Machiavelli and the jam-makers

ApricotsNiccolo Machiavelli might have been happier in the community garden than in exile at his family estate in Tuscany. The politics are complex, the emotions many and the personalities as diverse as in the community from which it draws its members. Even he could find it difficult to steer a course through the prevailing forms of governments: benign dictatorship, alternating every few minutes with bureaucracy and popular democracy.

We would have welcomed him on the evening we turned up to strip the apricot tree and conduct a community jam session, one of the non-music-making variety.

We had a bumper crop of apricots — fat, golden, by now blushing towards pink. The crop was intact, because before early summer rain and prolonged heat had worked their magic, the tree was netted to keep both cockatoos and plastic-trough-toting locals at bay.

Jam, the ladies decided, would be a golden gift to all the gardeners. Machiavelli's persuasive skills would have been welcome here because not all the gardeners agreed, but in the absence of other suggestions, we arrived with our big pots, wooden spoons, knives and cutting boards as arranged. 

The two designated fruit pickers and ladder failed to arrive, so we could have used Macca then too; his Florentine manners would not have allowed him to see the damsels becoming distressed, and he might have scaled the ladder like a figure in one of those books of hours which depict seasonal tasks.

As it turned out, he could keep his hose clean and unladdered because a cheerful fellow gardener turned up and landed 18 kg of fruit on the long table.

How do you make apricot jam? No-one was sure, but it seemed to be about fruit, water, sugar, pectin and heat.

There was discussion about the water — various probably deceased aunts and mothers never used water. Suddenly everyone was an expert. One of the younger ladies was despatched to the supermarket to find pectin and sugar, but by the time we had done the very complicated maths (if x cups of fruit needs y ounces of sugar and one teaspoon of pectin, how many kilos of fruit need how much of the same?) another trip was necessary.

Further complications arose because the pots were all different sizes and we had no scales. The sugar shopper is also a computer engineer, so her quick calculations passed unchallenged. Our Florentine friend would have found this task easy, simply calling on one of his amici from the scale-makers guild.

Small mountains of halved apricots rose up on the table, and a bowl of kernels was laboriously extracted from the stones to enhance flavour. Wash the fruit? Of course. You cannot have jam laced with bird poo. Remove the ugly bits like bruises and possible resident insects? No, no. You don't wash, that will make the jam runny, and you always use the worst fruit for jam, the best for preserving and the rest for the table.

As this wisdom came from an orchardist's daughter who also worked in the cannery as a girl, again the majority deferred.

After a frustrating hunt for matches, we lit the barbecues and soon four pots of golden goo were bubbling away.

Jars were the next problem. We had brought a load of jars sterilised at home, but it soon became clear that there were not nearly enough. Some people went home to forage, and one of the gardeners helpfully brought some from the shed, though he was not sure what had been in them. Kero, perhaps, or Roundup.

The youngest jammer had read a story once in which a woman made jam and caused people to die of botulism. So she busied herself with detergent, hot water and the microwave, removing three or four bacteria-free jars every however many minutes it takes.

After a short time, according to perceived wisdom, the frothy jam should perform a satisfactory gel-test in which a spoonful dropped on a cold plate should develop a skin on its firming surface. Interestingly, the sample from a heavy cast-iron pan fresh from the op-shop gelled in half the time as those from various aluminium relics and more recent stainless steel numbers.

Cooks please note: this unplanned controlled experiment proved conclusively that big amounts of money spent on those heavy French pans is indeed well spent. Machiavelli would not have been surprised, as he had never seen flimsy-looking aluminium or steel and had no doubt eaten much delicious fare from the iron pot hanging over the fireplace.

By dusk, it seemed as if we would be there all night, doling blobs into sparkling clean jars. This is no doubt women's work, for Macca was nowhere to be seen.

Soon, though, it was all done, the mess cleaned up, sticky carbonised toffee scraped off the barbecue plates and rows of shining potted miracles lined up on the table — sun-warmed fruit from tree to stove to jar to the home table in the space of three hours, produced by a bunch of mostly happy amateurs.

Much of it was more like sauce, we had to admit, and, though it runs through the air holes in toast, it is marvellous poured over pancakes and ice cream.

This year, we captured our crop for a good cause, and the cockatoos will have to be satisfied with tearing apart the old PVC pipes on the roof. Macca would have had something more to say about learning from history, perhaps that we learn from and make little bits of it every day.

Anna GriffithsAnna Griffiths is a Melbourne artist, writer and community gardener. 

Topic tags: anna griffiths, apricot jam, jam session, community gardening, machiavelli



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