Cape Cod's Jelly Fix

By | July 13, 2009
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Preserving the wonderful feeling of the languid, hot days of summer spent by the sea is usually a job for our memory or camera. However, sweet summer preserves can also capture the Cape’s local flavor, which can be savored whenever desired. Everyone is familiar with jams and jellies, many of us getting our first taste with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a very young age. Although they are called by many names, preserves are best differentiated by varying degrees of viscosity and texture. Jam is made from the whole fruit, while jelly is made from the juice. With butters, the fruit is cooked, strained and cooked again until it approaches a pastelike consistency. Flavorful chutneys have a major fruit or vegetable foundation with added spices and vinegar,while marmalade is distinct with its citrus fruit. Conserves are made unique with the addition of nuts and raisins.

For preserves made the oldfashioned way, sugar is always added to the ingredients as a natural preservative, with a minimum amount required by law for safe keeping. The sweet concoctions are then cooked to draw out the water, thickening the spread. Pectin may or may not be added for additional thickness since some fruits, like cranberries, naturally contain pectin.

Many different types and parts of vegetation can be preserved, including leaves and flower petals, but not all in the same way. Fruits like strawberries can become jam or jelly, whereas seed-filled rose hips are best in jelly form. Preserves made from leaves, like mint, or flower petals, are turned into jelly.

As seemingly straightforward as it is to make preserves, local jam company recipes are prized and protected, being passed from generation to generation. Even though the ingredients are essentially the same, the combinations and techniques vary. The sourcing of the fruit is important too, and the more local and wild it is, the more guarded everyone becomes, adding to the mystique.

On the Cape there is a long history of preserves made with our local bounty. Wild beach plum, cranberry, blueberry and rose hip jams and jellies quickly come to mind. However, there are numerous others (many getting harder to find with less open space), such as wild cherry, elderberry, wild grape, rowan berry (also known as mountain ash), juneberry, autumn olive, blackberry and huckleberry.

Robin and Carol Cummings have been working with these ingredients, among others, for 26 years at The Chatham Jam and Jelly Shop, located in their home on Route 28. Compared to some in the industry, these firstgeneration, professional jelly makers are considered newbies, but they have learned to overcome the possible handicap. By reading some reproduced cookbooks from the 1800s, Robin and Carol have been able to gather ideas about
which traditional plants were used in the culinary arts, their histories and which ones are relatively new additions to our palate. One such example is the Rosa rugosa, or the ubiquitous Cape Cod beach rose. In the 1800s, a local cookbook author was just considering the possible uses of the plant newly-arrived from the Orient, whose intended imported purpose was for erosion control.

This dynamic husband and wife team have a wealth of knowledge about local vegetation. Robin started acquiring his as a child in Dennisport, exploring his local surroundings and watching his grandmother make beach plum jelly. More than ten of The Chatham Jam and Jelly Shop’s impressive 120 varieties are foraged locally by the couple and others who sell their bounty to the shop. The amazing number of small-batch jams for sale looks like stained-glass works of art, as they set on their sun-lit shelves. There are over 75 flavors available for tasting, but Robin and Carol caution, “When they start to taste the same, it is time to stop.”

Some people still like to make their own jams and jellies, stocking up on the sweet taste of summer for the long winter months. The hard part for many is not making the preserves, but finding wild fruits. Robin was not willing to give away all of his trade secrets, but, he was very generous with his scavenging knowledge. Here are his commonsensical tipsfor starting out:

1. Bring a first aid kit for bees.
2. Wear long sleeves and pants.
3. Perform a tick check on yourself afterwards.
4. Do not pick on the side of a path or close to the ground where dogs might have left their calling card.
5. When picking near the beach, stay on a path and do not step on the dune grass.
6. Always be aware of where you are picking and do not pick on private property.
7. A beach bucket with a string around your neck is good for pickingso both hands are free.
8. Use field guides, the Barnstable County’s Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service or another expert to confirm that what you picked is edible and that it is what you think it is.

With these helpful foraging tips, you might be wondering where to start on your edible adventure. Rose hips can be a good place to begin; they are abundant around Cape beaches and have a long growing season.

Rosa rugosa is in the apple family. Its hips (the red or orange fruit that forms at the base of the flower) can be eaten raw (they taste like apples, but avoid the wood-tasting seeds), and the flowers are also edible and make a nice light jelly. Robin says that an experienced picker can yield six pounds of these light weight rose petals in four hours at the height of their season. Rose hips ripen from July through September, with the highest concentration later in the season. Robin offers the best approach to selecting and picking the high vitamin C fruit:

1. Choose the dark orange hips, as the red ones can be mushy.
2. Gently twist and pull the fruit off the stem.
3. Pull both ends off, including the old petals and the burr inside.
4. When cooking, fill the pot with enough filtered water to just cover the rose hips. After they become soft from simmering, mill the fruit, leaving the skin and seeds behind, and turn the juice into jelly.

If you seek rare gems, like wild beach plums, no professional forager is likely to share his or her picking locations. In fact, the secrecy of beach plum harvesting brings to mind the French with their wellguarded truffle locations, minus the pigs.

Nevertheless, during abundant harvest years, for about two weeks toward the end of August (after the blueberries are gone) there are plenty of these sand-loving, miniature plums to be found. Robin has bought over 1,000 pounds of beach plums from local foragers in one season, paying as much as $3 per pound. In turn, Chatham Jam and Jelly alone is able to make thousands of jars of this subtle jelly, which seems to embody Cape Cod’s beaches in a jar.

If you do have success with foraging, do not fret about what to do next with your prizedpossessions. Store them in the freezer and take a class at the wellknown Green Briar Jam Kitchen in Sandwich. Green Briar also has the oldest commercial solar cooker still making sun-cooked preserves, perfect for topping desserts. At the nonprofit you can learn to make a variety of preserves the old-fashioned way, in Ida Putnam’s 1903 jam kitchen, which welcomes children’s participation. The gift shop is filled with tasty and varied jams and the working kitchen is open for viewing. One unique preserve they sell, honoring the local children’s author and naturalist, Thornton W. Burgess, is Peter Rabbit’s Carrot Marmalade. It contains carrots, lemons and almonds and evokes the flavor of carrot cake. In the summer the Jam Kitchen gets green tomatoes for their piccalilli relish from Crow Farm, which is right around the corner on Route 6A in Sandwich.

Whether you decide to make jelly yourself or buy some for about $5 a jar, enjoying the Cape’s summer bounty is as easy as opening some local preserves. In 1939, while visiting Green Briar, the famed setting for his children’s books, Thornton W. Burgess so aptly put to his jammaking friend, Ida Putnam, “Tis a wonderful thing to sweeten the world, which is in a jam and needs preserving.”

Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for seven years with her husband and their two homeschooled daughters. Before children, she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a local Weston A. Price Chapter Leader. She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.

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