Janet Wynne Evans preserves her last grape harvest with a jelly-bag, and her sanity with slow-roast lamb. And yes, they work together!
There are many daunting reasons not to make jelly. Certainly that was my view until a few years ago, when a fairly mature decorative vine in my garden went into overdrive. The gloriously abundant, picture-perfect bunches of dark, glossy grapes are horrendously sour but not, it seems, toxic (we've tested that in the old-fashioned way) and it seems such a waste to leave them to the birds, especially as they don't much care for them either.
Supplemented by some serious hooch and a few exotic spices, they do, however, make a very fine preserve, so much so that I am very sad to announce that 2013 could well be my last harvest, as this year's crop has been struck, not only by pourriture grise, the most ignoble rot there is, but now by a more sinister-looking disease that looks to my semi-trained eye to be terminal.
This is bad news economically as well as gastronomically. Thanks to the grape harvest, which runs from late September into November (for the spätlese bottling, you understand), the expensive maslin pan that was used only once a year, when the Seville oranges hit town, now gets two outings. The second serves to halve its cost per use, a tiresome accountant's wheeze regularly deployed by the husband to query any investment in what he sees as a wholly unnecessary bit of domestic clutter.
In my view, this kind of audit of the quality of one's life is not helpful. Consider the panoramic flat roof I had renewed at considerable expense at home in Wales, the better to eyeball the Black Mountain with a glass of something nice in my hand. Owing to the weather, which is usually wet and cold, plagues of vicious gnats when it's not and the plain fact that I am rarely in residence, the cost per glass is currently running at £2,500 and it's not even premier cru!
If I'm right about the vine, and I hope I'm not, I will, at least be spared one of the biggest, self-inflicted neuroses I know. I refer to the setting process, a maddening and nerve-wracking law unto itself. To call it an inexact science is an understatement, and no honest preserver would undersign an exact and guaranteed timescale. Pectin levels vary between batches, as well as varieties of grape so trial and error is the order of the day. Previous experience means nothing beyond a feeling of dread in the pit of one's stomach. More useful is a jam thermometer, another investment I had to justify to the chief book-keeper, albeit with the threat of a new interpretation of the double-entry convention.
Even thus armed, it's possible for nerves to get the better of one, which invariably means overboiling. But so what? Many of my vintages come in different bottlings from Cuvées Runny (for drizzling) to Well'ard (for rock cakes?), with premier and even deuxième rebouilli options. Label them in French and they are compellingly chic. The main thing to remember is that they invariably taste better than anything you'll ever buy and you know exactly what went into them.
If your jelly slips off your crumpet in the time it takes to make its way into your mouth, don't beat yourself up, just wear a bib. If your jelly is unfeasibly firm, here is a fine tip from my colleague Jane Harold of The Society's Member Services team: remove it from the pot, with a pneumatic drill if necessary, cut it into squares, dust with caster sugar and hey presto! Fruit pastilles to eat as they are or to serve with cheese as you would an expensive lump of membrillo or Spanish quince paste.
You can also recycle intransigent preserves in trifle, jam tarts, gâteau Breton (a very indulgent jam sponge), and even a cheat's ice-cream by mixing with whipped double cream and freezing. It can be used instead of redcurrant jelly in Cumberland sauce or gravy for the slow-cooked lamb recipe I've included below.
The main thing is not to throw out your jelly in despair if it hasn't behaved, and above all, to be proud you did it. EC regulations have already turned much of the commercial stuff to mush, and the advancing horde of the sugar police is going to make things worse. Like everything else, fruit prices are on the rise too, so get self-sufficient now. Plant an edible vine if you've a bit of space near a sunny wall or fence. The leaves can be stuffed with savoury goodies, taste a lot better than the brined ones from a packet, and will look lovely on your cheeseboard. Give it a few years and the sight of your very own grape harvest will lift your heart even if they take the enamel off your teeth. They will also serve to remind you how hard a vigneron's life is and how unfeasible those bogofs really are.
Janet Wynne Evans
Black Grape Jelly With Liqueur Wine and Dark Spices
makes 3 small jars with a tester portion to spare
- 1kg black grapes with seeds
- 100ml fortified dessert wine (Muscat/Madeira/Marsala/Oloroso)
- 1 star anise
- Half a cinnamon stick
- 1-2 cloves
- Half tsp allspice berries
- Half tsp juniper berries
- 2 bay leaves, dried or fresh
- 500g preserving sugar (with added pectin)
- juice of 1 lemon
Pick over the fruit, discarding anything mouldy or bruised. Rinse well and put into a pan with the wine, spices and bay leaves.
Set on a gentle heat until the juices run. Bring to the simmer and cook gently for 5 minutes, until the grapes start to collapse.
