I have always had a penchant for all things culinary so when I returned home from a summer holiday to find our plum trees groaning with fruit and then happened to come across our ancient horde of Kilner jars, it is not surprising that I embarked on the following adventure.
How I lost my Bottle (1992).
The lawns were overgrown when I returned alone from my summer holiday. Two and a half inches of rain had fallen over the previous fortnight and although I was under the impression that most of it had fallen in Wales there had been sufficient at home to green the previously parched lawns and swell the fruit on the trees.
The plum tree was more heavily laden than in living memory and Alice, my wife, was not due back for another week. What to do with this God sent crop. Surely it should not go to waste.
Thirty years ago, when newly wed I had rashly bid, at a house clearance sale, for three dozen fruit preserving jars in the fond hope that my young bride would fill them annually with the fruits of my labour from our country garden. Sadly this had never come to pass and the jars had gathered dust over the years at the back of the scullery cupboard. Here then was my chance to surprise Alice on her homecoming with a array of bottled plums and perhaps too some plum jam.
I located the 1963 edition of Good Housekeeping, which I had suitably inscribed at the time, with the optimism of the newly wed, that it might have been referred to a little more often than the faded dust laden cover showed, all too clearly it, like the jars, had lain undisturbed over three decades.
The recipe for bottled fruit could not have been simpler – an idiot could follow it – what could go wrong! I even found, amongst the crusted preserving jars, the sealing rings without which these jars were unusable.
I cleared the decks and began. I picked my fruit, prepared my syrup, sterilised and rinsed my jars into which I packed my plums. So far so good. I prepared to place the first batch of jars in the oven only to find, to my dismay, that the sealing rings were too large. It was the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend and I made the discovery at 4 p.m.. Undeterred I leapt into my car and scoured the shops in our nearest shopping town for the right size rings – to no avail. It seems that we were not the only household to be blessed with a bumper crop of fruit. By now it was almost 5 p.m., but there was just enough time to dash to the next nearest town, which was bigger than the first I had tried, to secure the elusive sealing rings. Alas again I drew a blank and as closing time drew near I decided that my only option lay in attempting to adapt the larger rings. Armed with a tube of super glue I sped home to be greeted , once more, with the sight of my dozen bottles of plums begging to be preserved to grace our table over the long winters evenings to come.
The cutting and gluing of the rings seemed to work better than I perhaps could have hoped; the only question was would the join be sufficiently sound to allow a vacuum seal in the lid?
The cook book recommended placing newspaper in the bottom of the oven to catch any overspill from the cooking plums. this seemed eminently sensible – after all I did not want Alice to return to a sticky oven.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees the book said. Now was this Fahrenheit or centigrade? – after all the book was written pre decimalisation. It did say a cool oven and 300 on our split level did seem to me to be rather hot but sobeit, that is what the recipe said.
I carefully lined the oven with the recommended newspaper onto which I placed the first batch of jars. Recommended cooking time was 40-55 mins; just time to have a bath as I was due to go out to dinner that evening. I had just settled comfortably for a good soak when I was alerted by the smoke alarm. I rushed to the kitchen to find the oven ablaze, fuelled, it seems by the newspaper liberally dowsed with syrup. With a bucket of water I extinguished the blaze and rescued the precious jars only slightly charred and somewhat smoky. Having cleared up as best I could I determined to try again this time without the paper, after all a few drips in the oven would be easily wiped away – or so I thought!
I resumed my bath. Half an hour or so later my nostrils were pervaded with the most delicious smell of cooking plums. Could this be right I asked myself as I lay in my watery cocoon. Somewhat apprehensively, half dressed for my dinner party, I approached the kitchen once more. On opening the door I stepped into a flood of hot syrup which was seeping at a steady stream from the closed oven door. When opened it revealed the jars bubbling and steaming merrily away like a mad alchemist test tubes, spilling their contents in varying degrees to all intents and purposes like little volcanoes. By now the flood had seeped under the refrigerator, washing machine et al besides covering a good half of the kitchen floor.
I was due out with the next 10 minutes or so but clearly could not leave things as they were until my return. There was nothing for it but to start mopping up.
The ensuing 15 minutes saw the worst of the mess cleared up but necessitated a complete change of clothes following yet another bath.
I abandoned all further efforts to rescue this first batch of plums and decided to leave, to the morrow, any further attempt at this now seemingly complex culinary feat.
I returned at midnight, mellow from a jolly evening, only to view once more the appalling mess and after a few minutes contemplation to find myself firmly stuck to the kitchen floor. I slipped out of my shoes leaving them in place amidst the wreckage of our kitchen – an exhibit worthy of the Tate; doubly so considering the original benefactor of that gallery and the nature of the substance securing my footwear to the floor.
I retired a saddened but enlightened man. Maybe my young bride had known a thing or two when she left those jars at the back of the cupboard to gather dust all those years.
Tomorrow I would try again before I start on the jam which I also intended to make – after all any fool can make jam! I did learn one thing however, plum syrup makes a most effective oven cleaner!
(Postevent footnote: Four years following this culinary disaster my lovely black Labrador â€˜Woodyâ€™, still hated crossing the kitchen floor. I believe there was still some residual stickiness which probably made the poor dog feel as though he was walking through treacle.)