Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Guest Blogger :: A Vine Excuse

Appearing this week by kind permission of, rather than at the invitation of Caroline, is her husband Al.

Caroline's blog is a constant reminder to me of her ability to take raw materials, perform some seemingly inexplicable mystic art on them, and produce an end-product that is worthy of wearing, giving or even selling. She does all the food shopping and acquires yarn, card and other crafty bits throughout the week, so quite often the first I experience of these raw materials is in the finished product:

Me: "That's a nice jumper you're wearing - is it new?"
Caroline: "I knitted it while you were playing Angry Birds on your phone while we watched Numb3rs yesterday evening. Oh, and it's not a jumper, it's a bolero."

So it was something of a novelty when, in the process of some routine tidying-up, I was the one to spot our larger-than-expected crop of grapes. We have a grapevine that covers most of one wall of our garden, but it had been sporting a solitary bunch of grapes all Summer - that is, until I looked inside the rather overgrown greenhouse-cum-shed. bunch after bunch of grapes emerged from the foliage - all roughly blueberry-sized and quite tart. The question remained: what to do with them?

Élysée was keen to try one, but was put off by the sharpness. I wasn't too keen on making grape juice - I love it, but it goes too quickly. So I decided on grape jam as the way forward. I quickly evaluated my strategy for this project.

Obstacles to success:
  • My lack of any experience making jam
  • My ability to take four times longer than is reasonable on any given recipe
  • My relatively uncommon choice of fruit for jam-making
In my favour:
  • Google
  • An evening when my Mother-in-law was arriving late and when I therefore needed to stay up
  • The end of a bottle of pink champagne that needed finishing
  • Google
  • The fun of writing a post for Caroline's blog that she might actually want to publish
Taking all of this into consideration, I ignored the odds and decided to press ahead anyway.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon this article about making grape jam early on in the proceedings. I always prefer and am more inclined to trust blogs that explain how the author made mistakes and had to start again: firstly because I love to know everything about a subject, and secondly because it makes me more confident that the author doesn't take for granted some obscure bit of knowledge that will scupper my attempts to replicate their efforts.

(Caroline winces at the photo of such dirty scales!)
After removing all the stalks (well, close enough for jazz) I had 1.4kg of grapes. Having skirted such difficulties as finding a spider in the jam pan, I obediently added 700ml of water and simmered the grapes for about 40 minutes. Sure enough, the skins burst around the 35-minute mark and the pips emerged. The time needed for the grapes to cool afforded me a few levels of Portal 2, and then the work began in earnest.

The juice filtered out nicely, but after ten minutes of pressing squishy grape skins through the sieve to remove the pips, it became clear that my knuckles were not going to survive this method. I resorted to pushing the skins through with a spoon, and ended up with only a small amount of residue left over. However, having read that the skins and pips provide all-important pectin, I decided to leave the residue in the sieve and allow it to rest in the juice while I brought the mixture to the boil.

With the sugar added, the recipe optimistically told me that I should boil for 5 minutes and then test every 2 minutes for setting. There was no mention of whether to keep boiling it while testing, so I guessed that I should keep it on the heat. After ten minutes or so, the mixture was still not setting. With 3:30am fast approaching, I was starting to worry a little: what if the grapes didn't have enough pectin and the mixture never set? At what point should I give up and go to bed?

It turned out that that point was circa 4am. The jam simply wasn't setting as much as I'd have liked - but it was good enough to spoon onto toast or a croissant. Apparently pears have lots of pectin, so if I were doing this again next year (which will depend on the taste!) I suppose I could add some pear to the mix to improve the setting.

  • Grape pips are a pain
  • Follow the instructions to keep more of the skins in the jam
  • Start this project before midnight
Do you have any experiences of making jam from unusual fruit? Can you think of other uses for slightly-too-small-to-eat grapes? Let me know!


  1. LOVE the bullet points!!! What a fun post to read! And impressed by the crop of grapes and also your ambition to do something yummy with them! X

  2. Grape jam (without chunks) is one of the two most popular jams in North America, tied with Strawberry. I find it funny that you consider it to be an 'unusual' fruit for jamming! That said, I rarely succeed in getting jams to set properly, which reminds me that I need to reheat my lavender jam and see if I can get it to set this time.