Time was when jam and pickle making were the preserve of every homemaker, traditional weapons in the fight to stave off famine by making the most of the fruits from times of feast. From late summer into autumn, kitchens everywhere were busy with fruit and vegetables being boiled, simmered, pickled, blanched and steeped in readiness for the lean months ahead.
Hedgerows and gardens were also plundered for ingredients to make natural potions, poultices, ointments, linctuses and tinctures that would combat all manner of complaints, conditions, injuries and illnesses. For instance, youngsters would be sent out for rosehips to make rosehip syrup, a tremendous source of vitamin C, or rose petals and lavender flowers to make antiseptic oils.
Such was the world that food writer and home producer extraordinaire Jill Nice knew as a young girl growing up on the edge of the Essex marshes. Years later in the mid-1960s, married and with a young family, she moved to Dorset and, determined to stay at home and bring up her children, resolved to put the knowledge she had gained to good use.
‘I started making all this jam using the recipes I’d learned as a child and got together with a couple of friends to open a market stall in Wareham – I did jams, pickles and pâtés, my friend did antiques and we also had a source of eggs – and we did incredibly well,’ she says. ‘It was our way of making do I suppose. A little later on I was making clothes as well.
‘When this all started in 1968 we actually had complaints, the weights and measures people were called in and we had to start listing ingredients and displaying the weights. The funny thing is, they have farmers’ markets there now doing exactly what we did, but everything was about being new in those days and homemade was old-fashioned and frowned upon.’
Regardless, their produce found favour with plenty of locals – including the pioneering interior designer Jocasta Innes, then living in Swanage, whose books The Pauper’s Cookbookand The Pauper’s Homemaking Book pre-empted the revival of interest in all things hand-made, home-spun and nominally ‘vintage’ by at least three decades.
Before long Jill was trading at markets the length and breadth of Dorset as her wares found favour far and near. Taking up the suggestion of one of her customers she started to write a book about what she knew, sent off a few sample chapters about making jam and landed a publishing contract.
‘At one time we all learned these things from our mothers and grandmothers. What happened I think was that my books started getting published around the time that women were losing their jobs and weren’t going out to work so much, which is what has happened again in recent years.
‘My writing started in 1976 and after the first book, Homemade Preserves, came out I got a really good agent who always seemed to know what was going to be the next thing. She asked me what else I knew about and I mentioned beauty treatments and she got me to write about that; then it was herbal remedies – I did a couple of books on natural medicine and beauty treatments – then I contributed to an American compendium and wrote the text for several titles in a series about natural healing. We did a new edition of Homemade Preserves with the Women’s Institute.’
A regular speaker to local clubs and societies, Jill was also a frequent interviewee on television and radio. Strangely though she says what interested one invariably found less favour with the other.
‘I’m enormously grateful to the WI who fought an admirable rearguard action for years to keep proper cooking alive. I did well with talks about jam and pickle making, but there was less interest in the natural remedies and homemade cosmetics – I think the women of Dorset were not vain enough. Television, on the other hand, was much more interested and I made quite a few appearances on different shows.’
Jill’s most recent book, Preserves: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Jams and Jellies, Chutneys and Pickles, Sauces and Ketchups, Syrups and Alcoholic Sips, came out in 2011 and she would dearly love to write another book, but rheumatoid arthritis has taken its toll and she hopes to find voice-activated transcription software good enough to turn her spoken words into suitable text.
‘That has certainly curtailed some of my activity, but I’m still making things,’ says Jill cheerfully. ‘And a lot of the recipes are new. Plenty of jam of course, but essentially once you know what you’re doing a jam is always something sweet with an interesting fruit flavour.
‘Pickles though have a far wider range of tastes and textures – all you have to do is take a flavour you like and think what would go well with it, then try it.
‘You never stop learning, never. Only recently I made some green tomato chutney with lime and it was delicious, absolutely wonderful. Then I made another lot and it was as bitter as anything. I’d chopped up the rind ever so small but it turns out lime rind doesn’t disintegrate so I was left with this bitter edge to the chutney.
‘If people are thinking of getting started jam making is made much easier to experiment with these days with jam sugar and preserving sugar. You get to know what works, but I did have a battle with a rhubarb and carrot jam. I was determined it would set the old-fashioned way and I must have used about 20 lemons in the end!’
Jill is similarly captivated by natural remedies and laments the passing of age-old wisdom that is fast slipping away from common knowledge.
‘Some say it’s old wives’ tales, but you have to wonder how we managed before modern drugs – a lot of them are synthesised versions of natural processes, like aspirin is based on ground willow bark which for centuries was used for pain relief.
‘Nature offers us so many possibilities, I find it all fascinating.’
• First published in Dorset Life.