Sugar and spice

Those of you who follow my blog know that at the height of summer and into autumn, we are blessed with a surfeit of produce, not just by our own garden, but also by the local farmers who are happy to share produce that they cannot send to market or to the local cannery. here are only so many fresh plums one can eat, variations of plum salad that one can do, so the obvious solution was to bottle or some how preserve them.

Those of you who follow my blog know that at the height of summer and into autumn, we are blessed with a surfeit of produce, not just by our own garden, but also by the local farmers who are happy to share produce that they cannot send to market or to the local cannery.  This produce is under- or over-sized and/or damaged in some way that makes it commercially unacceptable.  Such it was when Boer le Roux, on one of this season’s hottest mid-summer days, delivered this box of goodies:


Either way, the produce is evidently neither inedible or unusable.  But the question that is almost a mantra,  “What to do with all of this when there’s only two of us?”  was top of mind.  There are only so many fresh plums one can eat, variations of plum salad that one can do, and it was far too hot. at 37º Celsius (100º F+), to consider plum duff.  Besides, Christmas had long gone and, actually, plum duff doesn’t have plums in it

The obvious solution was another round of bottling and preserving.


We are not very good at eating fruit preserved in syrup, or as conventional jam, for that matter. As I was contemplating this, I remembered Claire McDonald of McDonald’s book, Sweet Things, which shortly after Christmas, Mr Mac had kindly lent to me, with permission that it could live with my collection of recipe books for a while.  Its major focus is sweets and desserts, but when I had first plumbed its depths, I had spied a recipe that had appealed to both my palate and which might provide a solution to the current problem: a spicy plum jam.  She serves it with venison and recommends it with grilled lamb chops.


I gave it a bash.  It’s definitely not a jam in the “received” sense of the word, and which the Oxford dictionary describes as a “sweet spread or conserve made from fruit and sugar boiled to a thick consistency”.  This most definitely is a spread, and includes fruit and sugar, boiled to a thick consistency, but it is not really sweet, but rather, as one would expect, spicy with a tangy and piquant flavour.

Here’s what I did (and what I learned):

Spicy Plum Jam


2 kg plums
800 ml vinegar (I used white and red wine vinegar for different batches, and even used both for one, with no ill effects;  the colour was better with the red wine vinegar)
1 stick cinnamon
25 g mixed spice
2 kg granulated (white) sugar

What to do

McDonald’s recipe says to halve the plums, but when the plums are the size of nectarines, I found that it was better to quarter them.  She also says that one doesn’t need to worry about the pips because most of them “obligingly float to the surface”.  Well, that might be the case in the UK, not so in South Africa, I discovered.  Certainly if the plums are not ripe.

Making that first batch, I cursed and swore, literally sweating over the (real, not proverbial) hot gas stove, fishing out as as many of the little bar stewards as I could find.

For the second and third batches, I was resigned to my fate.  That helped….and the fact that the demand for this jam is such that I can’t keep up!

Back to the matter at hand:  place the plums, duly butchered, into a jam or stock pot with the vinegar, cinnamon and mixed spice.  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and use a slotted spoon to remove the pips.  Well as many as you can find.  They are often disguised as bits of plum so are easy to miss.

Once you’ve done that, add the sugar to the pan and gently heat until the sugar’s dissolved.  Bring to a fast boil and boil for 10 minutes or until the jam sets.


Remember to remove the wood (aka the cinnamon).

To check whether or not you have a set, place a little of the jam (mostly juice) on a (ceramic/china) saucer and put it into the deep freeze for 5 minutes.  When run your finger tip over the jam and it wrinkles, you have a set.  The general rule is that you should remove the pan from the heat while you wait to see if you have a set.  I find that 5 minutes doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

Once you have a set, pour into hot, sterilised pots and seal.


