My daughter recently messaged me to excitedly say she had just picked up four kilograms of strawberries from the markets for next to nothing and was going to make jam out of them. Good on her, I thought, after first considering that it might be a procrastination ploy with her study. I have no doubt that many slices of toast the next morning in her uni accommodation were slathered with the delicious, ruby-red sweet stuff.
Fruit in season, especially in a glut, brings back memories of manic peeling and slicing. Dad would be sent into Roma Street station to pick up boxes of peaches or pears while our kitchen was turned into a mini factory with the kitchen table cleared and the green Fowlers Vacola bottling set being dusted off and prepared. Dad even made a cupboard in our kitchen to house all the bottled produce that mum made.
Joseph Fowler, the inventor of the Vacola system, came to Australia in 1915 and set up his own company that used a unique vacuum preserving method that relied on the content’s acidity and heating to sterilize and seal jars using rubber rings, metal lids and clips. The jars were placed in a pan of water that would be heated using a thermometer to ensure the correct temperature of 92 degrees was reached over an hour, allowing air to escape from the lids thus creating a vacuum as it cooled.
Of course, in the days before reliable refrigeration or freezing, the Vacola system offered the perfect way to preserve those wonderful harvests that would have otherwise gone to waste, and allowed everyone to enjoy peaches in the middle of winter. A bit like the punchbowl of the 60s, nearly every kitchen had one, and, according to the advertising, every housewife wanted one.
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What wasn’t bottled was fiendishly cut up and made into jam and marmalade or savoury spreads. September was a big month, with strawberries and mulberries the main feature in our kitchen. Children were sent up into the mulberry tree with the hope that at least some of the fruit would make it back for the saucepan. Purple lips, tongues and chins were a bit of a dead giveaway. If you were really clever you could make jelly, with the perfect clarity of the product being the aim. Those jars that didn’t make the grade were spooned over the ice cream or used at home, not given to Auntie Marj who might have judged you.
Jams, chutneys, relishes and marmalades were made from anything remotely edible (or inedible like chokos). Nothing from the home or neighbourhood gardens went to waste. Neighbours shared their own produce or their excess market buys. We didn’t have citrus trees in our yard but those who did made copious amounts of marmalade from anything that even resembled citrus. Staying at my cousin’s place in Chinchilla one year, our mums spotted some pie melons in the field next door. You couldn’t eat the things, but by crikey, you could make jam out of them!
I still have difficulties walking past a heavily laden tree, watching the fruit that has dropped go rotten, and have been known to come home from my walks with all sorts of things that end up jammed, marmaladed, chutneyed or simply frozen. I have to say that these days, preserves are a lot more adventurous with all sorts of blends and additions. And, we have finally realized the potential of our own amazing Australian fruits. Each December, I make Lillypilly and Davidson’s Plum jam with a few Lemon Myrtle leaves thrown in at the end.