Sunday, 8 August 2010

Looking forward to something special...

A year or so ago, I met a lovely couple through Freecycle.  Recently they found some bog oak when doing some landscaping.  They remembered that my husband is a woodcarver, and kindly offered it to him.  (If you read this, Thank You!)

Bogwood is normally found in Ireland, and it's a rare treasure to find some here.  If you're not familiar with bog oak, the term basically refers to oak trees have been preserved under water and eventually under peat and other wet soil.  It is common for pieces of bog oak to be 3,000 or more years old.  To find out more about bog oak, click here.  Bog oak is very unique and beautiful.

My husband still needs to assess how much of the wood is usable (there are some rotten sections), but there should be some great pieces of bog oak for him to carve and sculpt with.  Looking at these fantastic pieces of wood, I know that the result is going to be something spectacular.  So here's looking forward to something special. 

To see some examples of bog oak sculpture that I really like, click here.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gooseberry Jam

Who doesn't love summertime?  I love long warm evenings sitting on the patio, all of the vibrant colours and flowers, the more relaxed feeling, and especially all of the fantastic fresh produce.  There are so many fantastic fruits and vegetables that are in season during the summer.

I don't remember ever eating gooseberries before moving to Britain.  They're certainly a very British fruit, but I've grown to love them.  It's a bit late for gooseberries really now, but you may still be able to find fresh ones.  I have a gooseberry bush, but unfortunately didn't get any fruit off of it this year. (My gooseberry bush died from the extreme cold this winter and then my toddler repeatedly digging it up during the spring, so we recently bought a small new bush to replace it.  Hopefully we'll have home-grown gooseberries again next summer.)

My family went to a nearby farm to pick our gooseberries.  I love pick-your-own farms, and even if you don't garden yourself, it's really satisfying to pick your own fruit and veg.  I promise it makes it taste better.  I particularly love Ganger Farm.  My husband and I started going there as newlyweds, and we've kept going over the years.  Now our kids love picking (well, mostly eating) fruit there.

Gooseberries are funny little fruits.  The bushes have big, hard thorns, and are--I think--always a bit scrubby looking.  Most people will recommend wearing leather gloves when you pick gooseberries to protect yourself from prickles.  I prefer doing it without the gloves and just being careful.  It makes it easier to maneuver through the bush after the best fruit and to handle the fruit gently.  The fruit itself is green and kind of hairy looking.  Gooseberries taste quite tart on their own, and when ripe have an almost grape-like crunchiness to them.

My favourite way to eat gooseberries is to make gooseberry jam.  These tart little berries make a fantastic jam than you can save to enjoy all year long.  This is my daughter Miriam's favourite jam.

How To Make Gooseberry Jam

Before I begin making the jam, I get the jars ready.  You can buy jam jars, or just reuse any glass jar with a metal screw-on lid (preferably the type with the pop down seal).  You can also use Kilner style glass jars.  It just needs to have a good air-tight seal.  Always sterilize jars before using.

When you have your jam jars ready, prepare your fruit.  Wash it well and remove any extra leaves, stems, etc.  If desired, you can top and tail them.  I usually just pinch off the stem. 

Weigh the fruit, then add to a big pan.  Always use a bigger pan then you think you'll need because it will bubble and splash.  (If I followed my own advice on this, I'd save myself a lot of burnt fingers.)  Because gooseberries are quite firm, part cook them first.  Cook on high heat, stirring constantly.  They will start to release juice and break down.  You can use a potato masher to help break them down if you want to speed things along.  Cook just the gooseberries for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, stick a couple of small plates into the freezer to cool.  They'll later help you to test if the jam is set.

There's a simple truth that you have to accept about jam.  It uses a lot of sugar.  I've tried cutting down on the sugar content, and the results just weren't worth it.  For gooseberry jam, use equal parts fruit and sugar by weight.  This holds true no matter how many gooseberries you have.  So if, for example, you have 1 kg of gooseberries, add 1 kg of sugar.  You can buy fancy jamming sugars, but I just use plain white sugar.

Add the sugar to the fruit and continue to cook on high heat.  Stir constantly.  The sugar should melt and mix in with the fruit.  You can adjust the heat as needed, but it should stay at a rolling boil.  You'll notice a fantastic kind of alchemy as you make gooseberry jam.  You started off with prickly green fruits.  As they cook, though, the gooseberries turn a lovely pink and get a velvety texture.  It becomes really lovely and appetizing.  Cook until it starts to reduce.  How long this takes will depend on how big of a batch of jam you're cooking at once and the heat of your hob.

You can test the jam by putting a spoonful on one of the cold plates.  Run your finger through it.  If it immediately rushes in to fill the gap, it's not ready yet.  If it makes a puckery kind of line through the jam, it's ready.  Don't wait until it's already perfectly set because it will set further after you turn off the heat and jar it.

When it's ready, you can jar it.  I really recommend using a jam funnel.  It will help to keep the edges of the jar clean so that you get a better seal, and just makes the whole process easier.  You want to put the jam into the jars and then put on the lids as quickly as possible.  If it cools too much, the jars won't seal.  You can do it by yourself, but it's definitely easier if you have two people working on this stage.  Your jam will look absolutely beautiful in the jar.

Then you're finished.  Leave the jars to cool and just check that the jars have taken, or sealed, later in the day.  You can make labels to add, and then stick in the cupboard for whenever you want some lovely jam.  This will liven up any piece of toast.

And there you have it: gooseberry jam.  This really is one of my favourite parts of the summer.  It may seem crazy to make your own jam, but it really doesn't take as long as it seems, and the jam is so much better than anything store bought.  It was a really lovely process picking the gooseberries together as a family, and then my husband and I made the jam together after the girls went to bed that evening.