There is nothing quite like the scent of newly picked strawberries straight from the field! It’s a hallmark of Summer, particularly in climates with short growing seasons such as that on PEI. Some years, we are lucky to get a couple of weeks out of the “strawberry season” but, this year, weather conditions have permitted it to be extended to about a month.
I remember when I was growing up, the early morning take-offs to the nearby U-pick berry field so we would be in the line-up for its 6:00am opening for fear of not being in time to get the best “pickings” of berries. Out would come the big, huge plastic bowls, hats, and bug spray and off to the field we’d go to get berries for eating, for jamming and, of course, “to put away” which meant crushing and freezing them for uses throughout the year. There was no such thing as imported strawberries in the Winter from other countries as there is today….although I’ll argue those don’t have the flavour our local ones do! Indeed, there would always be the “reviews” as to the quality of the berries – “they were so large, they had no flavour”, “they were so small, they were “poor” this year and not worth picking”, or “they had too hard a core in the center” – and, of course, the weather was never quite right for their growing no matter the conditions! It seemed there was no “perfect” berry! Yet, people picked pounds and pounds and buckets of them every year. Going to the berry field was somewhat of a social event because that’s where everybody in nearby communities congregated in early July to get those berries!
I don’t freeze a lot of berries and take up freezer space with them but I do purée some for specific recipes I know I am likely to make throughout the year. I freeze them in recipe-specific proportions and label them with the recipe name. I like to make strawberry jam – sometimes I think more for the wonderful scent in the kitchen when it is cooking than for the need to have several bottles of jam available – although that’s a nice side benefit! When I make my jams, I use smaller bottles – i.e., the 1-cup and ½-cup sizes. These are ideal sizes for sharing and gift-giving and, let’s face it, who minds getting a treat of homemade jam. Even if you make your own, isn’t it always nice to taste another cook’s jam?
I like strawberry jam on toast, scones, as a dollop on warm custard and, yes, even in my dark fruitcake that I make in the Fall. But, one of the most marvelous ways to enjoy strawberry jam is on fresh homemade biscuits still warm from the oven. For some reason, the flavour of strawberry jam always seems more true when the jam is served on a plain tea biscuit along with a nice cup of freshly brewed tea. Perhaps this is why, of all the varieties of jams available, strawberry is typically the quintessential variety found on traditional afternoon tea tables.
The recipe I used to make strawberry jam this year comes from Anna Olson of the food network. This recipe does not make a large batch of jam – it yields approximately 6 cups. It is a fairly sweet jam and I think the amount of sugar could be reduced by ½ cup to 3½ cups (instead of 4 cups the recipe calls for). However, degree of jam sweetness is one of personal preference and much depends on the variety of strawberries being used and how much natural sugar the berries already contain. This is not a super-thick jam and it does not use pectin. I found I had to boil it longer than the recipe directions said. In fact, I boiled it near an hour to get it thick enough for my liking. The flavour is really good and authentic. One thing I do is use a potato masher to crush up some, but not all, of the berries because I like some chunks of berries in my jam but not so many that it makes it difficult to spread.
One of my favourite pastimes is to relax and enjoy an afternoon tea. No better way than with a cuppa, fresh tea biscuits, and newly made strawberry jam. It’s a great way to enjoy the fruits of jam-making labour!