Mid-March: fig season. We’ve been racing the bats and the parrots to eat the figs from our tree, going out most days to strip what we can reach before the furred and feathered varmints fly in. The best figs are those which are left to ripen fully on the tree, or until they are totally testicular. Of course, leaving them adds a slight element of risk: one pesky possum, or four fruit bats, can eat a lot in a night. And if the varmints don’t get them, and they are left too long, then they become fizzy and unpleasant. But perfectly ripe figs are so succulent that I am prepared to play the waiting game even at the cost of a few figs; it’s one of the few forms of gambling I am willing to participate in. Who needs a casino when you can experience the thrills of the high life, right here in the suburbs?!
There is a limit, however, to all this delightful decadence; one can’t eat too many figs at a sitting, lest one be forced to sit all day. So then I turn to jam. I use the classic Fowlers Vacola recipe with one exception: I don’t add extra pectin. It leaves a metallic tang and somehow flattens the flavours of the jam; needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: I just don’t like it! As long as you throw a few less ripe figs into the mix, the jam will set sufficiently without the use of additives; you’ll get a sensuously soft jam that drops in dollops from the spoon, just right for blobbing onto toast or scones, crackers with a soft goats cheese, porridge, or a bowl of creamy natural yogurt.
If you don’t have your own fig tree, go for a laneway walk through an old migrant suburb one evening. You should find sufficient figs hanging over the fence for at least a half batch of this jam – enough for three standard jam jars or so.
Soft Fig Jam
- 2 kg ripe black figs, plus a few not very ripe figs
Place a saucer in the freezer.
Wash the figs and behead them, making sure to cut below the point that the stem is oozing white sap. Throw the figs into a food processor or blender, and pulse-chop until you have a coarse purée. (Alternatively, you can chop them finely by hand.)
Place them in a deep saucepan, and add the orange juice and lemon juice. Cook over medium-low heat for five to ten minutes, or until the purée is quite soft. (The cooking will also remove any air bubbles introduced when you whizzed the figs in the food processor, so don’t be surprised if the volume goes down.)
Add the sugar a quarter-cup at a time, stirring well after each addition so that the sugar is dissolved and the jam doesn’t lose much heat. Add the sherry. Cook for 25 to 35 minutes at a gentle bubble, stirring regularly to ensure none sticks to the bottom, until it has reached the setting stage. (If you prefer a well-set jam, cook it for a bit longer.)
To test for set, fetch your saucer out of the freezer and plop a dob of jam on it. Leave it for a minute. Now push the blob with your finger. If it separates into two distinct halves and has a slight crinkle on the surface where it has been pushed, it is set. If not, cook for another 5 minutes and test again; repeat until set. (The time it takes will depend on your fruit; the riper the fruit, the longer it takes.)
Turn off the heat. Let the jam sit for five minutes before pouring into hot clean jars.
Clean Jars: You’ll need six or seven jam jars. Wash them through the hot cycle in the top level of your dishwasher; or wash them in hot soapy water then run them through a baby bottle steriliser (good for small batches); or wash in hot soapy water then place in a low oven for twenty minutes – all before filling with jam. The method you use will dictate when you wash them eg you may need to turn on the dishwasher just before you start the jam in order to have the jars clean and hot when it comes to bottling time. Be intelligent: work out how you’re going to do it, and work out the times. I can’t do it for you!
Personally, I use the baby bottle steriliser then go two routes. If a bottle has a metal lid, I screw on the lid, then flip the jar and leave it to stand upside down for twenty four hours. This is the French preserving method. If it doesn’t have a metal lid or if I am using a drinking glass, I use a Fowlers Vacola Kleerview Cover, available at my local supermarket, or direct from Fowler’s, or from the lovely Robert at Bee Sustainable in East Brunswick. (And to throw in an ad, which he doesn’t know about and hasn’t paid for- this month he has blackberry honey; that is, honey made from the pollen of blackberry flowers. It’s incredible; the berry flavour really comes through. Go get some before he runs out!)
(This recipe is barely adapted from Fowlers Vacola's Secrets of Successful Preserving, which you get when you buy one of their preserving machines. I think it’s also available directly from them. Their website is under construction at the moment, but you can visit them at 23 Racecourse Road, North Melbourne, and stock up on all matter of preserving equipment while you’re at it!)
(Local backyards: black figs, lemons. Victoria: oranges, sherry. Not so local: sugar.)