Why duo relish the idea of a return to old skills
We live in a society where things are available almost instantly. Foods from all over the world can be bought in the next aisle to the bread and milk and – if you're willing to pay – specialist, weird and wonderful products can be delivered to your door by next-day delivery. But is this a satisfying way of doing things? Are we instilled with a sense of provenance and pride in what we're putting on our plates? Pam Corbin and Liz Neville would probably argue no.
I meet the pair at a one-day course they teach entitled "Stocking up Your Larder" at the beautiful Tresillian House, five miles outside Newquay. In a converted barn in the grounds of the Regency period property, 20 people keen to learn or hone skills in the traditional art of preserving have gathered. Pam and Liz are readying themselves at a workstation already overflowing with ingredients and equipment to create jams, jellies, chutneys, cheese, curds, pickles, cordials, vinegars and liqueur.
The two women first met at River Cottage in Axminster, when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asked them to run workshops together. Pam "The Jam" Corbin – who was given the nickname by the celebrity chef – used to run the popular Thursday Cottage jam-making business with her husband until they sold it to Tiptree and she started writing books instead. Liz "The Pickle" Neville, meanwhile, explained that she only took up preserving "in a big way" in her 50s after a career working in banks.
The course organiser, Jane Robinson, believes there has been an increase in the popularity of food preserving in recent years, partly driven by a revival in traditional skills, but also in response to the economic climate and sustainability agenda. She said: "We get a wide range of people coming on the courses. Some have a commercial interest in learning, whether it is to sell at market or in food box schemes, but for others it is personal.
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"There have been a few who have been made redundant and want to do something positive, productive and economical."
Pam added: "Preserving has been around for ever, but in the last 40-50 years we've somehow got out of kilter with it. I think its because everything is so readily available. We forget what we can do for ourselves, how we can grow our own fruit and vegetables and keep them fresh for a long time. It gives us security."
She has noticed a renewed interest in the skills recently: "There's an amount of people realising that they don't know how to do it. Their grandmothers did but perhaps it has skipped their generation. Then they are pleased and inspired when they realise it isn't difficult."
On this sunny September Saturday, our workshop is making an exciting nine different products, picked by Pam and Liz to demonstrate a range of techniques and possibilities. Many of the ingredients have come from Tresillian's own orchard and walled vegetable garden. One recipe, for apple and rosehip jelly, has been adapted after the ladies discovered a particularly good crop of lavender outside.
A tray of peppers, tomatoes, shallots, garlic and thyme goes into the oven at the beginning ready to be made into passata, and creates a mouthwatering aroma throughout the morning. Meanwhile, Pam and Liz get cracking on gingered courgette jam, orchard jam and a quince cheese. The latter is a fruit cheese thick enough to be cut which sets in a mould and can be turned out to provide an elegant addition to a cheese board.
Tips fly around the room. "Anything with a skin must be boiled before adding sugar or it toughens up… cook with the ear as well as the eye… jams go up in the pan, chutneys go down..."
Pam and Liz are genuinely fascinated in the contributions of their attendees – stopping altogether when one gentleman describes his success with a butternut squash and apricot chutney. Opinions sometimes differ; one lady is adamant you can boil lids to reuse them, while Pam staunchly believes you don't get the same all-important seal.
Just before lunch, things get alcoholic when Liz cracks out the Apple Blush Liqueur. Comprising crab apples and gin, it was made last year and has steeped to perfection. Pam doles it out in tiny shot glasses, like the most genial of barmaids. We raise a toast to Liz's cry of "happy preserving" and down the delicious syrupy liquid to appreciative murmurs (and a few requests for seconds).
After a tasty lunch of quiche, tartlets and salads – made using produce from the gardens – we're back into a new round of recipes, including runner bean chutney and a blackberry vinegar. Pam has brought along a host of vinegary creations in fact, and we form an orderly queue with hunks of bread to sample unusual varieties made with figs, raspberries and even nasturtium flowers.
The course manages to bring the traditional art of preserving into the modern era without losing any of its ethos. They use old methods, like putting a saucer into the freezer to test the jam (if you drop a bit on the cool ceramic and it makes a skin when prodded then it's ready) and hi-tech gadgets such as refractometers. These are used to measure the Brix level – or sugar content – of the jam. A little of the liquid is slathered on to the panel and the level can then be seen through the eyepiece. Every now and again Pam and Liz raise the devices to their brows and squint down, like jam pirates scanning the horizon in their gingham aprons.
By the end of the afternoon, the group is thoroughly enthused. There is an array of jars and bottles stacked along the worktop and we are told to help ourselves. As she packs away pans and wipes sticky surfaces, Pam tells me more about why she loves what she does. "For me it's the idea of homeliness," she said. "I can't bear a kitchen where there's nothing on the worktop, nothing going on. It's so dull. When you preserve there's always something available. You can swap with your friends and give presents that mean something."
Returning home, the cupboards look bare. I go online and order some jam jars… next-day delivery.