were no pineapples in the little town of Irapuato. This was strawberry central of Mexico! The transition had to be fast and he learned everything there was to learn about making strawberry jam, which consequently meant that the standards for jams and marmalades from then on was suddenly somewhere between the moon and Jupiter, over and beyond planet Earth, and jellies were banned for life in our home. He was fussy about strawberry jam in particular, the sweetness, tartness, and proportion of fruit to sugar. In short, it was almost impossible to feed him any run-of-the-mill jam. He would bring home strawberries by the crate, much to the chagrin of Mommy, who had to figure out a way to process or freeze them all. Let’s just say we never ran out of strawberries for as along as we lived in Irapuato… or corn, or string beans, peas, and jalapeños.

Mommy never dared to make homemade jam those years, although she had the perfect resource person who could have guided her step by step. Daddy’s standards were just too high and Mommy, the ever pragmatic nurse, figured we could get all the strawberry jam we needed or wanted from the cannery (employee’s quota) so why bother to make it at home. I completely understood her logic, hence I never learned to make jam either.

Life eventually took Daddy through various fruits and vegetables over the course of his career, including a short stint with sardines, canned tuna and mackerel, a major softdrink, and even powdered milk. As a result, I developed a rather exclusive palate for these things and have a pretty high standard. Daddy’s standard. Mommy would have been perfectly happy to subsist on peanut butter and jelly if you had allowed her, but not Daddy.

Fast forward several decades, and I found myself in a very traditional South German family deeply rooted in the Black Forest. I’m not sure whether it was horror or amusement that I felt when I discovered that my mother-in-law made her own jams – she was not a fan of jellies nor marmalades – and the only jam(s) deemed respectable to make an appearance at the breakfast table were those made by her own hands. My father-in-law was also one to come home with a crate of fruit from the market to be processed into jam in order to have enough stock for the winter months. It was strawberry deja vu, but because Mama’s standards were just as high as Daddy’s I didn’t dare mess in her kitchen either. I stayed clear from all the fuss, happy to take a few jars back to Bonn, India or Berlin.

When Daddy first tasted Mama’s jam he was blown away. He said he had never encountered such a fantastic ratio of fruit to jelly and the flavour was simply perfect. He declared on the spot that he was never going to eat any other jam other than Mama’s. Well, gosh darn jolly dang it, after hearing that I stayed even further away from the jam making process!

Remember how I wrote a few days ago about April being my milestone month? Well, I finally pushed aside all my sticky hesitations and decided that it was high time to pick up the spoon and make the dang jam myself. First of all, strawberry season just began here in the Berlin Brandenburg area, and the prices are surprisingly low this year. This being the FrogDiva kitchen, however, there was no way I was simply going to follow any ordinary strawberry jam recipe – not with the ghosts of my parents and parents-in-law breathing down my neck! So I did it my way.

The only thing I did follow was the 3:1 proportion of fruit to pectin sugar, other than that I combined two other recipes that I had for an Italian strawberry sauce that I’ve been using over the years, which would probably make all my venerable ancestors shudder.

I began with 1.8kg strawberries:

Jamming it 1 ©FrogDiva Photography

I chopped 1,2 kg worth of the berries, and pureed the rest with cinnamon, pepper, and balsamic vinegar with truffle. It all landed in a pot and transformed into an evil looking concoction that made me wonder whether I was cooking brain stew. Add the juice of one lemon to catalyse the jelly consistency and tone down the sweetness. Nevertheless, I ended up with five jars of gooey tart chunky strawberry jam. Did I have any idea how long to cook this? Nope, I decided to wing it – well, also because I had thrown away my cheat sheet already.

Jamming it 2 ©FrogDiva Photography

I was too impatient to wait several hours for it to set and cool. Technically it should have done so overnight but there was no way we were going to wait that long, especially since I had a fresh loaf of homemade multigrain bread waiting for it’s perfect partner! I had one jar with no lid, and I decided to follow a little ritual that my mother-in-law used to do as well. She always set aside a small portion of the fresh jam for immediate consumption in a little bowl. I suspect this began simply because it didn’t fit in the jars anymore. In any case, here is the official portrait of the first batch of FrogDiva Jam

Jamming it 3 ©FrogDiva Photography

Yes, today I definitely get to toot my own horn! I nailed it! It was exactly what I was going for, with that Italian twist of balsamico, cinnamon and pepper! So now I am ready to take on my next project – blueberry jam, and work my way up to raspberries in the summer, tackle a marmalade or two, especially lemon marmalade which I absolutely adore but can never find one that I like here, and hopefully mango at some point. I honoured my father and mother-in-law today, and I am grateful for everything they passed on.

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