A couple of months ago, I had a go at making quince jelly, with assistance over the phone from my lovely mother. The batch I made wasn’t too bad at all, but not up to my mother’s standards. Then Mum and Dad came to stay a few weeks ago, so I bought some more quinces, and Mum and I made jelly together.
I learned so much from making jelly with my mother. She had given me clear instructions (‘though I managed to miss the bit about not squeezing the jelly bag), and I am an experienced cook, quite capable of following a recipe, and adjusting it as needed. As a child, I had hung around in the kitchen while Mum was making jelly, so somehow I knew how to fill and hang a jelly bag, and how to sterilise and seal hot jars of jelly (jam / chutney / pickles / whatever it was that Mum was making that day). I knew a lot. But, it was not enough.
The critical bit of knowledge that I could only gain through working with Mum was the “glassy” stage. Mum had told me to start testing the jelly once it started to look glassy. It turned out that what she meant by this was not what I had understood. I had seen the jelly getting glossier, but when Mum said “glassy,” what she meant that the jelly was thickening a little, and instead of looking liquid, it was starting to look a little heavier, and denser, a bit like the glass in old window panes. My parents live in a very old house, in New Zealand terms. It was built in 1863, and some of the panes of glass in the windows have been there since then. They are a bit thicker and heavier in appearance than modern glass, and there are bubbles in some of them. That’s about the look of the jelly when it reached the glassy stage, and it was time to begin testing it.
And then I watched as Mum tested the jelly. First she put a teaspoonful onto a chilled saucer, per her original instructions. After about 30 seconds or so, she drew a spoon through it to see how quickly it flowed back together. But then, she did something that she hadn’t told me about. She picked the saucer up, and tilted it this way and that, looking to see how viscous it was, how quickly, or slowly, it flowed down the saucer. And after that, she carefully dripped it back into the boiling pot, again looking to see how quickly drops formed. “Hmmm,” she said, with a thoughtful look on her face. “A bit longer yet.”
Eventually looking quite satisfied, she said, “That’s about right now.” At that stage the teaspoon line in the jelly held for a few seconds before the sides creeped back together, and it flowed begrudgingly down the saucer. I have a clear visual memory of what it looked like – still liquid, but thicker and heavy. But not too thick and heavy. There’s a moment when it’s just right. When I made my first batch of jelly, I boiled the mix for a bit too long, and although the jelly tastes good, it is a bit sticky.
Dad was watching the whole process too. Like my mother’s mother, his mother made pickles and jellies and jams too. Apparently, my Granny used to say that you should be able to cut a good jelly, and it should wobble. “You can tell a good jelly by the wobble and the cut.”
The jelly Mum and I made together is glorious. It’s beautifully clear, it wobbles, and it can be cut cleanly with knife. And it tastes superb.
Jelly and jam and pickle making is a lovely skill to have. I like being able to make jars of preserves, some for our own use, some to use as house gifts when we go to someone’s home for a meal, some to give to friends. I don’t know that it’s an essential life skill, but it is certainly one that I want to pass on to my daughters, partly to preserve the old knowledge, partly to give them a gift that has come to me from my mother and my grandmothers. What I have found fascinating about this whole experience is just how much I needed to learn from the process of doing, rather than from recipe books. I suppose that with enough attempts, I could have learned to judge the right stage of the jelly mix, but watching my Mum do it made it all so much easier.
I have memory boxes for my daughters, and for me. The girls’ boxes have their school reports and pre-school photos and diaries, and copies of birth announcements and so on. My box has some of the girls’ baby clothes that I couldn’t bear to give away – a beautiful seersucker babydoll dress that Miss Ten wore when she was about three months, the yellow 0000 suits that the Miss Sevens wore in the first few days of their lives (those tiny suits looked very big on them), some small hats that my aunty sent for the babies, which we thought would never be worn, but they were just the right size for my newborn twins. These are my treasures, the tangible connections to the people I love most. My mother has written out a list of instructions and hints and tips for making jelly. I’ve kept her handwritten list of instructions, and put them in my memory box.