Some of my earliest memories are of jars like jewels in autumn sunshine, the sticky, sweet smell of jam and my mum telling me to mind the muslin or I’d make the jelly cloudy!
I haven’t made jam or jelly for many years, there was no need to with a 24hour Tesco 10 mins away and a busy car-commuting life which meant it was easy to miss when the berries were ready, even if you were in an area where berries could grow. Now, living on Skye, life feels much closer to those years of picking berries and making jam. Here it is impossible to miss the bright red Rowans, the bushes bursting with rose-hips or the brambles…although they took an age to ripen!
With only vague memories of the process (lots of sugar, lots of stirring, something about rolling boil then letting it hang in the muslin overnight – without touching it!) I was fortunate enough to have family close by who paid more attention when mum was cooking so leaned heavily on the wisdom of elders!
Picking rowans in the September sunshine was far more pleasant than I remembered. I remember hours of removing stalks and lots of bugs, but this was easy, maybe it was the sun or maybe I’m just taller now and can reach more easily but it took no time at all to gather enough for our first batch of Rowan Jelly (being careful to leave lots for the birds and any other foragers still to come). I remember this tasting bitter and quite sharp, we used to add crab apples but couldn’t find any crab apple trees locally so used gorgeous red apples from Skye Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable provider. (If anyone on Skye can point us in the direction of crab apple trees I’d be very grateful, although we plan to plant some so in a few years will hopefully have a crop here.) Sugar added, simmering away, stirring bringing me right back to my childhood (not least because both my children, like I used to be, were intrigued by the process but got bored pretty quick and had vanished outside to play by the stirring part!) talk, as it had for most of the afternoon, turned to family, friends and memories. There’s something about busy hands, preparing food that lends itself to reminiscence! It may also have been working with rowan berries themselves, long associated with home, planted by garden gates to ward off evil which had our minds turning to home and all that means. Rowan is a regular metaphor for home throughout my poetry, here in Kindrome, named from the ruined house at the edge of the family farm that we used to visit regularly as children.
Sun warmed stones at my back.
The ghost of wood smoke lingers in the hearth
As I gaze upwards, through empty rafters
To a roof of blue sky,
Glimpsed through branches
Of the Rowan that guards the space
Where once, we closed a door.
With eyes shut
I still hear the sounds of children playing
In a garden, long reclaimed
By rosebay and nettles.
And I long for the homecoming
That can only be found
At the edge of your smile.
(Home Words available at Home Words by Kathrine Macfarlane — Speculative Books)
As, we were straining the liquid through the muslin and hanging it up to drain we were already planning the next foraging trip….rosehips!
Keen to learn as much as I could about working with the natural environment we now live in I spent time talking with neighbours about where to find rosehips, brambles and other fruits (some great tips on growing apples!) and also raided the Tobar an Dualchais audio recordings for any mention of jam or berries. Peter Morrison from Grimsay, North Uist in Track 56762 Tobar an Dualchais talks about gathering caora dearg and his mum making them into very good jam with sugar in the skillet. I’m guessing these were rowans but maybe someone with better Gaelic can correct me!
He goes on to say that after crofters moved in to Kallin they stopped going there for berries raising interesting questions about access to fruit and berries for foraging. Living for years in Glasgow or small towns in the central belt I recognise this experience of standing on the other side of the fence, a disconnect from my country childhood, although as the child of a farmer too I think I am particularly conscious about accessing land without understanding its current use. It’s been interesting since moving to Skye to see how my children react to walking in the landscape, they, having grown up in a more urban environment, are very loath to walk across any land without permission, not least because they’re terrified of bulls, something not helped by our first trip to Loch Shianta! Luckily when we returned for brambles there was no bull in sight, and we managed to gather a few that we’ll be making into jam soon (following my aunt’s tip to freeze first!).
Donald MacDonald from Tolsta in Lewis, Track 68028 Tobar an Dualchais, talks about gathering berries;
‘Agus dearcagan, ‘s bhiodh sinn [chur air] bhiodh do lipean, do bhilean, a’ fàs purpaidh ‘s bhiodh chur air d’ aghaidh cuideachd, ‘s air aghaidh do nàbaidh nam biodh duine faisg ort cuideachd.’
‘And berries, and we would [put on] your lips, your lips, would turn purple and it would be put on your face too, and on your neighbour ‘s face if there was anyone near you too.’
I remember this well, purple -stained hands was a badge of honour growing up, a sign you’d done your fair share of the berry picking and when we returned from Loch Shianta the children were definitely fully-qualified bramble-pickers with the purple lips to prove it!
I was fascinated by his mention of putting sugar and water on them and making ‘nàdar jam’, nature jam which had me hunting for a similar recipe to use with our freshly gathered rosehips. This recipe for Raw Rosehip Syrup from The Woodland Trust Raw Rosehip Syrup: How to Make and Use – Woodland Trust was simple enough to follow and looks great in the jar! It takes months to settle into syrup so I’ll let you know how it goes, the last photo is after just a few weeks so I’m looking forward to the final results.
We also have some rosehip and apple jelly prepared (a more labour-intensive way of working with rosehips but it tastes good, and if I’m honest L did the work on this one!) and some plum jam, thanks to a friend’s kind gift of lots of lovely plums (there were only 2 on L’s tree this year and I have no fruit trees (yet!) so we couldn’t have done it without them). I have some rowan berries in the freezer to try making Rowan & Apple Leather, a suggestion from Dan Puplett on his recent foraging course (which I totally recommend for anyone new to foraging). I plan to use the Spiced crab-apple and rowanberry leather recipe – Countryfile.com from Adele Nozedar but if any of you have tried making this and have a recipe that you know works I’d love to share it.
In Tobar an Dualchais Track 102576 Tobar an Dualchais Margaret MacLean from Tiree talks about making rhubarb jam, in Track 75475 Tobar an Dualchais Jean Morrison of Shetland talks about churning to make buttermilk, kirn, and enjoying this with homemade rhubarb jam so I guess rhubarb jam is next on the list. (Just as well L has a well-established plot as it’ll take a couple of years for ours to be ready and that just feels like too long to wait for rhubarb jam!)
Mòran taing gu Liz for the foraging company, the remembering, the lending of kitchen, the getting it done and the storage of jam away from sticky fingers!
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