I started canning in late 2011 because my favorite grape jam had been discontinued. Actually, I hadn’t been able to find American Spoon grape jam for at least four years and everything else I’d tried, from mass market to small batch artisanal varieties, just didn’t stack up. The one closest to ideal was a big disappointment — $10 for a half pint that developed a nasty white fuzz in less than three weeks.
Earlier that year, a couple of friends and I decided we’d teach ourselves to can, but our kids were really little and it was impossible to find a time we could all meet up and a place where there wouldn’t be toddlers in close proximity to boiling hot sugary liquid. Summer came and went and we never did get together, but as I walked through the farmers market one Saturday morning in September, intoxicated by the musky sweetness of Concord grapes, I was determined to have a pantry overflowing with my very own, homemade grape jam to make up for the years of deprivation.
It was a daunting endeavor. Canning isn’t in my bloodline and I didn’t have any friends in the area to show me how to do it. There are certain things you can learn on your own, from a book or video (rolling out a pie crust, patching up a bicycle tire) but for other activities it’s much better to have hands-on instruction (the entire process of baking bread, knitting). I thought canning would certainly fall into the second category but it was literally as easy as stirring fruit and sugar in a pot. Of course, I had excellent resources — particularly Liana Krisoff’s Canning for a New Generation — and encouragement from out-of-state canners who assured me I wouldn’t kill anyone with botulism as long as I adhered to proper sanitation.
Concord grape jam is one of the trickiest, most time-consuming jams for a beginner since it involves skinning the grapes and straining out the skins and seeds in addition to figuring out when your jam has reached the gelling point. Call it beginner’s luck, but by the end of the week I had three half-pints of lovely, thick, intensely flavored grape jam. Not exactly a pantry’s worth, but that would be my goal for the following summer.
When I learn something new and it clicks with me, I tend to get a little obsessive. I canned 20 batches of jams, preserves, and fruit in 2012, beginning with little jewel-bright strawberries in June and wrapping up the year with tiny Seckel pears bathed in spiced vanilla syrup. I hadn’t planned on canning that much, just strawberry jam, more grape jam and maybe blueberry, but curiosity got the best of me. Every time I stopped by my favorite fruit stands at the farmers market, I’d pick up a few baskets of whatever was in season, meaning to enjoy some immediately and also thinking “What sort of jam can I make out of this?”
My canning sessions quickly became the solace of long, busy summer weeks working and caring for my darling, lively daughter who doesn’t like to sleep. On canning days, when she’d finally drift off around the time most adults are turning in for the night, I’d my haul out my preserving pan, dump in the fruit and sugar, fire it all up, and stir and stir and stir and let the repetition and warm sweet simmer lull me into a Zen-like calm. And in the morning, I’d be greeted by the sun illuminating the brilliant reds and purples and golds of the jars resting on the table, almost as beautiful as my daughter’s smile when she’d wake up and run into the kitchen and know that she would have fresh jam on toast for breakfast.
June: strawberry Pinot noir, strawberry, strawberry rhubarb vanilla jams
July: blueberry Meyer lemon jam
July: spiced bourbon cherries
July: Rainier cherry + white nectarine preserves
August: chocolate raspberry jam
August: peach oolong butter
September: Concord grape jam
November: spiced apple butter
December: Mountain Rose apple butter
December: Seckel pears in vanilla, pink peppercorn, and star anise syrup