Traditional British Jam

It is a pattern that I noticed repeatedly during the  time I spent  recording endangered foods for Slow Food – not so much a food that dies out entirely but that a change in methods of production alters the very nature of that product until only the older generation can remember how it used to taste.   Sadly Traditional British-Set Jam looks like being the next food to go this way look.  I use the term Traditional British-Set Jam to distinguish this from what will shortly pass for Jam in this country.  We are already familiar with the “soft-set” jams that are made on the continent.  Actually we can make them here too if we like, but they must be clearly labelled “soft-set” if less than 55% sugar has been used, or “low sugar” if the percentage drops below 50%.

To be called Jam in Britain, without qualification, requires a minimum 60% sugar content, a formula that was calculated by scientists at the old Long Ashton Research Station (LARS).  Remember that sugar is the preserving agent in jam, so this is not a matter of preference, but the percentage required to safely store the jam, without refrigeration, for a full year, until the next fruit harvest.  Peter Hull, writing in The Telegraph points out that 67% sugar content is necessary to make jam microbiologically stable.  Home jam makers may be somewhat confused as they know that the rule of thumb is that you add an equal quantity of sugar to the fruit to be preserved.  This simple rule is generally applied to any fruit, so that when the sugar content of the fruit itself is included the final level will not be less than 60%.

During a parliamentary debate on the proposed changes http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/house-of-commons-24742656 MP Tessa Munt asked Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment , Food and Rural Affairs whether any new scientific evidence had come to light to support these changes.  The short answer was no, but that technology and recipe development has moved on since the 1920s and that there is no evidence of greater food spoilage from low-sugar jams. So much for science – I will remember this response next time I hear Owen Paterson extolling the virtues of Fracking or GM.

Refrigeration is of course the biggest change in technology since the 1920s, and it will be up to producers to give clear instructions for how their “jam” should be stored, and for how long.  The existing standards for British-set jam were intended to give an entirely natural preserve, but now the option will be open to use Potassium Sorbate (E202).  Get ready to examine the small print when you buy jam in future.

As for recipe development, I feel highly offended on behalf of those original scientists at LARS.  If anything positive is to come out of these changes I hope it will be a greater understanding by the general public about the science behind the skill of preservation because there are some absolute howlers out there from so-called experts – chefs, cookery writers, small scale producers etc., that clearly demonstrate how little is currently understood.  When preserving you cannot just change a recipe to your personal taste – well not and expect it to still be safely preserved.   The moment you change the proportions of fruit, sugar, acid/pectin you change the taste, texture and keeping qualities of the product as Vivien Lloyd explains so clearly on her blog http://www.vivienlloydpreserves.com/marmalade/1888/no-more-real-jam-tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Owen Paterson looks set to steam ahead with these changes, pointing out that “those traditionalists who are resistant to accepting that technology and recipe development have moved forward can continue as they are”.  This is true, but equally it is true that currently no-one is prevented from making lower sugar spreads – they just can’t call them jam.  He mentioned specifically the Sweet Spreads Association, who are keen to be able to sell their product as Jam.  So what’s in a name?  Owen Paterson said that it was for Traditional Jam Makers to get together to market their product.  One MP suggested that a “Kite-Mark” might be introduced for the purpose.  Another option is to use the EU’s own tool by applying for a “Protected Name Status”, however, it should be noted that the main categories, PDO (Protected designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) both require the product to be associated with a smaller region than Britain, leaving TSG (Traditional Specialities Guaranteed) as the only viable route – actually to my mind it is the most meaningful of the three, but nonetheless a costly and time consuming process that could have been avoided had our existing jam Regulations been left in place.

You can hear Vivien Lloyd and myself talking to Jeremy Chefas about this subject on the Eat This podcast.

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