Time Preserved in a Jar
According to Nostradamus’ prophesies, we live in a constant and continuous Apocalypse Now. The world is ending, even if not tomorrow, it will soon enough. But that is not news anymore, is it? The world is heading straight to hell: the humans continue to burn and bomb the world, and the world fight back in the form of hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes and, don’t forget the global warming – just a little extra warning because humans are so obtuse and obstinate. We are all in this together – a downward spiral toward the fume, the fire and the fiend in the netherworld. Or are we there already?
However, it was not all doomsday and hellfire, even for our gloomy Nostradamus. Before he switched career to prophesizing and proselytizing (and also his name), Michel de Notredame’s métier was that of an itinerant apothecary. In fact, his first book – Traité des Fardements et Confitures (“Treatise on Make-Up and Jam”), published in 1555, had no doom or gloom but was full of colorful recipes on how to make ruby-red cherry jams fit for a king, excellent candied orange peels, a quince jam of such lavishness to be served for princes (incidentally, the word “marmalade” is supposedly derived from the Portuguese word for a quince preserve called “marmelada,” which was probably taken from the Romans, but the Romans took it from the Greek “melimelon” anyway), fresh and tasty marzipans, and of course, cure for the plague and love potions – all conveniently packed into one volume for your medieval money’s worth. We do not know whether the maestro had a sweet tooth, but sugar in the Medieval Period was considered to be medicinal – an important ingredient to sweeten the bitter aftertaste of pills and also to balance out the humors – quite contrary to its bad image today.
Sugar arrived in England during the Tudor times, a highly coveted and a luxurious item, so that you would have considered yourself lucky, if you were invited to one of the “sugar banquets” where candied fruits, jams and jellies, biscuits, marzipans would be served with elaborate sugar sculptures as table centerpieces. It was therefore around this time that the quintessentially English and, doubtlessly Scottish as well, marmalade – was born. Even then, marmalade was still considered somewhat therapeutic as Mary Tudor (Queen of England) used it to get pregnant (but failed) and Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) purportedly consumed it often because “Mary est malade” (ah, it is her French connection).
But, it is the childhood’s end (©Arthur Clarke); and life is no longer sweet. The tradition of scooping and smearing sugary fruit preserve with a careless and reckless disregard (or delight) on toasts and scones is disappearing. Real jams and jellies – made with real sugar – is just too sweet, isn’t it? We have outgrown them now because we know better. Besides, there is nothing to spread it on now: haven’t you heard, the bread and scones are officially off-limits. There is really no need to pack in all the sugar and carbohydrate in one go.
Once upon a time, it was necessary to store the harvested fruits for the onslaught of winter, or for the long seafaring voyages, where the lack of Vitamin C would have been a matter of life and death. However, in the 21st century, blessed with refrigerator, freezer and worldwide freight services, who needs old fruits in a jar? Besides, if vitamins were indeed what you were seeking to ingest, then just pop a few pills – fast and easy – and they are in fact cheaper than jams and they are even sugar-free.
Sugar-free, oil-free, fat-free, gluten-free – we want to be free and we demand to be free, free from all worries, calories and cholesterols. Food must come ready and complete with all the freebies: i.e., vitamin-added, mineral-added – and enriched with proteins and infused with enzymes. Or else, it is not worth bothering with because we intend to be free even from aging and dying. We are busy being free and so busy being busy that we cannot possibly spare the precious minutes in toasting and spreading something which our bodies do not need; much simpler and healthier to shake out some preserved cereals, chemically processed with approved artificial colorings and flavorings but packed with the vital nutrients. We mind our bodylines and keep a balanced diet by skipping breakfasts and by ordering grande hazelnut “skinny” mocha with whipped cream.
We can buy anything, anytime, from anywhere. Apples and oranges are available all year around and around the clock: and we juice and squeeze them to detox our polluted bodies and to rejuvenate our aging souls. Everything is fresh and must be fresh – fresh, fresher, freshest; raw, rawer and rawest. Squeeze and squeeze the nutrients, and suck and suck the vitamins. Seasons? Which planet are you from? It is always spring somewhere on the Planet Earth. And, besides, with this global warming coming on, it will soon be the eternal spring (and Silent Spring) and tropics everywhere.
