Money for jam!

Guest Post by Forrest Woodbury 

There is a saying “money for jam”.  The generally accepted meaning is of receiving money for virtually doing little or nothing.  Hah!  Have you ever made jam?  I can tell you that it certainly is not a ‘little or nothing’ job!


My interest in jam-making began when my husband John and I bought an old orchard property in the hills outside Perth WA.  All this wonderful fruit appeared on the trees, but not every piece was perfect enough for the retail trade.  I hate waste, so came up with the idea of making jam with the ‘ugly’ fruit.

Sunburnt apples were the first fruit to spark my jam-making idea.  They looked pretty good to me, but had a patch of yellowing, which I was told was sunburn, making the fruit unacceptable for commercial sale.  Now, as far as I knew, there was no such thing as apple jam….but there was apple jelly.  Childhood recollections of crunchy, buttery toast spread with glassy, golden chunks of IXL Apple Jelly had me heading for the recipe books.  Here was a new world opening up for me.  Terms like ‘pectin’, ‘scum’ and ‘jell point’;  methods of ‘sterilizing’ jars and bottles, sealing the jars with ‘disks of wax’ or ‘boiling resin’ (it was an ancient recipe book) churned through my mind, and I read all that I could find about the alchemy of turning fruit into jam or jelly. 

Step 1:  ‘Wash apples thoroughly and remove blemishes.’ (I guess they meant the sunburnt bits)  ‘Then chop roughly, (skin, core, everything), place all the fruit in a large stock pot and cover with water.  Bring to the boil and cook until soft.’  That was easy….it will be a breeze! 

Step 2:  ‘Strain fruit through muslin being careful not to press or squeeze the pulp as this turns the jelly cloudy’…and one must not have cloudy jelly!  (Oh! oh!  The breeze was turning into gale force winds.)  I had a pot containing about 10 pounds (5 kilos) of apples covered with water.  Rather heavy!  (I never cook in small amounts…if I am going to do it, I cook up masses!) The pulp was boiling hot.  Instructions were to up-end a stool or chair on to a table, tie the four corners of the muslin to the four legs of the stool, place a large basin or bucket underneath to catch the syrup, then pour it through without pressing on the pulp.  Sense told me I had to wait until the mixture had cooled somewhat, so this I did while scrabbling through cupboards to find sufficient jars and bottles to hold my ton of jelly.  (I was never a girl guide, so ‘being prepared’ was not my forte. I am more the impulsive, ‘let’s get started’ sort of person).

Sterilizing jars involved washing and drying them, placing them on an oven tray and baking them at around 350° F or 180° C for about 20 minutes.  As it was recommended to have the jars hot when filling them with the jam or jelly – to avoid cracking the glass – I decided to leave the sterilizing until the jelly was closer to being ready.

Pouring the now cooler, pulp through the muslin was also not easy.  The muslin could only hold small amounts at a time and the syrup was s-o-o-o-o slow to drip through, it was difficult to resist the temptation to squeeze it to hasten the procedure.  This process ended up taking most of the day, so I had to cover everything to keep the flies and dust away.  Completion would have to wait until morning.  We had dinner sitting around the table with an upended stool and dripping syrup as its centrepiece.  The darned syrup dripped throughout the meal and all night!!!

Step 3:  ‘Measure the syrup into a large stockpot and add one cup of sugar to one cup of syrup, bring to boil, stirring occasionally to avoid burning, until jell point is reached.’ ‘Jell point’ is when a spoonful of boiled syrup placed on a saucer, forms a slight ‘skin’ over the surface which wrinkles as you scrape your finger through it, thus indicating that it will set when cold.  Not easy to find that elusive jell point.  For what seemed like an eternity, like a witch from Macbeth, I stirred and watched over the bubbling liquid, ensuring it did not ‘catch’ on the base and burn;  skimmed off the ‘scum’ which foamed over the surface; dropped endless spoonfuls  (or is it spoonsful – the wiggly red line which has just appeared under the first spelling tells me that Spellcheck believes it should be spoonsful) of jelly on saucers, scraping my finger through them once cooled (it tasted quite yummy)…. waiting for the magical ‘jell point’.  After three hours of this back-breaking, muscle-straining, steam-ridden activity I was fed up and decided to just bottle the damn stuff!

Yes, I had remembered to turn on the oven and bake the bottles.  Armed with oven gloves for holding the hot bottles, I scooped jugfuls (sorry, jugsful – aaarrrgh now there are red wiggly lines under both versions of jugful: Spellcheck has flipped its lid and ruled both words incorrect) of jelly and carefully filled all the assorted jars and bottles.  To seal them, I had decided on a very clever method, taught to me by my friend, Marilyn, a high school cookery teacher. Rounds of cellophane were placed over the top, pulled taut and secured with a rubber band.  The surface of the cellophane was rubbed all over with a finger dipped in clean water.  The water slightly stretched the cellophane which then retracted once the water evaporated, becoming firm and taut again.   This removed the need for me to seal the jars with disks of melted wax, or worse still, cover them with metal lids prior to dipping them in boiling resin! (The recipe book advocating the latter method of sealing jars was first written in 1934 and revised in 1953.  Thank heavens for human progress!)  Where does one find resin in the 20th century anyway!!? (That’s when my jam/jelly making ventures first began).

The following day I proudly wrote out labels stating the name of the contents and the date on which they were prepared:  one only counts the day of completion, not the days of preparation and slog prior to that day!   I lined up the gleaming jars – each with its shiny cellophane collar and neatly printed label – on the pantry shelves and stood back to admire my achievements.  That really was the best part of the whole deal.  The pain, burns, exhaustion, frustration and impatience of the previous two days paled to insignificance when compared with the joy and pride I felt in providing such wondrous delicacies for my family – enough for the next ten years!

Since then I have hovered over many a bubbling pot and produced hundreds of jars of jam and jelly.  Now, in the 21st century, my methods have improved considerably.  Most of the process is still unchanged, but to chop awkward fruit I choose to blitz it in a food processor. I use purchased jars with screw top lids and sterilize by soaking them in a basin of hot water containing a squirt of bleach.  It works well, and the hot jam does not crack the jar when first filled, as was the warning in all the books initially consulted.  Maybe they now make better glass!  I am also on more friendly terms with ‘jell point’ and have discovered that having a saucer placed in the freezer before testing for jell point is much more sensible.  A second method (taught to me by another wonderful high school cookery teacher – they really are a source of great wisdom and knowledge  as long as they were born in the 20th century – called Glorie) is to drop the to-be-tested spoonful of jam into a glass containing some methylated spirits.  If ready, it sets instantly.  But please don’t then taste the test piece!

So…..when anyone mentions ‘money for jam’ now, I expect a sizeable windfall:  money, that is,…..not fruit!