To paraphrase Roberto Clemente (and Garret Morris), Michigan summers have been berry, berry good to us. For years now, my wife and I spend time each summer picking black raspberry, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, peaches and other fruits from Michigan’s wonderful summer bounty. Then, each fall we process them into homemade jams and yesterday was such a day.
Michigan is a fabulous state to live in if you like berries. We grow strawberries here. We’re renowned for our fabulous blueberries. Out in the forests, if you know where to look, it’s easy to find wild blackberries, wild blueberries and wild red and black raspberries. These berries we picked on a backpacking trip on Grand Island off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last summer. Freshly picked wild blueberries and wild red raspberries? Could there be a better dessert?!
Wild blueberries and red raspberries picked
on Grand Island, Michigan – photo by Eclectablog
In our yard, we have mulberries (including a rather unusual white mulberry tree) and red currants.
Ripe red currants growing in our front yard
Berry hunters like us have our special spots where we know we can score a goodly quantity of fruit when they’re in season. When we moved to the Ann Arbor area a few years back, we lamented that we’d have to find a new place to pick wild black raspberries. Then, one day while walking the dogs, we found the biggest patches of wild black raspberries and black berries we had ever seen just a half mile from our house! Score!
Besides berries, there are few states better blessed with cultivated fruits than Michigan. We compete with the state of Washington with our sweet and tart cherries, apples, peaches and apricots and with Maine for wild blueberries.
So, every year, Mrs. E and I check the calendar and make sure to pick ripe fruits, often wild fruit found in the forests, when they come into season. Generally we freeze them for processing later in the fall when our time is less consumed with our gardening and other summer activities.
For the berries, the process is pretty simple. We don’t rinse them but simply lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet (sometimes several layers with wax paper between them) and then freeze them. Once frozen, we put them into freezer bags and store them until we’re ready to cook with them or, as was the case yesterday, make jams and jellies with them. Using this technique allows us to just grab as much as we need rather than having them frozen into one giant block.
Wild black raspberries ready to be made into jam
Once out of the freezer, they get a quick rinse and then are allowed to thaw. For jellies, the fruits are slightly crushed then simmered briefly to release the juices. They are then strained through several layers of cheese cloth before being processed into jelly.
Crushed berries ready for processing
Jams are a bit easier. You simply lightly crush the fruits and you’re ready make jam.
Once you’re set up, making jam is fast! Yesterday, we made ten batches for a total of 95 jars of jam and jelly.
The fruit or juice is added to a big pot along with a box of pectin like Sure-Gel and a little dab of butter to help keep foaming to a minimum. The fruit is heated to a full rolling boil that can be stirred down then an obscene amount of sugar is added. If the occasional bug or twig gets into our jams, we’ve never noticed it: that much sugar makes even Japanese Beetles taste good!
The mixture is again brought to a full rolling boil, boiled hard for one minute then ladled into clean jars that have been run through the dishwasher to sterilize them. The rims are wiped clean, a pre-boiled lid and ring is screwed onto them and then they are boiled in a canning pot for 5-10 minutes.
The procedures and recipes for making these jams and jellies are well-defined and must be followed exactly. Even slight deviations from the amounts of sugar, fruit or pectin can leave with you with fruit sauce rather than fruit jelly or jam if it doesn’t “set”. Unset jams are great on vanilla ice cream but not so good on toast!
The real trick is when you start to venture into unknown territory by blending fruits. In years past we have made cherry/strawberry/black raspberry jam (one of my all time favorites) and various other blends. This year, our “special blend” of the year was mulberry/red currant jelly. These both grow in our yard so it’s something that we can do every year. The jellies didn’t set up immediately but when we came down this morning, they had set overnight. Success!
95 jars of berry jams and jellies — a fine day’s work
May I recommend a little home jamming? Trust me, once you’ve tasted homemade jam, you’ll never want to go back to “store-bought” stuff. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s inexpensive and it’s something the whole family can help with. Plus they make great gifts! We have been giving away our jams and jellies as family Christmas presents for so many years now that our family gets really cranky when they run out and have to buy the dreaded “store-bought” varieties.
Last year when we gave out our jams, we included a cd we had made called “Christmas Jams”. Here’s the song list:
Strawberry Jam – Michelle Shocked
Jammin’ – Bob Marley
Kick Out the Jams – Motor City 5 (MC5)
Summer Jam – Quad City DJs
Raspberry Jam – Carole King
Jam Up and Jelly Tight – Tommy Roe
She Don’t Use Jelly – The Flaming Lips
Postcard from a Dream (Toast and Jelly) – Poi Dog Pondering
Oh, one more thing. After a hard day’s work making 95 jars of jam, we like to reward ourselves. With a nice mixed-berry martini. Mmmmm…
The beginnings of a mixed-berry martini!
Finally, here’s Greg Brown doing “Canned Goods”. I wanted to use Michelle Shocked “Strawberry Jam” but it’s not available on video.
Canned Goods — by Greg Brown
Well, let the wild winter wind bellow and blow.
I’m as warm as a July tomato.
There’s peaches on the shelf, potatoes in the bin.
Supper’s ready, everybody come on in.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Grandma put it all in jars.
Well, there’s a root cellar, fruit cellar, down below.
Watch your head now, and down we go.
Well, maybe you are weary and you don’t give a damn.
I bet you never tasted her blackberry jam.
Oh, she got magic in her, you know what I mean.
She puts the sun and rain in with her beans.
What with the snow and the economy and everything,
I think I’ll just stay down here and eat until spring.
When I go down to see Grandma, I gain a lot a weight.
With her dear hands, she gives me plate after plate.
She cans the pickles, sweet and dill,
And the songs of the whip-or-will,
And the morning dew and the evening moon,
I really gotta go down and see her soon.
‘Cause the canned goods that I buy at the store
Ain’t got the summer in ’em anymore.
You bet, Grandma, as sure as you’re born,
I’ll take some more potatoes and a thunderstorm.
I’m just sayin’…