Use a potato masher to crush the grapes and liberate the pips. Simmer for 10 minutes more or until the grapes are completely soft.
Line a large sieve with a muslin or linen tea-towel and set over a calibrated jug or bowl. Pour in the contents of the pan and let the liquid strain through undisturbed for an hour or so, or overnight. This process should yield 600ml juice.
If you don't have a sugar or jam thermometer, put a couple of saucers in the freezer now to check setting point in due course.
Next, sterilise a selection of jars either (a) by running through the dishwasher at a high temperature (b) by filling half-full with cold water and microwaving for 3m or (c) by washing in soapy water and rinsing well. In all cases, dry the jars upside down in an oven set at 140?C for at least 30 minutes. Any other paraphernalia - measuring jug, tongs, jam funnel, ladle etc - should also go into the oven to be sterilised, and while the oven is on, warm the sugar in a stainless steel bowl for about 20m - not absolutely necessary but it does make the sugar dissolve faster when added to the juice. Keep the jars in the oven until ready to pot. They will be less likely to crack on impact with the hot jam, and they will keep sterile up to the last moment.
Line up waxed discs, cellophane pot covers, discs and labels, and prepare a tray, lined with kitchen towels for the jars to sit on while they cool.
Pour the strained juice into a clean pan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Set on a high heat, bring to the boil and bubble until it registers a solid 105?C on a jam thermometer. Once it is on the button, remove from the heat. Alternatively, after 10 minutes, drop a teaspoon of juice on your frozen saucers. Wait for a minute then run a clean finger through it to see if it's gelatinous and wrinkly. If it runs back together immediately, boil for another 5 minutes and test again with the other saucer. If it still hasn't set, pot it anyway and hope for the best. Slightly runny jelly is better than grape-flavoured concrete.
When setting point is reached, don some asbestos hands, remove the jars from the oven with the tongs and prepare to pot, using a jam funnel or small glass jug. Fill each jar to the brim while the jelly and the jars are still hot, and top with a waxed disc, shiny side in contact with the jelly. Cover with a round of cellophane, moistened and stretched across the mouth of the jar and secured with a rubber band. Allow to cool before securing the lid. Label artistically.
Officially, I have to say that this keeps for several months unopened but between you and me, I am currently enjoying the 2011 vintage, matured to spicy perfection in the attic. Best not try that at home though unless you are willing to face the consequences.
Slow-Roast Leg of Lamb With Spicy Grape Gravy
This is my take on Mary Berry's superb recipe for slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, as demonstrated on her BBC2 series "Mary Berry Cooks" broadcast earlier this year. I agree with her that shoulder meat is sweeter, but I like to use the denser, leaner leg for this, from a more mature beast, packed with the extra flavour of longer grazing, or an extra-hardy mountain breed. Cumbrian Herdwick is perfect. If you are cooking for two or three, a half-leg takes 2½ hours. I love the taste of fennel and lots of garlic with my lamb, and these are my additions. Mrs Berry's idea of anointing the joint with paprika is inspired, and resonates brilliantly with the spices in my grape jelly. Find her original recipe online at www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes
- 1 leg mature lamb or hogget, on the bone, about 2.5kg
- 3 tbsp rosemary leaves finely chopped
- 2-3 tbsp oil (I use local rapeseed but plain olive oil is fine)
- 1 tsp paprika (unsmoked)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 English onions, sliced thickly
- a bulb of fennel, cut into quarters or eighths
- a head of garlic, halved
- 1 .2 litres lamb or vegetable stock
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 1 heaped teaspoon spiced grape jelly
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas 7 (200°C Fan).
Combine the rosemary and paprika with the oil and season well with salt and pepper. Rub all over the lamb.
Place the sliced onions and fennel, along with the garlic in the base of a small roasting tin with a trivet for the lamb to sit on. Sit! Add the stock and roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until well browned, then reduce the temperature to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3 (140°C Fan).
Cover the lamb with aluminium foil and continue to roast for 3 - 4 hours, basting regularly with the juices, until it is so tender that it comes away from the bone.
Remove the lamb from the tin and keep warm on a serving plate. The skin should be crisp and dark. Rest it while you make the gravy.
Skim the surface fat from the pan, saving two tablespoons of it in a saucepan. Strain the juices into a measuring jug and add enough boiling water to make 570ml of liquid. Heat the fat in the saucepan until hot. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Still over the heat, add the roasting juices and whisk until thickened and smooth.
Check the seasoning and stir in the jelly.
Serve in thick slices with roast potatoes or a vegetable gratin.
Match of the Day
Lopez de Haro Reserva, Rioja 2005 (ref SP9621
Undurraga TH Maule Carignan 2011 (ref CE7541
Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine du Vieux Lazaret 2011 (ref RH37781