Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Pretending to be a food blog

Instead of telling you about such gory country things as the beheaded mouse my mechanic found in my car engine yesterday (he declined to search for the head and told me that I might notice the smell of bbq soon), or how busy my week is, or even the great deluge of last week that resulted in Mr. Blithe taking five hours to get home, I am going to pretend this is a food blog.

According to a local source, people in this area aren’t interested in history (by which she means boring things), but they are interested in exotic snippets from the past. Every time I make rosella jam, someone tells me that “My grandmother used to make it and I loved it. I didn’t think anyone made it anymore.” So forthwith, here is the lowdown on rosella jam complete with boring historical details.

Rosellas are:
a) a native bird in Australia.
b) The name of the mother of my best friend in primary school.
c) The fruit of a small shrub brought to Australia by Chinese miners in the gold rush of the 1800s.
d) All of the above.

Of course, the answer is d). Rosella jam though is made with c) the fruit of the Hibiscus sabdariffa which is a native of West Africa that is widely used in Asia as an ingredient in fruity flavoured teas and as a source of vitamin C in herbal medicines. The shrub grows to about 1.5 metres tall and has small yellow/cream flowers with a dark red centre that look exactly like a classic hibiscus flower in miniature. The fruit grow along the branches and can be quite hard to pick (garden clippers or heavy duty scissors are useful). One place in Australia that has seeds is here.

Some people call rosellas “Queensland jam fruit” which implies that it is a regional speciality. However, my Sydney-born and bred mother used to make rosella jam in Taiwan out of dried rosellas that could be purchased in large packets from the preserved fruit vendors in the market. She would reconstitute the fruit by boiling them gently before proceeding with the jam recipe. She was perhaps a regional anomaly.

We obtained our rosellas from a holidaying neighbour who asked us to pop in and pick over the bushes in their absence. From two bushes we picked a large plastic bagful. If you pick the fruit regularly, the plant can fruit for up to nine months in temperate climates.

To make jam, the calyx (calyces/calyxes/calices) need to be separated from the seeds. This is simple to do, but needs to be done with caution as insects love to shelter inside the calyx. We removed a multitude of ladybirds and a few spiders in the process. Our family looked like the perfect pioneer family sitting around the kitchen table picking over the rosellas. This lasted approximately three minutes till the Blithelings were disgusted by the insects, the hairiness of the seeds and the monotony. They also found that handling the fruit made them itchy although it doesn’t bother me.

After the calyxes and seeds are separated, the seeds need to be covered in water and simmered for about 40 minutes. This liquid is then strained into the saucepan containing the calyxes. The seeds looking like tiny boiled brains are discarded now.

At this stage I usually add additional water so that the fruit is well covered.

Bring this big pan to the boil and boil until the fruit is tender. The liquid should then be measured and sugar added in a 1:1 ratio (one litre of liquid to one kilo of sugar). If you are me, you eyeball it at this stage, adding sugar gradually while tasting until the right flavour is reached. Also if you are me, you might not have checked how much sugar you had before starting, and end up without enough to achieve the proper ratio anyway. Having used up all my regular sugar, the caster sugar and scraped the sugar bowl into the pan, I decided that it was sweet enough (2.2 kgs of sugar to about 3 litres of liquid). Some people add lemon juice to the jam, but I think the fruit is tangy enough and the pectin from the seeds adequate without this. If you like a softer, “brighter” jam i.e, one that is cooked for less time, you might want to add a couple of juiced lemons. I personally like dark, rich jam so I cook it long enough to set firmly.

After adding the sugar, bring the mixture to a rolling boil. It will foam up a lot at this stage so make sure that you have a large enough pan. Keep the jam boiling until a spoonful of liquid placed on a chilled saucer wrinkles when you push your finger through it (about 40 minutes in my case). Turn off heat and let it sit for five minutes to let the fruit redistribute evenly.

Bottle as usual. Everyone has their preferred bottling method. I run the jars through the dishwasher, pop them in the oven to dry out if they aren’t totally dry inside, ladle in the jam, making sure that it is only about one centimetre from the top, wipe around the top of the jars, put on the lids, tighten carefully and let them cool. Jars whose lid “pops” get stored and the one or two jars that don’t seal properly, get eaten immediately.

Rosella jam is wonderful on toast with lots of butter or stirred through a bowl of greek yogurt. Make plenty of small jars as everyone wants some, historical artifact or not.


Vivi said...

Now I'm hungry. What does the jam taste like, for those of us not familiar with rosellas? On a spectrum, say, from strawberry to rose?

Thanks for the entry, foodie.

Blithe said...

I've been thinking about how to describe the taste for a few days. It's a bit like a cross between dark plum jam and rosehips perhaps with a tinge of craisins. If you've ever had hibiscus or red zinger tea, you'll recognise the flavour.

We opened one of the jars that didn't seal today and it was delicious.

I did notice, however, that the USDA does not endorse "open-kettle canning." I make sure that jars are warm and bone-dry before filling them and I check the contents carefully before consuming them. I do however recommend that people do their own research and make decisions about preserving methods based on that.