Random ramblings about sugar, vinegar, spices.  And all things nice

Since doing this recipe, a rhyme from my childhood, and which my father would trot out from time to time, has been running through my head.  I couldn’t remember it verbatim, so I consulted GoG**, which yielded:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of

Very dated, and this with the rave reviews I’ve had for the spicy plum jam, made me think about what has changed, what’s beginning to come full circle and why fruits and vegetables were preserved, in the first place.  Funnily enough it’s also a conversation I have, from time to time with the African Queen on a Friday evening in the pub.

In a world that’s shrunk because of air transport, we can eat anything we want, in virtually any season, from anywhere in the world.  After all, it’s always summer, somewhere, isn’t it?

Along with this, we have become so accustomed to regularly eating a range of preserves, from ham and bacon, biltong and jerkey to jams, pickles and chutneys, cheeses and yoghurt, that we have forgotten their genesis.  These are, in fact, foodstuffs that have been transformed so that they last longer and/or can be stored and eaten when the fresh stuff wasn’t available.

What is it that does the preserving, what are the mechanisms?  I had thought that everyone knew the answers to those questions until I was confronted with questions like, pointing at the jam and chutney, “Is that sugar-free?”

Me, “Er, no, I’m sorry, it’s not.”  Quizzical look.

“It’s the sugar, vinegar and cooking that help to preserve the fruit.”


Another prospective customer:  “Are there preservatives in your cottage cheese?”

Well, um, that’s an interesting question.  What to answer?  The cultures, which turn the milk sour and make the curds are either turning the milk, making it “bad” or preserving it.  Take your pick.  My answer, “There are no additives like salt, or synthetic preservatives, if that’s what you mean, no.

“Oh and the flavour develops the longer you keep it because it matures.”

Another, “Oh.”

Another cliché, but a truism, nevertheless:  one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Two sales that didn’t happen.

And my discovery of the recipe for making cottage cheese was little different from that for blue cheese (although much less spectacular).

A bit of a rant

This knowledge and the various preserving skills used to be handed down from one generation to another, from mothers to daughters (usually) and from master cheese makers, butchers and bakers, to their apprentices.  As humanity has “developed” it has moved further and further from the source its food, and as the processing (or “value-add”) has become industrialised and commercialised, both the knowledge and skills have been lost to the average household.

It’s terrifying how few people really think about what happens between earth and plate. The population of many burgeoning cities encroaches on arable land, not only reducing the amount of land available for framing, but also destroys valuable farming know how, much of which cannot be learned from books.  And the journey that our food must take from the field or pasture to the kitchen and dinner table becomes ever longer and more arduous.

Along with understanding the causes of global warming and the effects of greenhouse gases, it would be good if there were greater awareness of whence our food comes from and who produces it.  Perhaps the interest in artisan foods and increasing awareness of our planet will also regenerate this knowledge and understanding, and equally importantly a renewed respect for the farmers who so lovingly and carefully produce it.

Back to where I began – the spicy plum jam

As I mentioned, I’ve now done three batches of spicy plum jam, and there won’t be another until next summer and plums are back in season.  We are, however, continuing to enjoy it:

With a lamb chop, cooked to perfection, by The Husband, on the braai (barbecue), with boerewors and salads
At Easter with a warm hot cross bun and blue cheese
As a glaze for roasted carrots to make a salad on a bed of rocket, topped with fresh coriander
As a glaze for roasted carrots to make a salad on a bed of rocket, topped with fresh coriander

*I have used the basic ratios and ramped this recipe up and down.
** Good old Google

© Fiona’s Favourites 2016

5 thoughts on “Sugar and spice”

  1. Don’t know what it’s like in S Africa, but in the UK the teaching of cookery / domestic science / home economics, or whatever the current term is, is being squeezed out by other areas of the curriculum. Another reason why people don’t understand food, nutrition and how to feed themselves healthily. Like the look of your spicy plum jam!

    1. It is still included in the curriculum, but under some other name which escapes me. However, not all schools offer it and everyone is now steered in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) direction. To the detriment, some would say, of common sense.

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