Chester blackberries, a late variety usually associated with the East Coast, also grow well in Oregon. No surprise there. But they’re worth investigating because of the beauty of this cultivar and the flavor. I find marionberries a bit monochromatic, I’ll confess. They all taste the same. Evergreen and Himalayan “wild” blackberries, the ones that grow like pests in our gardens and alongside roadways, are often too tart for pleasurable eating. But Chesters combine the tartness of the wild blackberry and the consistency of the bred berry. They hold their shape well in preserves and don’t have the copious seeds of the Himalayan. A good choice, therefore, for late blackberry pies and jam.
I made a French-style, long-cooked preserve from Chesters this year. When you cook berries for a long time to set the jell, they take on a roasted, almost figgy flavor. I find these jams a very nice transition into autumn. I named my jam “Blackberry Brulé” not only because of the slight caramelization in the jam, but also after my ancestor, Étienne Brûlé, a French explorer and interpreter who had a hard time picking the right friends.
From Étienne, we learn that the company one keeps is crucial to success, and one should be wary of all cooks. Now that eating local and food preservation have become a craze, there is the inevitable creation of a canon — a set of recipes and techniques that are associated with these movements. One of the new no-nos seems to be jam with pectin. Pectin has biocides in it, they cry! This is silly. It’s a naturally derived substance from apples or citrus fruit. Moreover, there are various types of pectin and each pectin creates a different product. Some do have additives, and if you must, avoid them, but you’d be better off avoiding that low-carb, preservative-laden wrap you ate last night.
Think of pectin as a cooking tool, molecular gastronomy, if you will. To be a cook, in my view, means you know how to manipulate your final product for the effect you want, whether Frenchman or jam. This is a good thing. It increases creativity and works against the canon-formation of any food movement.
Most often, I use Pomona pectin, which is activated by calcium, for low-sugar fruit spreads. The ratio of sugar to fruit becomes 1:2 or less, instead of 2:2 or more, which is what you’d need for pectin-free French-style jam to jell. Take your choice: a tiny bit of preservative in the tablespoon of pectin you’re using for your batch of jam, or double the sugar in each bite. I’m not judging sugar-eaters here. It’s just a different product. Full sugar jam tastes much fruitier, believe it or not, on toast with butter, compared with a low-sugar fruit spread that tastes like fruit if you eat it with a spoon. The butter seems to dull the flavor of the low-sugar spread.
So let me take a stand for pectin. But you can also do it naturally. Christine Ferber has a recipe for green apple pectin, and I’ve made my own for marmalade with orange skins and seeds. Even easier, I cooked up some beautiful, pectin-rich quinces last fall and froze the unsweetened juice. Since my Chester blackberries were bursting full of juice, I knew that I’d need a jelling boost or else I’d end up with a too-loose jam (for my purposes) if I was going to do it the french way. So I defrosted about a cup of quince juice and added it; the set was beautiful.
Ferber’s recipe for wild blackberry jam, from which this recipe is derived, doesn’t use any pectin. It will also result in a looser jam. Using wild blackberries (instead of Chesters) will significantly reduce the juice amount and increase the seeds in the product. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the overnight sugar bath will turn this jam into preserves, really, because the sugar infuses the cell walls of the whole berries and strengthens them. If you stir carefully, the jam will remain a true preserve, with whole berries suspended in the solution.
I don’t stir carefully. I like jam.
And I like this jam, roasty and dark. It’s lovely served with fresh farmer cheese or chèvre on still-warm, freshly baked bread.
Blackberry Brulé Jam
Recipe adapted from Christine Ferber’s “Wild Blackberry Jam” in Mes Confitures
- 2 1/4 pounds of wild or Chester blackberries
- 3 3/4 cups sugar
- juice from one small lemon
- 1/2 cup of unsweetened quince juice (optional)
Combine the berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring carefully to melt the sugar. Pour mixture into a glass or ceramic bowl, and cover with a sheet of parchment paper. Refrigerate overnight.
Pour the chilled mixture into a large stockpot, add the optional quince juice, and bring to a boil. Allow it to boil until it starts to jell, stirring frequently to prevent scorching (especially as the liquid boils off). The time is approximate, since every batch is different, and the quince juice will change the time. But plan on boiling for 20-30 minutes for a roasted flavor.
Jam should be spooned into hot, sterilized canning jars with 1/8-1/4 inch of headspace only to deter mold, and fitted with properly prepared two-piece lids. (Refer to a canning basics guide if you don’t know what this means.) Process for 5 minutes in a waterbath canner.