At the end of the summer, I moved from Newberg, OR to Bozeman, MT. Working at a fine dining restaurant had me submerged to my eyeballs in food all day, every day, but I still enjoyed cooking when I got home. As some of you may know, Oregon is a prime reason for berries so good, you’ll never want to buy them from a store again. Once you’ve tasted a Hood strawberry, a ruby red raspberry warmed from the sun off the vine, or a juicy marionberry from the bounty of your neighbor’s backyard, you’ll understand why store bought berries are only good for mashing and turning into sauces and shortcakes.
The restaurant I worked in was very proud of their literal farm-to-table approach to dining. The chefs developed personal relationships with local purveyors, my favorite of which turned out to be a husband and wife with a farm on the top of bald peak that had some of the best strawberries I’d ever had in my life. They only had strawberries, and the crop only lasted a couple weeks. In the days after I tasted them at the restaurant, I took my mom and we set out with vague directions up a rural rock and dirt road to the top of bald peak in search of the strawberries. It had been raining very hard but we were in the middle of a sun break. We pulled up to what I thought was the address, but there was only a run-down wooden shed and a man in a truck who turned out to be the husband of the woman who brought the berries to the restaurant, but also our guide down the little road to the berry patch. There were rows and rows of ripe, red berries, and my mom and I set to work to pick what ended up to be about 20 lbs of berries! My mom was a pro, using her experience from her berry picking days with her siblings as a child. She definitely blew me out of the water when it came to picking speed. We took them home and immediately set to eating and jamming, and it produced the most delicious freezer and canned jam… and only a couple days later, our sous chef received the call that the berry season was over due to heavy rain.
My jam recipe is not special, but the jam sure is. Not only did I make enough strawberry jam to survive post-apocalypse, but I also made mixed berry jam with berries from the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market, and marionberry jam from berries harvested in a family friend’s backyard. Just look at this color!
What I learned from this jamming marathon was that low-sugar pectin (in the pink Sure-Jell box) is awesome. The berries were already so delicious and sweet that they only needed minimal sugar. The low-sugar pectin does not set quite as firm, but the extra sugar is not worth it. Too much sugar actually hit the already candy sweet taste of the berry and turned it almost cloyingly sweet. All I did was go through a LOT of sugar, a lot of burns from steam and hot water, and followed the recipe on the Sure-Jell box. I also learned that while messy and requiring lots of steps and equipment, canning is quite easy and safe if you follow the directions. Soapy water, hot water, processing time… oh, and if you are going to spend your money on one thing, invest in a $5 jar lifter! Lesson well learned.