Berry bounty bears fruit to give choice of jams and a kaleidoscope of colours
Standing by the tea table waiting for the command. "Go on. Up you go and choose one." A lithe greyhound released from the trap. One bound and I was racing up the stairs and along the linoleum-covered landing floor, and entering my parents' bedroom. The gentle tick-tock of the colonial clock above the cherrywood chest of drawers.
Opening the door into the dressing room, the inner sanctum, a slant of sunlight penetrating the gloom. Immediately the dozens of different sized jars, set out on a table, become a stained-glass window of purple, crimson, green and yellow panes set against the backdrop screen of dad's brown check, chestnut-button Harris Tweed jacket, grey Terylene trousers, his only suit and mum's skirts and floral-patterned frocks.
Picking up a pot. Twirling it in my hand, and the panes are transformed into a kaleidoscope of ever-changing flickering patterns of light. Replacing it. Stepping back. A time for the choosing. The choice so difficult. Not today the large jar of dinosaur eggs-onions grown by dad, and pickled by mum and my aged maiden aunt in vinegar, and a blinking away of tears. Not today the chutney. Not today the pickle. Beetroot and runner bean remaining on the table to be relished on another day with a hunk of cheese or a slice of cold beef.
Today a choice between jelly and jam to be spread on separated cream. And what a choice for the little tacker, and all mouth watering. Rhubarb, strawberry, gooseberry, gooseberry and strawberry, apple, blackberry, blackberry and apple, damson, greengage, plum or raspberry. Each pot with a home-made label pasted on the side. Written on it in my best fountain pen, copperplate, "downstroke heavy, up stroke light" hand writing – a date and the flavour.
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Staring at the labels and I'm back in the cellar, our kitchen which in a previous time was the storeroom for the 50 gallon hogsheads of cider laid down in pound house. It is a summer afternoon when it seemed that every afternoon through June to September was a time of chutney, pickle, jelly and jam-making.
Mum, my aunt and nine-year-old me among the gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes. Goosegogs mostly the size of small marbles, but one bush with glass alley, sun-scorched, scarlet crimson fruits inviting me to pick them and pop them in my mouth. My aunt's unneeded and unheeded advice: "Eat too many and there'll be no pie, no tart and no jam. And you'll have terrible tummy trouble my lad." Skin stretched taut and spilling an ooze of juice in a trickle over my chin, as I sucked out the summer-flavour.
Blackcurrants in tiny clusters, taking longer to pick, but no pricked fingers and thumbs. Topping and tailing. My aunt keeping a watchful eye on my bowl. "Top and tail every one, or there'll be no tart, no jelly, no cordial for you my lad." Again, words said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.
Strawberries picked in a neighbour's garden. The once-a-year feast tea in a swamp of sugar and separated cream. Some to be kept for jam. "Why can't we eat them all right now, Mum?" Her smiled response. My aunt tut-tut-tutting and shaking her head.
Rhubarb jam, the rhubarb watered by my all-seeing, all-hearing Methodist God, and fed by my earthly father with the contents from the Elsan pan.
On three consecutive Saturday afternoons sent out with two large jam jars, string looped at the necks, to forage for hedgerow raspberries. Twenty-five points in my I Spy book. Once again enjoyed with sugar and separated cream, with a lot made into jam.
Late in my summer holiday, an expedition. Mum, my aunt and ten-year-old me picking blackberries on the outskirts of Beerclose copse beneath the canopy of scarlet rowan berries. "Even more than last year," said my aunt, as we wandered home, our white enamel basins in the wicker baskets full to the brim with ten pounds of bounty. Fingers blotched purple with the staining dye of sun-saturated fruit.
Hubble-bubble of pulp boiling in the saucepan on the Calor gas stove, the scent permeating every branch of my farmhouse tree in an intoxicating ooze. Filling my lungs. Wishing the scent would stay with me right through the winter. "Not many maggots. And they that be will be boiled alive," said my aunt.
In the back kitchen, the drip-drip-drip from the muslin bag, as swollen as the cow's bag at milking time, pendulous from the swivel beam where once the carcass of a Large White was suspended.
Mum's voice waking me from my day-dream. "We want jam today, not tomorrow." My mind made up. Raspberry.
Waiting to hear my aunt exclaim:"I dearly love it, but the darn 'ole pips get up under my false teeth plate." Quietly closing the door on the stored summer harvest.
The Farmhouse Tree – A Book of Childhood Memories by David Hill will be published later this month.