PRESERVING – THE ART OF JAM
Article by Karen Wehrstein/Photography by Tomasz Szumski
For as long as people have gathered or grown fruits and vegetables, they’ve noticed huge amounts of them are available during some parts of the year, while absolutely none are to be had at other times. The art of preserving has changed all of that.
Storing fruit in honey, which is chemically a natural preservative, goes back at least 8,000 years. The ancient Greeks are known to have stored honey-covered quince in jars, a technique refined by the Romans by cooking the fruit and honey together before jarring. The first jam recipe appears in the first known cookbook, De Re Conquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”), dated to the First Century AD.
Middle Eastern cooks created more complex jams that Crusaders brought back to Europe. Joan of Arc is said to have eaten quince jam before battle for courage, and the famous prognosticator Nostradamus wrote a treatise with a recipe for aphrodisiac jam that was claimed to produce in a woman “a burning of her heart to perform the love-act.” (We are not aware of a current-day version.)
Once sugar cane was discovered in the New World, it superseded honey as the preservative of choice. In 1785, when Napoleon offered a reward to anyone who could invent a way of preserving food for his armies, one Nicholas Appert won it for showing that boiling food at high temperatures then sealing it in airtight containers would preserve it. The art of preserves was brought to Muskoka by its first pioneers and the rest is modern history, leading up to the jam artisans of today.
Lynn Murden’s business, Yummies in a Jar, is renowned throughout Muskoka and beyond for its plethora of flavours, combining ingredients you wouldn’t necessarily expect in jams. Muskoka Maple Cappuccino jam, anyone? Ginger, Pear and Cinnamon? Mango, Orange and Pineapple? How about Fuzzy Navel or Drunken Blueberry? You need not ask for a recommended wine pairing for these delights; it’s already included.
Murden got her start after finding herself left with an excessive amount of rhubarb stems and strawberries after a pie-making session in 1992. She decided to make them into jam and sell it at the Baysville Walkabout, a popular annual summer festival in the village.
“I got such a thrill out of people buying things that I had made that I decided this was what I wanted to do,” she says.
The rest is preserving history. As well as about 100 flavours of jam and jelly, she makes and sells oil-free vinaigrettes, flavoured maple syrups, pepper-jelly condiments, chutneys, mustards and barbecue sauces. Customers include Muskoka resorts such as Deerhurst, Taboo and Windermere House, and restaurants such as Three Guys and a Stove and Main St. Local Kitchen in Huntsville. Yummies has even been lauded in a speech made by Muskoka MPP Norm Miller to the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park.
Yummies has two outlets of its own, one in central Baysville and one on a property just west of the village owned by Murden and her husband John, who is renowned as a painter as she is a preservist. The Highway 117 store is also an art gallery, offering paintings by John (“he owns the walls”) as well as other crafts such as pottery, glass and jewelry by other artists and artisans. You can also get body care products and gourmet foods supplied by other kitchens such as meat pies, smoked trout, spring rolls and curries.
After two months’ worth of renovation, the store/gallery has been made much more open concept.
“People were coming in and seeing the Yummies side, and not seeing all the other beautiful things we have here,” says Murden. “Now people come in and ask, ‘Did you always have all this pottery here?’”
Adapting to the pandemic meant much more selling online.
“I learned more about my website than I ever wanted to know,” she laughs. The business’s biggest hit was wholesale sales to stores that were mostly closed at time of writing. “They’re opening again but they’re not sure what the summer’s going to look like.” The Yummies stores are now open seven days a week and will revert to just weekends after Labour Day, as usual. All staff are back at work and sales, Murden has noticed, are actually up compared with last year. “I think we’re going to be fine.”
Muskoka Cranberries and Port Wine is a seasoned veteran of a jam – you’ll see what I mean – boasting some 25 years in the Yummies collection.
“I probably came up with it for the cranberry festival,” Murden recalls, referring to Bala’s famed annual post-Thanksgiving weekend bash.
“I’m pretty good at picturing the end taste or picking a fruit and what would go well with it,” Murden elaborates. “I wanted savoury flavours, Christmas and holiday flavours, symbolic of the seasons – the sort of spices used in mulled wine. It’s all about cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, and I was looking to make a cranberry sauce. The two paired beautifully. It gave me a condiment to serve at the festival.”
This jam is really only semi-sweet. “All cranberry preserves have not much sugar in them,” she says. “Just enough to take the bite off the cranberry tartness.”
Asked what sort of customer response Cranberries and Port Wine gets, Murden simply points out that it’s been selling for more than 25 years. Its flavour does indeed whisper of a holiday feast with a cup of good cheer, and should work on a festive turkey or with any delicate-flavoured cheese or Murden’s suggestion, cheesecake – as well as any other meat, even strong-flavoured. Try this: slices of smoked ham and Fruilano cheese slathered with this jam for a ham sandwich extraordinaire. Mwah!
Sue Smith of Tabletop Farm, a little east of Baysville, grows the main ingredients of her preserves right on the farm. Of European extraction, she credits her grandparents for her appreciation of good food.
“My father would dig up horseradish,” she reminisces. “The timeframe from harvest to consuming was very short, so the density of the nutrition was preserved. I try to grow food that is very nutrient dense.”