But a jar of jam is not just a jar of cooked fruit, is it? It is a magical mixture where nature meets art: made of only sugar and fruit, the human creativity has elevated it from a mundane but necessary food preservation into an artisanship. It is artificially made, but with all and only natural ingredients: take the best fruits, ripened on the trees – a lot of fruits are not ripened on the trees (i.e., bananas) – and churn them over a slow fire by hand repetitiously and religiously. And, if you think you can just nip over and look at your smart phone for a minute, the jam is burned, and the jelly has lost its clarity. Therefore, a jam is not made only with fruits and sugar, but also a lost thing called patience and – love.
A jam is enduring; it is meant to last: it is preserved, but preservative-free. Each jar contains, not only the history of the land bit also the story of the hand that has made it. Yes, a jam is a story-teller, didn’t you know.
This story started with a Three-Fruit Marmalade at the Old Coach House – a Bed and Breakfast in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Freshly made from Lapida lemon, Seville Orange and grapefruit, Stephen’s marmalade could wake up the dead, let alone the mere mortals, albeit habitually recalcitrant before the hour of the hand hit noon. The sharp tang hit the tongue like the first ray of morning sunshine; its mighty force too vivacious for the pale sleepy eyes. However, immediately, the toasted homemade granary bread warmed up the marmalade and the glory of the golden sun burst through in a medley of citruses.
“You must try the Double Gloucester with this,” opening a jar of green bean and tomato chutney, Stephen said with a wink. The recipe, carefully concocted and cautiously executed, spoke eloquently and convincingly without verbosity. Never since then, would Gloucester cheese ever be the same. The tang from the plump raisins, the acidity of vinegar, the gentle sweetness from the brown sugar and the restrained undertone of tomato complemented the maturity of the cheese in flavor, while the texture of the beans was just succulent and firm enough to accompany the firmness of the cheese and bread. Discipline and dedication are virtues in a man, but who knew they would also make a full-bodied chutney.
The larder at the Old Coach House was a treasure trove, richer than the Aladdin’s Cave – filled and stacked with rows upon rows of ruby red jams, brilliant purple jellies, golden preserves and minced-meat gems. Yet, of the precious star of Stroud, there was only one left.
“Sorry, this is my last jar…we seemed to have eaten them all,” apologized Stephen, and it was easy to see why. The jar of raspberry jam was a tiny time capsule, capturing the bright and vibrant summer’s day and transporting its allure across seasons to the last day of a cold and dark November.
Gingerly dropping a spoonful of that liquid magenta crystal on a whipped cloud of fresh cream, ensconced on a pedestal of Stephen’s fluffy scone, the sight alone was unbearably perfect and the hand trembled in front of such sheer beauty. Nevertheless, the sight was still just a sight because…the flavor, oh, the flavors… Within folds of the velvety cream and downy crumbs, the raspberries played a coquettish hide-and-seek, their seedy eyes twinkling and the tartness tweaking, unleashing with a glee, the essence of the joy.
Then a message in a bottle drifted over halfway across the world in a forgotten four-fruit marmalade, found at the back of the shelf. It was a souvenir from the past but it was also a gift of serendipity from a friend passing. Aged two years, long after its purported expiration date, the amber jam had lost its initial vigor; it was bitter and it was tart. Yet, it was sweet – its sweetness was subdued and subtle, but unmistakably present; and it was also warm, radiating a comfort like the ember in a hearth, contemplative and content, after a very long night.
In a jar of jam is life itself, and it will carry on and carry forward, even when the jar is empty and the maker is gone. For the history, or his story, is forever preserved, in that jar of tawny marmalade. And it will live on.
The Old Coach House – Now closed.
Eastcombe, Stroud, Gloucestershire.