It’s late summer and my garden is in high gear with green beans and zucchinis multiplying at light speed. So too are the wild fruit-bearing plants on our 35-acre paradise. Last year I discovered that chokecherries, golden currants, and wax currants growing on our land here in northern Colorado. I’m the gatherer in my marriage, so I gathered loads of berries and made my first-ever jam (just not a jam person). It didn’t jell properly, but it was proclaimed delicious. Even I tried it on waffles and loved it.
This spring, I anxiously watched the buds swell on currant bushes and chokecherry trees. Then, in early May – disaster! A late, heavy snow crushed bushes, froze flowers, and kept bees in their hives, resulting in few flowers and fewer pollinated. However, nature is resilient and I discovered pockets of currants and chokecherries that survived the rigors of our spring and the drought of mid-summer to produce enough berries for a small batch of jam.
I picked all the ripe and nearly-ripe berries I could find. Songbirds warbled around me protesting my thievery, but I ignored them. Don’t worry, I left them some, just seemed the right thing to do. I picked three different batches and refrigerated them until the weekend. When I’m picking berries, I imagine how it must have been to be a pioneer or a Native American gathering food and preserving it for the winter ahead. I wonder if children had contests to pick the most or the biggest berries. I sometimes wonder if Laura and Mary Ingalls raced to see who could fill their pails the fastest. Have to do something to occupy your time.
I used the recipe I found last year and started the jam-making process.
Remember to stir, stir, stir. Cherries and sugar can get pretty sticky and may burn to the sides of your pot.
Add 1 cup of water to every four cups of cherries.
Simmer over low heat until fruit is very tender.
Use a large spoon to press the chokecherry pulp through a sieve. (Three cups of pulp make about 3 half pints of jam.)
Add an equal amount of sugar to match the amount of chokecherry pulp.
Put sugar/chokecherry mixture back on the stove and cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Cook to a temperature of 9° (F) higher than the boiling point of water. *According to Aunt Lillian, this temperature check will deliver a rich flavor and thick consistency.
Pour into hot, sterile jam jars to approximately 3/4 full.
Seal and process in a boiling water bath for about 15 minutes.
Give the jam 24 hours to slowly cool.
I gathered about 6 cups of chokecherries and currants combined. To this recipe, I added about a ½ of frozen store-bought slice peaches, because they were getting freezer burn and needed to be used. I also used classic pectin to help jell the jam, following the package directions.
After an afternoon of washing, simmering, smashing through a sieve, cooking with the pectin added, sterilizing 4-ounce jam jars, lids, and rings, filling the jars, adding lids and rings, and boiling for 15 minutes in a water bath to seal the jars, I was exhausted. I produced 9, 4-ounce jars of jam and an 8-ounce plastic container for my husband. The classic pectin worked perfectly and the jam is wonderful. It was also a boatload of work for a small amount of jam.
Gathering wild berries might seem like free food, but there is a high cost in time and energy. I don’t regret the afternoon spent reviving ancient food preservation skills and inhaling the aromas of wildness and sugar bubbling on the stove. Last Christmas, I handed out nearly two dozen tiny jars as gifts. This year, my family and friends will have to be very, very good to wrest these tiny gems from my rosy-stained fingers!