If anything positive has come of this pandemic, it’s that we’ve developed a renewed appreciation for life’s small pleasures. Unable or, at least, dissuaded from traveling, shopping other than online, or socializing with friends, many of us have embraced the gifts left to us: a walk in the woods, a warm winter bath, anything that contributes to a sense of coziness and safety. Hence, the run on Christmas trees this holiday season.
One of the stars in that firmament, admittedly a modest little sun, is jam. As in preserves and marmalades. Strawberry. Cherry. Peach. And don’t forget honey.
I’ve always admired jam. What’s not to like about a fruit and sugar delivery system? It’s breakfast’s version of dessert, but in the middle of the meal. However, this kitchen cupboard and refrigerator staple’s radiance seems magnified amid so much bleakness and despair. It’s a reliable picker-upper, a mood enhancer without the addictive side effects.
Of course, there’s wild variation among jams. And while supermarket products do the job in a crunch, I’m thinking more of homemade preserves or the high-end kind.
What sparked these ruminations was a brief conversation with my younger daughter, Gracie, a professional chef who’s home for the holidays. At breakfast on a recent morning, we were extolling and lamenting the virtues of a strawberry jam made over the summer by her older sister, Lucy, from fruit Lucy picked at Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, N.Y. Extolling the jam because it was so good, lamenting it because we were scraping the last remnants from the bottom of the jar.
At least two qualities contribute to a great jam — taste and consistency. And by consistency I’m referring to the ratio of liquid to solids.
Part of what made Lucy’s strawberry jam special was that it was runny, but not too runny. Gracie described its texture as “European.” I’d have to agree.
One of my favorite jams is a raspberry made by Ladurée, the Parisian macaron bakery. It’s usually available online, though it seems to be sold out at the moment. Which, I suppose, just proves my point — that jams, an affordable luxury, ranked among the stars of this holiday season.
And at $12 for 8 ounces, Ladurée is definitely a luxury. It’s also arguably the best raspberry jam I’ve ever had. A close second is made by Sissy’s Kitchen in Middletown Springs, Vt. While strawberry is probably the most popular jam, it’s also — no disrespect to Lucy — a more common-denominator flavor than raspberry. Raspberry preserves manage simultaneously to be classy and uncontroversial.
I’m typically disappointed by the jams I find at local farm stands. Some of them just slap their labels on generic, commercially produced jars.
One of the hardest jams to get right, but that offers major rewards when you do, is apricot. In the wrong hands, apricot can fall flat on the tongue. But, made with care and talent, it has everything you’re looking for in a jam — sweetness, complexity, visions of Van Gogh’s apricot trees in blossom. I’m making the last part up. My point is only that a great jam can be transporting.
My musing about apricot was provoked by a thoughtful gift Gracie’s boyfriend, Henry, gave me last Christmas — a seasonal preserves-of-the-bimonth club made by Sqirl, a hip LA eatery known for its jams. A recent shipment included deliciously runny jam made from Blenheim apricots (once grown in the garden at Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s birthplace) cane sugar and Sorrento lemon juice. All organic, of course.
If I sound pretentious, I proudly plead guilty. Part of a great jam’s experience is that it lets you believe that your taste buds are more refined than they actually are. It’s a gateway to the pleasures of connoisseurship.
So, where does marmalade land on this spectrum? I’d describe it as an acquired taste, possibly even more sophisticated than jam. Sweet, savory and bitter simultaneously.
Though it can be crafted from a variety of fruits — lemon, cherry, ginger and pear, among them — I prefer to stick to orange. Part of its allure lies in its sturdy British flavor. One of the better commercial brands, recommended to me by Stuart Farmery, a British artist living in Columbia County, is Frank Cooper’s Original Coarse Cut Oxford Marmalade. It’s marmalade for grown-ups, with a real kick.
An excellent book on the spread and its many permutations, “Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste” (Running Press), was written by Elizabeth Field, a friend and Berkshire Eagle alum. Now, about honey. You shouldn’t knock the stuff just because it arrives already perfected by nature. It drives bears crazy for a reason. It’s the distillation of sunlight. It’s hard to screw up. Even the supermarket brands taste great. Is there anything more sublime than an English muffin swimming in honey and salt butter? It’s a version of divinity, something I’d want to pack for the afterlife.
I did some research for this column. Not a lot, obviously. But, a little. I cracked open a jar of plum jam that Gracie made on the West Coast this summer and gave as Christmas gifts. It’s made from Ana Rosa plums grown in Washington state’s Skagit Valley. Composed of only plums, sugar and a little lemon juice, I’m pleased to say she nailed it.
Pleased, because that means my breakfast is guaranteed to be charmed for the next few weeks, lifting some of midwinter’s bleakness. I’ll just have to remember to hide it in the back of the refrigerator, where only I can find it.