I’ve decided to start out this project with one of the simpler recipes from the book. The English Housewife is full of recipes for preserving food, so it is likely that I will be doing a lot of it in the coming months. Preservation would have obviously been important for storing food without refrigeration, but this method also would have been viewed as healthful, because the fruit was cooked prior to being consumed (raw fruits and vegetables were seen as non-nutritous at best and poisonous at worst). I mentioned that Markham’s book is filled with recipes for preserves, and I think part of that might be due to his focus on frugality. While preserved foods are found in contemporary cookery manuals, I have yet to see one with as large a section on the subject as The English Housewife. Many books stress the importance of impressing guests and using fashionable food preparations (which Markham does too, but perhaps to a lesser extent). Markham instead chooses to place emphasis on cultivating frugality, and this point is reiterated (again and again!) in his section on the character traits a good housewife should embody (frugality, modesty, deference to the husband, etc). Growing food in a kitchen garden is encouraged as a way to save money, and what better way to stretch that money farther than by preserving the excess produce?
Today, I am using the recipe entitled “to make any conserve,” found on page 116 of the work edited by Michael Best:
“To make conserve of any fruit you please, you shall take the fruit you intend to make conserve of; and if it be stone fruit you shall take out the stones; if other fruit, take away the paring and core, and then boil them in fair running water to a reasonable height; then drain them from thence, and put them into a fresh vessel with claret wine, or white wine, according to the colour of the fruit: and so boil them to a thick pap all to mashing, breaking, and stirring them together; then to every pound of pap put to a pound of sugar, and so stir them all well together, and, being very hot, strain them through fair strainers, and so pot it up.”
This recipe is a slight departure from my normal method of jam production, in that it includes wine, which I typically don’t add. I chose this particular recipe because it works for “any fruit you please,” and strawberries happened to be on sale at the grocery store. I used red wine in order to stay true to Markham’s recommendation for red fruit with red wine. We have some tasty wines that are made here in Iowa, so I picked up a Cabernet Sauvignon from Cedar Ridge Vineyards.
I tend to make jams that are boiled and reduced down to the finished product, rather than jams that are strained. I’ve looked at several different jams from Markham’s time period, and the method described in the recipe above seems fairly typical.
While modern strawberry hybrids come from species native to the Americas, strawberries would have been available in Europe at this time too. The species was called ‘fraises de bois’ (literally ‘strawberries of wood’ or wild strawberries), and was found around Europe. For centuries, the only ones available in Europe were wild varieties growing in the edges of wooded areas, and were known by a variety of names in countries all over western Europe. The term ‘strawberry’ came from the English practice of placing straw under the fruits to keep the off the damp soil. They were not cultivated until the 15th century, in part because of the amount of room they took up and the fact that they drained the soil of nutrients so had to be moved occasionally (Toussaint-Samat, 652). Thanks to Ken Albala for telling me about this variety
Dr. Albala also mentioned that more tart fruits are usually used for jams, and that is definitely true of Markham’s book. Quinces were very popular (see Best, pg 112, for ‘Marmalade of quinces red’) but so are oranges. Markham also has a recipe (on Best, pg 117) for a ‘conserve of flowers,’ which is not a cooked jam in the way fruit jam is, but would be very interesting to try.
This recipe and the others of its time are not written using the measurements we use today (cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc.) Cookery manuals of the time were more of a guide rather than a specific set of instructions, so many of the recipes use weights (if they provide any specific measure at all) and guide you by how the food looks or feels during cooking rather than using times and temperatures (cooking temperatures were not as exact as a thermometer in a modern oven, so time and temp aren’t as useful for someone using this technique).
I’ve been in the process of moving, so I had packed my kitchen scale and thus could not measure out equal weights of sugar and fruit pulp. I had initially considered doing a 1:1 ratio, but worried that would make it too sweet. I planned on adding sugar in ¼ cup increments, but ended up not needing any more than one addition. Markham doesn’t specify what ratio of wine to other ingredients one should use, so I had to guess on that as well. ¼ cup seemed like the magic number in this recipe!
After straining the jam one last time, I finally got to taste the finished product. I had been worried that all that boiling and straining might result in a bland jam, but that was not the case at all. The wine added a more complex, deeper flavor to the jam, and the limited amount of sugar I added made the jam tasty (but not overly sweet). I bought some Delice de Borgogne cheese, and I think dinner tonight will consist of cheese and baguette topped by this jam, accompanied by the rest of that bottle of wine.
4 c strawberries, sliced
¼ c Cabernet Sauvignon
¼ c sugar
-In a medium saucepan, place the strawberries in the bottom and add enough water to cover them. Bring to boil, and cook until very soft (about 20 minutes).
-Using a fine strainer, strain the liquid from the strawberries and add to a high-sided skillet. Add the wine, and bring to a boil.
-While the mixture is boiling, use a potato masher to mash the fruit into a pulp.
-Turn off the heat and add the sugar, stir until dissolved.
-Using a fine strainer, strain excess liquid from the mixture and place into a heat-proof container.