I’ve just made my yearly load of bramble jelly (recipe below), so I thought it would be a good time to post this. It’s a passage from ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson.
It’s a haunting, slightly surreal and darkly comic novel narrated by Merricat, a young woman whose family (apart from her sister Constance and uncle Julian) have perished in mysterious circumstances some years earlier. An overriding theme of the novel is food - growing, preparing and eating it – and I found this bit particularly emotive, and also a suitable way to introduce a jam recipe:
On Saturday morning I helped Constance. I was not allowed to handle knives, but when she worked in the garden I cared for her tools, keeping them bright and clean, and I carried great baskets of flowers, sometimes, or vegetables which Constance picked to make into food. The entire cellar of our house was filled with food. All the Blackwood women had made food and had taken pride in adding to the great supply of food in our cellar. There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with thin labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly. Constance had worked all her life at adding to the food in the cellar, and her rows and rows of jars were easily the handsomest, and shone among the others. “You bury food the way I bury treasure,” I told her sometimes, and she answered me once: “The food comes from the ground and can’t be permitted to stay there and rot; something has to be done with it.” All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve or pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.
I think I am generally a sucker for talk of preserving food in literature. It is also an ongoing thread in ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier (try not to think about the dreadful film version featuring three of my least favourite actors). I think it must be some kind of fantasy nostalgia, imagining living in this somehow authentic state of self-sufficiency, relying on what grows in one season for all-year-round nourishment.
My annual blackberrying outing to Hackney Marsh is one of the small ways I try to emulate this. It’s a slightly treacherous activity, calling for sturdy shoes and leather gloves, but the bramble jelly lasts all year and is worth it.