by Catherine Cameron
Autumn takes centre place on the podium once more. Her gold gleams in the trees and a glistening carpet lies at her feet. My spirit quickens and I check the apple trees for the red fruit that clings to branches being stripped of their foliage – the apples like tiny drops of blood signifying fierce life still grasping to survive.
I have discarded sandals in favour of close-toed shoes. Apples have dropped from the trees and created a skating rink of rolling red marbles on the ground. My feet slide with abandon, and I feel apples being crushed under my soles as I reach upwards to the fruit waiting to be picked. My six-quart wooden basket fills quickly, each thud – thud – thud – like a heartbeat. The basket gets heavier and I know that it is time for the next step.
At home, I cut the apples into halves and place them in a large stockpot with a small amount of water and turn the heat on high. Once the water has come to a boil, the heat is turned down to simmer and the apples are left to soften. During the softening, I gently crush the apples leaving the mash to simmer gently for a while longer. During the simmering, I prepare the jars. Cleaned, filled halfway with water, placed on a baking pan with water and tucked into the oven at 350 degrees, they will become sterilized. Lids are placed in a pot of boiling water on the stove.
Once the apples are thoroughly soft, I take out my precious dough bowl. A huge and heavy bowl that I imagine to be a dockworker, ready to roll up his sleeves and carry the weight of the apple mash. I place a smaller bowl upside down in the middle of the dough bowl – the large sieve is placed on its flat surface and covered with either cheesecloth or a cotton tea towel. Only then, do I gently scoop the apple mix into the sieve being careful to avoid squeezing the apples through the sieve. This will cause sediment in the apple jelly and destroy the shimmer of clarity in the finished preserve. The juice strains through the cloth and the sieve and I marvel at the wonders of gravity.
At the same time, I wish that I had a pig. Pigs will eat anything and a pig would have loved the unexpected treat of apple mash to savour. The juice is returned to the cleaned stockpot. Added to it are sugar and the lemon juice which reduces the foam that rises from air bubbles while cooking. Air bubbles are trapped in something like a “jam matrix”, they rise to the top and must be skimmed from the cooking jelly with a wooden spoon. The foam is not harmful but I remove it from the jelly to prevent it showing up as an unsightly ring of white around the top of the jelly when opened. If kids or pigs are around, I let them lick the foam from the wooden spoon. After boiling for a very short period on the stove, the jelly is removed from the heat and the contemplative period starts.
The jelly must be stirred for up to ten minutes to absorb lingering foam and to engage the jelling process. I love this part. I watch the jelly and marvel at the intricacy of nature and human ways to turn blighted and discoloured apples into a savoury dish to be enjoyed with entrees of all kinds – dare I suggest pork? As I stir, I watch for the distinctive crackling in the surface of the jelly which tells me that jelling has begun, and the liquid is becoming more solid. This process of inexplicable transmuting fascinates me.
My stirring completed, I remove the jars and lids to a clean tea towel. I use a pewter cream pitcher to pour the jelly from the stockpot into individual jars bringing the level close to the top to avoid air being trapped in the jars. Quickly, the lids are matched and snugly fastened to the jars. Wiped down, the jars are then reverently placed on a tray to observe a period of peace and quiet. During that settling time, I hear an occasional loud metallic “pop” indicating that the temperature and pressure of the jelly and the jar have equalized and that the jar is now air tight. I love those pops from the jars – I think of little kids yelling from the yard “I’m okay, Mom. Don’t worry about me!”
Two days later, I check the jelly for solidity and cheer at its consistency. But most of all, I marvel at the colour. I hold each jar up to the light and wonder at its deep honey colour, its clarity and its promise of another winter’s enjoyment of autumn alchemy.