I had only one goal for the Canada Day long weekend – to pick strawberries. At first my friends and I were determined to be fair-weather berry pickers. Surely, we thought that this being July, the rain might finally let up so that we could spend just one glorious, sunny afternoon in the fields. But as the weekend wore on, each day bringing with it yet more wet, our desire for fresh berries became increasingly rabid. So on Monday we donned our rain gear, packed ourselves like sardines into a tiny red car, and headed out to Westham Island to pick strawberries in the rain.
Presumably as a reward for our unwavering commitment to berries, the rain actually did stop by the time we arrived at the Bissett Farms U-Pick. And so we spent a pleasant afternoon under cool grey skies, appreciating the fact that we weren’t soaking wet.
In a typical summer, choosing to go berry picking at the end of the long weekend after countless hordes of families with small children have already descended upon the fields is a formula for certain disappointment. Thankfully, all the rain had kept that plague at bay and it was clear that the fields had seen very little recent activity. We found a bounty of perfectly ripe strawberries.
Berry picking is actually a reasonably new experience for me. Aside from the occasional foray into my grandmother’s raspberry bushes, I never really picked berries as a kid. I really enjoy the repetitiveness of the process – pick pick pick, shuffle shuffle, pick pick pick, shuffle shuffle – and I feel like I can just keep going and going along for quite some time. I thus have a very poorly developed sense of when to stop. This situation is not aided by my friends, who apparently have limitless enthusiasm for processing pound upon pound of berries. In one brief hour of picking my friends in the the caboose picked 30 pounds; our other pair of friends had 60 pounds! At the time, my 18 pound haul seemed pretty piddly in comparison.
At least that’s how I felt until I got home and tried to put all my berries in the fridge. Suddenly 18 pounds seemed like a lot of strawberries – especially 18 pounds of perfectly ripe, crisp strawberries that I feared would get soft and mushy faster than I could deal with them. So I recruited Dave to starting hulling and washing, and I spent the next two evenings freezing and jamming and snacking on the tasty morsels.
I made 3 different kinds of jam with all those berries. I used combinations of savory herbs for two of the batches, an idea I got from a recipe for ‘Strawberry Jam with Thai Herbs’ from Lianna Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation. But my favorite of the three was this balsamic and black pepper jam. I made this one up as I went – unsurprisingly a quick google search revealed lots of similar recipes. Strawberry and balsamic is a well loved combination of flavours. I use Krissof’s strawberry jam method for all three batches, and it produced a very thick and glossy jam without the addition of any pectin.
Strawberry, Balsamic and Black Pepper Jam
Method adapted from Lianna Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation. The balsamic vinegar in this recipe balances the sweetness of the berries and adds a lot of depth. I think it will pair well with some stinkier cheeses, maybe on a hearty rye cracker or whole wheat baguette. I love the good kick of spice added by the pepper, but you can certainly experiment with halfing the spice to create something a bit more subtle. Or, you could drop the balsamic and pepper completely and experiment with the herb route. For those new to jamming, I’ve included a pretty detailed description of the steps I take to sterilize and process my jars.
Makes about three 1-cup jars
3 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped (about 9 cups)
1 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper (or to taste)
Start by getting a very large pot of water on the stove for processing the jars. It needs to be large enough so that there will be at least 1-inch of water above your jars – I use a very large soup pot. That much water takes a long time to boil, so put it on first. At the same time, place a small clean saucer in the freezer. If you time this whole process well, the jars should be done just a few minutes before your jam.
When the water starts boiling, add your empty jars to the water to sterilize. If you don’t have a canning rack, place a cotton tea towel in the bottom of the pot. Make sure your jars don’t touch the bottom or sides of the pot. Place the lids and rings in a heat proof bowl, ladle in some of the boiling water to cover, and leave to sit. Boil the jars for at least 10 minutes, and then carefully remove, dumping out the water from each one before placing on a dish towel. Keep the water boiling in the pot for processing.
In a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat, stir the sugar in with the strawberries and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, then strain the fruit through a fine colander, stirring the fruit a bit to loosen the juices. Return the juice to the pot and reserve the fruit.
Simmer the juice uncovered for 20 minutes, or until you have about 1 1/2 cups remaining. Return the strawberries to the the pot with the juices, and add the balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes. To check if the jam is done, remove the saucer from the freezer, place a dab of the liquid jam on the plate, and return the plate to the freezer for 1 minute. The jam will be stiff, but won’t quite gel.
Remove from the heat, and skim off as much of the foam as you can. Stir in the black pepper to your taste. It’s difficult to get a sense of the amount of pepper when the jam is hot, so if you want to check the flavor put a big glob of jam on the plate in the freezer for a minute. When it’s cool give it a taste, and add more pepper until you’re happy with the result.
At this point your jars should be ready to go. Fill each jar to within a 1/4 inch of the top (I know, that’s really full!). Put on the lids and tighten the rings to just finger tight – you want the air to be able to escape during processing. If you don’t have quite enough jam left to completely fill the last jar, place it in the fridge and eat within a few weeks.
Carefully lower your jars into the boiling water, again using a rack or a towel, and keeping the jars from touching the bottom or sides of the pot, or from touching each other. That last thing you want after all this work is for a jar to crack or explode! Process for 5 minutes – if you live above 1000 ft, add 1 extra minute for each additional 1000 ft above sea level.
Remove the jars from the water and place on a towel in a corner of the kitchen where they can be left undisturbed for 12 hours. After about an hour, check that the tops of the lids are fully sealed by pressing down on the middle of the lid – if you find one that pops up and down, place that jar in the fridge immediately and eat within a few weeks.