My parents moved into their brand new council house in 1954. At the top of the stairs was a tall built in cupboard, Mum called it her bottling cupboard and as a child it fascinated me. I used to open the door and gaze at the big kilner jars filled with all manner of good things. Gooseberries, like pale green shiny globes hovered an inch or two from the bottom of their jars, suspended in syrup. More jars containing stripy layers of green sliced runner beans and white rock salt. Numerous varieties of crystal clear jams and jellies with their small white labels describing the contents: – apple and rhubarb, blackcurrant, gooseberry. We always had enough for baking days and sandwiches throughout the winter months, and as the stocks in the bottling cupboard began to dwindle, the blossom in the garden was starting to form.
The house had a large garden and by the time I was old enough to remember Mum and Dad had stocked one side of the garden with an abundance of fruit trees and bushes. There were three apple trees, blackcurrant bushes, gooseberry bushes and a large rhubarb plot. When summer came we would enjoy apple pies, gooseberry crumbles, and rhubarb drop (baked in Yorkshire pudding batter and sprinkled with sugar). One of the apple trees produced a cooking apple, which, if kept until later in the year, became an eating apple. We used to store these special fruits carefully in apple trays on top of the wardrobes in our bedrooms. The other two trees produced a cooking apple and an eating apple so we had a plentiful supply while they were in season. The other side of the garden was given over to the growing of vegetables: – runner beans, potatoes and garden peas in particular. I remember learning how to shell peas into a colander when I was very small. Of course one or two crept into my mouth as I opened the pods, it was only natural! As I got a little older I was given the Sunday job of picking the mint leaves, chopping them finely with scissors and mixing them with sugar and vinegar for the best mint sauce ever!
The preserving time was always special for me. I learnt so much about jam making and fruit bottling although the picking and preparation of the fruit was not a favourite part of the task. Gooseberry and Blackcurrant bushes have sharp thorns, and having braved this part the fruits then required delicate handling before bottling. The gooseberries each needed their stalks ‘topping and tailing’ with a small pair of scissors then wiping over before the best of them were put into waiting Kilner jars. The blackcurrants needed removing from their clusters by either pulling the berries off separately or running a fork through the stalk to remove them.
The best of the fruits were bottled and the rest were made into jam. The big preserving pan was brought out and the wonderful aroma of boiling fruit and sugar filled the air. I used to love the part where the jam was tested to see if it was at setting point, Mum would drop a small amount of the boiling mixture onto a saucer and allow it to cool then she would check to see if the surface of the jam wrinkled when moved, if it did it was ready to be poured into the hot jars and left to cool before covering and labelling. And guess who got to try the taste test with the sample on the saucer?
There was no thought of freezing the vegetables to preserve them (we had not even got a fridge at that time) and by far the best way of preserving our runner beans was to slice them as normal and pack them between layers of block salt in preserving jars. Later in the year when they had been well rinsed and were being cooked it was just as if the smell of summer had been locked in that jar and preserved with them. The bottled fruits tasted good too, nothing like the fresh fruit which I always found to be sour, when they came out of those jars they were mouth wateringly sweet, and I got to drink any of the juice that wasn’t needed for the pie!
I have always loved the smell of beans cooking and even though I now only have a paved area of garden I always grow one large tub of runner beans every summer – though now of course it is easier just to slice and freeze them. Mint grows in another container, and yes I still make my own mint sauce too but now I boil the vinegar and sugar and pour it over the jars full of chopped leaves, it keeps beautifully as does the mint liqueur I made last year.
One day last summer my daughter came home with a basketful of raspberries from a self pick farm. When I asked her if she wanted to freeze them she said no, she would like to learn how to make jam.
The big preserving pan from my childhood was in the garage and after a good wash it stood gleaming on the hob waiting to perform again. Together, my daughter and I made 8 pounds of raspberry jam and, just like her mother she liked testing the jam for a setting point on a saucer.
This year I may buy a couple of preserving jars, and try bottling some fruit just to see if the wonderful memory that lingers on my taste buds is playing tricks on me. And where to store these jars? Well, I don’t have a cupboard at the top of the stairs, I don’t have stairs! But – in my kitchen there is a built in cupboard, it houses the central heating boiler and there is a shelf below the boiler that looks quite good with jars of raspberry jam and mint sauce on it. I now have my own bottling cupboard!