Preserving has always struck me as one of the most homely and rewarding of culinary endeavours and is something that I have long itched to try myself. My reticence has been founded in a lack of confidence: how should I select the right produce? What are the correct sugar proportions? How do I know if I have enough pectin? Or know when the setting point has been reached? Or sterilise jars properly?
I'm hoping that these great mysteries and more will be unfurled at Leith's School of Food & Wine, where I have signed up to an Autumn Preserving' course, run by Sue Nixon and Andrea Hamilton, that promises to be "a fruitful day for cooks of all abilities."
This famous cookery school, opened by Prue Leith in 1975, has turned out many a fine chef over the years. Its new premises in west London boasts a whole new range of facilities and now offers a range of courses and classes for domestic cooks seeking to improve their skills. There are about fourteen people on the preserving course today, mostly women who have had some experience preserving before. The class is held in a light airy room upstairs and a table of tea, coffee and mini pastries is there to greet us as we arrive. Later, we are served a delicious lunch of fresh crusty bread, cheese and (of course) homemade chutney, as we wait for our own chutneys to set before going home.
Preserving people, says Sue, tend to be "potter people" for whom the stop and start rhythm of jam or jelly-making suits very well, and as we busy ourselves making Hedgerow Jelly, Stonefruit Jam and Autumn Chutney, I realise I am most certainly one of these. This is a four hour class, but, despite our pottering tendencies, we achieve and learn a lot in this time. I had, for example, always been under the impression that fruit used for preserving could be that which maybe wasn't best for eating fresh. In fact, the opposite is true, with any decay present in the fruit going straight into your jam. Meanwhile, I learn that sharper fruits, such as apples or gooseberries, tend to be higher in pectin and acid, which help to set your jam; and that conserve is different to jam in that it has larger pieces of fruit.
Often at cookery classes, pupils work in teams to make one dish. Not here. This class allowed us to make each of the preserves by ourselves, giving us hands on practical experience of each step and a genuine confidence to do it again at home. We sterilised our own jars, tested the setting point of each of our own preserves, wrote our own labels and decorated the jars as we liked using fabric and ribbon provided.
Much to my surprise, my jam, jelly and my chutney all seem to set beautifully, and taste good too, though, according to Sue, chutney tastes best if you leave it six months. Meanwhile, the satisfaction of seeing my jars, labelled in my own hand-writing and nestled invitingly in my cupboard, is a source of (okay, I'll admit, slightly tragic) domestic pride. But at least my Christmas presents are sorted for this year.
Leith's School of Food & Wine