Smith’s parents emigrated to Canada when she was 12, lived in Toronto for a while, then bought a farm in Orillia, despite not being farmers. “Country life was good,” she recalls. This led to her studying farm management at Sir Sanford Fleming College, followed by some intense years of motherhood, raising five children. “I had lots of kids to feed and I was homeschooling,” she says. “So, it made sense to grow food. I like good food and you can’t buy it most of the time; so, grow it.”
A business opportunity for Smith’s husband brought the family to Muskoka. “We came, here, and it was a hot May bug season. This woman was pushing a carriage wearing a snowmobile suit, and I thought ‘Why am I moving here? It’s crazy!’” That was in 1983, and they bought the land on which she still lives nonetheless, now a parcel of 67 acres after severing some off.
Smith now runs the farm, living a frugal life and growing a huge variety of herbs, vegetables and fruit, including 20 different varieties of tomatoes. “They’re all different colours and shapes and tastes,” she says. “There’s nothing like a tomato grown outside.”
She uses two greenhouses to start plants early in the year and heats her house with wood. While she has not gone through the paperwork of getting her products certified organic, she uses no chemicals. “I love weeds, actually,” she says. “A weed is just a plant out of place.”
The lemon juice and sugar she puts in her black currant and rhubarb jam, as described in the recipe below, are organic.
Timing of output depends on timing of harvest.
“When I have a whole whack of tomatoes and peppers, I’ll make salsa,” she says.
“When the black currants are ripe, I do jam.” She does not have her own kitchen but rents time from a commercially-certified kitchen in Baysville.
“They’re all certified now,” she says of kitchens in community centres, churches, etc. “It’s an opportunity.”
Flavour has been a lifelong interest, she says. “I knew how to make a cake from scratch without a recipe when I was seven.” She sells her preserves through the Muskoka North Good Food Co-op in Huntsville, Humble Pie in Baysville and other outlets.
Black Currant Rhubarb Jam has been her own favourite for 10 years. She developed the recipe by looking at different books and performing trials until she got it the way she liked it, and the response is positive.
“A lot of the European crowd likes the black currant,” she says. “It’s kind of an acquired taste, has a different flavour than a lot of other fruit. Many have had it at their grandmother’s place, and say they’ve been looking all over and are glad to find it.” Look no further, here it is!
Muskoka Cranberries and Port Wine Jam
Lynn Murden, Yummies in a Jar
9 cups (1,000 grams) fresh or frozen cranberries
1 ¾ cups + 2 Tbsp water
1 ¾ cups + 2 Tbsp white sugar
2 Tbsp raisins
¾ tsp cinnamon
¾ tsp cloves
¾ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
6 Tbsp port wine (optional)
• Combine all ingredients except the cranberries and port wine in a large pot. Stir as you bring everything to a boil and the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries. Cook till soft, about five minutes. Use a potato masher to crush the cranberries, but don’t over-mash. When the berries are soft and the mixture is fairly thick, remove from heat and stir in the Port Wine. Mix well and if the mixture seems too thick, add boiling water, 1/4 cup at a time, until you get the desired consistency. Pour the hot mixture into the warm, sterilized jars, seal with a hot lid and put the jars upside down on a tea towel. After a couple of minutes, put the jars right side up to cool. Store in a cool place, away from light and use within one year. Makes 6-7 cups.
• Any kind of jar will do for making jam, Murden advises you just can’t re-use the same lids. Or if you do, keep the jam in the refrigerator or use it up soon.
The first step in making jam is to prepare your jars.
Option 1: Baking. Wash jars in soapy water, rinse well and dry upside down on a clean cloth. Heat oven to 280 degrees F (140 C). Put clean jars in a cake pan and bake for 10 minutes.
Option 2: Boiling. Bring enough water to cover the jars to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add jars, cover with a lid and bring back to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes. Remove with tongs and place upside down on a clean tea towel. Pour boiling water over new lids and let them sit for 5 minutes to sterilize.
Both options do the same thing. Boiling is a little faster, but on a hot, humid summer day you might prefer baking.
Why turn the jars upside-down? “It heats up the air space and sterilizes it,” says Murden, though she’s not actually 100 per cent certain why she started doing it. Possibly it’s actually a good-luck ritual, partly responsible for the success of Yummies in a Jar. May it work to make your jams successful, too!
Black Currant Rhubarb Jam
Sue Smith, Tabletop Farm
4 cups black currants
3 cups rhubarb, cut into ½ to 1-inch pieces
4 cups sugar
4 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup water
• Stir together rhubarb, currants, sugar and lemon juice in a large bowl. Cover and let stand for four hours, stirring occasionally. (Why? “The sugar starts to draw the juices out of the fruit,” Smith explains.
“It becomes more uniform and you don’t have to cook it so long. Gets everything going.”)
• Transfer to a large stainless-steel or enamel pot. Add water. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Mixture will boil up high in the pot; make sure it is large enough to prevent a boil-over.
• Remove from heat, stir for two minutes to settle fruit, to prevent floating fruit. Ladle into sterilized 250-ml jars and process in boiling water in canning pot (or large part with silicon mat on the bottom to keep jars from moving) for eight minutes. Turn off heat and let stand for five minutes before removing jars, to ensure a clean seal.
Why so little water? “Most of the water comes from the rhubarb,” Smith says. Right: those thick, juicy stems. Why no pectin? “Enough pectin comes from the black currants.” Jam au naturel.