To preserve Strawberries

2020-05-30 05.34.30

Description: Strawberries in a bowl.

There are more recipes for preserving fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat in early modern recipe books than there are for cakes. I often gravitate to the cakes – because I love cake – but if I ever cooked one of these recipe books cover-to-cover I would be up to my elbows in pickling brine and sugar.

This delicious recipe for a strawberry and blackcurrant jam, “To preserve Strawberries” from the Clark Library MS.2012.011, capitalizes on sugar’s potent preserving power (just like this marmalade I posted last year). As sugar prices dropped over the course of the seventeenth century, sweet preservation recipes – rather than sour, vinegary ones –  became increasingly accessible to middle class families. The Hornyold family who began compiling and using this recipe book in the 1660s seem to fit this description. (I made Jasmine Butter from this same manuscript last summer.)

The declining price of sugar obscured what we would now think of as its true costs: Plantation slavery in the Caribbean and the Transatlantic slave trade. As Kim F. Hall’s ongoing work on sugar demonstrates, this prized ingredient in English kitchens both conveyed status to socially mobile families and embedded them in global systems of oppression. Distilling one of Hall’s recent lectures on the subject at the Race Before Race conference in January 2019, Ambereen Dadabhoy writes, “if we talk about women’s cooking cultures in the early modern period, we have to as Professor Kim F. Hall stated, call out the white women who participate in this culture and also uphold a racial regime of bondage and servitude in the plantation colonies and the metropole.” The Honryold household, like all households that consumed sugar in this era, benefited from and perpetuated systems of bondage. Slavery is an unavoidable part of the history of sweets in the seventeenth century.

Jam making was a seasonal, annual activity when fresh fruit was at its peak. This recipe specifically calls for “scarlet strawberries,” but notes that others “will do.” Here the manuscript may be referring to domesticated varieties of wild European strawberries or the recently arrived American wild strawberry fragaria virginiana. This American strawberry is one of the parents of modern commercial strawberry hybrids and it is sometimes called the “scarlet strawberry.” “Strawberries, Scarlet Strawberries,” was a cryer’s call in eighteenth-century London. Preserving fragile foods such as strawberries was crucial for survival during good times and bad times, years of abundance as well as plague. It’s strawberry season in Philadelphia and a wonderful time to make this recipe.

The Recipe

To Preserve Strawberries cropped

To preserve Strawberries –
To a quart of scarlet strawberries, and a pint
of currant juice, you must put a pound of Loaf sugar
bruise the Strawberries well in a pan then add the
Currant juice & the sugar, set it over a Charcoal fire
& let it boil Gently till it jellies, then put it into
pots for use —- any Strawberries will do
But not so well–

The first challenge of making this recipe was trying to find an unsweetened black currant juice without visiting lots of stores. I was able to order this juice made by R.W. Knudsen and have it delivered. Although the black currant juice adds something special here, you could omit it if you can’t find it and cook the jam for a shorter period. The second challenge was that I used a full pint of black currant juice the first time that I tested this recipe and ended up scorching the jam as I tried to reduce it adequately. When I made it again with a quarter cup of juice, the jam came together perfectly. I also consulted Marisa McClellan’s recipes for small batch strawberry vanilla jam and small batch strawberry balsamic jam.

Updated Recipe

Makes 3 cups of jam

1 quart strawberries (4 cups chopped)
455g sugar (scant 2 cups)
1/4 cup black currant juice

Prepare fruit

Cut strawberries into quarters.

Mix the strawberries with half of the sugar (1 cup) and let sit at room temperature for 2-3 hours.

Make jam

Put a small plate in your freezer.

Prepare your storage jar(s). If they’re not fresh from the dishwasher, rinse them with boiling water.

Put the macerated strawberries and sugar as well as the remaining sugar in a heavy saucepan with ample extra room. If you’re using a candy thermometer, affix it to the side of the pot.

Cook at a high heat and bring the strawberry mixture to the boil. Continue to cook and stir. Add the black currant juice after 15 minutes of cooking. Cook until the jam reaches 220°F and/or when you run a spoon along the bottom of the pan the jam does not immediately flood the space again. (My total cooking time was 25 minutes, but this will vary.)

As your jam nears temperature or the spoon parts it more effectively, put 1 teaspoon on the freezer plate and let sit for 30 seconds. If the jam holds its shape when you tilt the plate, it has set. If the jam is browning quickly or looks set before the temperature reaches 220°F, try the plate test earlier.

Store this small-batch preserve in the refrigerator and consume within two weeks. You can extend the life of your jam by properly canning it or by freezing it.

The Results

The first taste is sweet, then bright strawberry flavor, and finally the deep berry notes from the blackcurrant juice. I’ve been eating this delicious preserve on bread, toast, waffles, and biscuits. Even though I don’t have to wait almost another year to eat a strawberry, I know I’ll savor this peak summer flavor.

Further Reading

Dadabhoy, Ambereen. “After Race Before Race” January 19, 2019. https://ambereendadabhoy.com/2019/01/19/after-race-before-race/

Hall, Kim F. “Culinary Spaces, Colonial Spaces: The Gendering of Sugar in the Seventeenth Century,” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, eds. Valerie Traub, Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 168-90.

Hall, Kim F. “History, Pleasure, Identification: The Case for Early Modern Food Studies.” Race Before Race Conference. Arizona State University, Tempe. 19 Jan 2019. Lecture

Hall, Kim F.“Sugar and Status in Shakespeare” Shakespeare Jahrbuch145 (2009): 49-61.

MintzSidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986.

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