A Proper Jam Connoisseur

I'VE never felt that Alice (of ``Wonderland'' fame) was a very convincing child somehow. And now I've discovered why: She doesn't care for jam.

Or so she tells the White Queen in Lewis Carroll's sequel ``Through the Looking Glass.''

So when the Queen tells her, in that frequently quoted phrase, that ``the rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today,'' the little Victorian girl presumably suffers no childish disappointment.

Any other child - any real child - would consider jam-deprivation the worst kind of punishment.

I was brought up to think of jam as a treat - with the consequence that I've been a jam lover forever. Delight in spreadable fruitiness spooned out of jars does not have to stop with adulthood.

Jam in all its forms (including marmalades, jellies, curds, ``butters,'' and ``cheeses,'' all made essentially from fruit and sugar), though traditionally a spread for toast or bread, has also long been used as a staple ingredient by imaginative cooks.

Jellies subtly find their way into meat dishes (red-currant jelly with lamb is perhaps the most traditional example). Marmalades are used in cakes and steamed puddings. And jams show up in tarts, roly-poly pudding, spongecakes, and Mille-feuille pastries, not to mention that most delectable of desserts, English Trifle, where raspberry or strawberry jam (preferably the former) is spread into the glorious lower recesses of spongecake, offering an indispensable tangy sweetness to compliment all the other gorgeous aspects of this dreamy dish.

If you are a real jam buff, you will not be content with only eating the stuff; you will also have an urge to make it.

It is one of those things which, when homemade successfully, is way beyond all commercial competition. Failures can be spectacular, admittedly, usually involving a batch that is too solid, or a nonbatch that is hopelessly runny. But success or failure, you can always tell a homemade jam from a manufactured one.

My own recent efforts to make rhubarb-and-ginger jam have convinced me that this recipe results in one of the most toothsome jams there is.

My even more recent strawberry spread, based on a promisingly different approach to jam-making in chef Raymond Blanc's book ``Cooking for Friends'' (1993, Trafalgar Square Press, $50) was a dismal failure. I shall have to try again. Actually Monsieur Blanc strikes me as on the right track in his efforts to make jams with less sugar and shorter cooking times than traditional recipes.

Strawberry jam is usually too sweet; the fruit spoiled by overcooking. But it is also one of the trickier jams to make. So Blanc's recipe calls for the addition of powdered pectin. Pectin is a natural gelling agent in fruit, but some fruit has more of it than others. My first attempts at adding this substance, however, turned my strawberry jam into something approaching cake. Admittedly, Blanc does warn that pectin varies. I evidently found a power-pectin. Next time, I shall use a quarter of the amount he suggests. If the texture of this strawberry jam is all wrong, the flavor is promisingly less sweet than the traditional version.

I am more consistently successful when making marmalade. No added pectin is needed for this. One tip: bitter Seville oranges make the best - or at least the most vigorous - marmalade, (a perfect wake-me-up at breakfast), but they have a short season. You can, however, buy oranges in bulk and freeze whatever marmalade you do not use immediately. The addition of lemons makes the flavor even more interesting.

As for commercial jams, the variation in quality is mammoth.

The worst jam concoctions are some of those red, yellow, or green slippery mushes that too often line supermarket shelves. They are sweet, but their connection with living fruits is tenuous and distant.

Compared with such dross, the French ``Bonne Maman'' is good, the English ``Tiptree'' even better.

But there are other brands that excel because they are the result of small, home-quality operations.

How about a jam-hunting trip to Britain? Help is at hand in the form of a rather brilliant book, and it might make a fascinating basis for a vacation in this land of jam. This book is Henrietta Green's ``Food Lovers' Guide to Britain'' (published in Britain by BBC Books, 1993, but some US bookstores will facilitate purchase).

Green chose ``Garden of Suffolk Preserves'' as her 1993 maker of the ``best jams and preserves.''

She also speaks well of Wendy Brandon's handmade preserves, which are available in the US, courtesy of Belgravia Imports in Newport, R.I.

Ms. Brandon has a particular interest in marmalades because, she says, ``you can play about with them'' more than with conventional jams. Among her specialties are orange ginger, spiced lemon, lemon and honey, and Satsuma marmalade.

I especially like her banana jam, a concentrated, darkly fierce substance. ``Oh,'' she says lightly, ``I used to make it for my children when they were small.'' Recently a man who is fond of banana jam encouraged her to start making it again. I, for one, am glad he did.

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