Fired with a housewifely wish to see her storeroom stocked with homemade preserves, she undertook to put up her own currant jelly. John was requested to order home a dozen or so little pots and an extra quantity of sugar, for their own currants were ripe and were to be attended to at once.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
By the time you read this, I'll be some miles northwest of London at the wedding of two very dear friends: my catering partner Liv, and her soon-to-be-husband Sam. I have attended a number of weddings over the years - those of both parents, my brilliant sister and brother-in-law, and of a variety of friends (and catering clients) both in Australia and here in England. I adore weddings, and am a notoriously emotional wedding crier, even when I barely know the couple. Today, when I step forward to read a piece by Nigel Slater, I'll inevitably already have mascara running down my cheeks after watching my friends walk down the aisle. With two people I love as much as I do Sam and Liv, it's practically a foregone conclusion.
I must have told this story a hundred times before, but perhaps it is new to you: Liv and I met around two years ago. After reading and enjoying each other's food writing via Twitter for a few months, we arranged to meet in person, just after I left my job in theatre. We had a late afternoon coffee that segued into cocktails, and resulted in us ordering a platter of oysters. We got along immediately, and the only way I've ever been able to sufficiently explain it is that we fell in love. Platonic love - but love all the same.
When I think of it now, I am incredulous when considering how little time (respectively) we have actually known each other. Two years, in the context of our lives, is so short. But it has been enough for us to start a business, roast countless chickens and bake endless loaves of bread, and watch more episodes of Shonda Rhimes TV dramas than I’d care to admit. Sam has been there for all of this too, from the early days when I would come round for dinner, to his endless patience and advice (both welcome and unwelcome) as we take over their home to host supperclubs, bake wedding cakes, or prep for catering gigs. He's welcomed me into their spare room and living space for what must amount to long months of the past two years. He's the absolute best.
Early on, Liv and I bonded over many things: a shared love of butter, of books, and of the 1994 film version of Little Women. And so, I couldn't imagine a better book to be returning to this week, in honour of her. Determined to stock her home with preserves, newlywed Meg struggles all afternoon to make a currant jelly that never quite sets. It's somewhat unsurprising, given the evidence we have of the March sisters' cooking: when they take to the kitchen, bread is burnt, desserts are served with salt instead of sugar, and asparagus is boiled to oblivion. They’re lucky to have Hannah, whose presence in the kitchen they grew up in means cooking could be an occasional hobby, rather than a daily necessity.
But suddenly, married and no longer in a house with her sisters, Meg has to learn to cook. When her jelly goes wrong, she sits down in the kitchen and weeps, and it’s at this point in the story that I most identify with her. When John Brooke arrives home to a kitchen in chaos, a friend in tow, and laughingly suggests they serve him some bread and cheese, she furiously tells him to take the guest somewhere else, and retreats to her room. Though we have never yet resorted to shutting the door and calling off dinner after a long day in the kitchen, Liv and I have certainly given up any thought of serving something homemade, and ordered a take away.
Unlike poor Meg, Liv has the most impressive collection of jams, jellies, and preserves I've seen in some time She could make this with her eyes closed. Though this recipe should be made in summer, when currants are in season, my version has had to wait for this week, and for this wedding. Thank goodness, then, for frozen berries - either bags of mixed currants, if you can find them, or mixed berry bags, which should leave you with blackberries to pick out and store for adding to your morning porridge.
Redcurrant and Blackcurrant Jelly
Makes enough to fill one 300g jar
600g redcurrants and blackcurrants
Approximately 200g preserving sugar*
*Currants are naturally high in pectin, so you don't need to use a jam sugar with added pectin.
Medium-sized non-reactive saucepan
1. Wash the fruit, if fresh, and tip it into a non-reactive saucepan. Add two tablespoons of water. Over a low heat, bring the fruit to a simmer, squashing the currants open with a wooden spoon. Stir regularly to ensure the currants don't catch on the bottom.
2. After about ten minutes, pour the fruit and all liquid into a sieve lined with a piece of muslin or a fine cloth. Allow to strain overnight. Don't push the fruit through, or try to rush it, or you'll end up with a cloudy jelly.
3. The next morning, place a plate in the freezer. Weigh the liquid that has strained through the cloth, and pour it into a saucepan, adding the same weight of sugar. Place over a low heat and bring to a simmer. A small amount of jelly (as this will be) will only take about five minutes to reach setting point, so keep an eye on it. To test when it's done, drop a small spoonful onto the frozen plate, count to ten, and then try to draw your finger through it. If it wrinkles, it's ready. It will keep setting as it cools, so don't panic that it seems too runny.
4. Skim any scum from the top and pour the jelly into a sterilised jar. Store for months, or eat as soon as it has set, on warm soda bread, with butter.