The summer season is once again upon us, and for many people that means that it’s time to take a well-earned break. For New Zealanders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, summer was no time to rest. History curator Katie Cooper examines the summertime activities of jam-making and bottling.
The old saying goes that you should make hay while the sun shines, but in many 19th- and 20th-century households that was just the start of the work that needed to happen while the weather was fine.
Summer was a busy time both indoors and out, and from December to March one of the most important tasks for the homemaker was jam-making and bottling: transforming a rich profusion of home-grown fruits and vegetables into delicious preserves.
Nineteenth-century immigrants brought these techniques with them, although preserving processes did change gradually over the 20th century as new equipment was introduced and micro-organisms became more widely understood.
Waste not, want not
Until the 1960s preserving was ‘virtually a home industry’ in many New Zealand households, and it was a source of great pride and satisfaction to have jars of jams, fruits, and pickles safely stored away for winter use. (1)
Anne Earncliff Brown, of Canterbury, wrote in 1939 that she always felt a little thrill when her shelves were full of bottled fruits.
‘Within those glowing glasses there seems also trapped sunshine. In the gold of apricots or big yellow egg plums, lingers surely the glamour of the gathering, some languor of the honeyed fragrance of the blossoms nearby.’ (2)
Although this is a fanciful description of the task, preserving also had important prosaic functions. Bottling and jam-making were a safeguard against seasonal food shortages, and a prudent financial measure during periods of economic strain.
A 1932 article in the New Zealand Farm and Home magazine, for example, suggested that ‘the kitchen garden robbed the slump [the Great Depression] of a third of its terrors,’ because the garden and orchard provided some level of self-sufficiency in the absence of cash. (3)
The beginnings of jam-making
By the time European settlers arrived in New Zealand sugar had become a relatively inexpensive industrialised product, and the English recipe books they brought with them contained many useful recipes for sugar-based preserves. (4)
Basic jam-making techniques did not change markedly in the 20th century, although Depression and wartime privations prompted a change in the types of fruits used and a general decline in batch sizes.
A 1914 article in the New Zealand Herald suggested that there were ‘no hard-and-fast rules with regard to jam-making,’ as so much depended upon the condition of the fruit. (5)
‘Common sense in this culinary art’ would lead one to success, the author promised, although jam-makers would do well to follow a few basic guidelines:
- Use only fruit which has been gathered dry
- Boil fruit as soon as possible after gathering
- Use only the best sugar
- As a general rule, use 1lb of sugar for 1lb of fruit
- Always use a copper or china-lined pan
- Boil quickly and stir frequently, but do not over-boil
- Store, if possible, in glass jars
- If the fruit is to be preserved whole, boil a syrup first then add the fruit and bottle
Bottling it up
Until the mid-19th century it was believed that air itself caused food to spoil, so fruit was bottled by placing it in a jar and pouring over a hot syrup to the point of overflowing. This excluded all the air in the jar, which could then be sealed with a cover or lid.
This technique did tend to work – not because the air was excluded but because the sugar in the syrup, poured in at close to boiling point, inhibited the growth of micro-organisms.
By the early 20th century domestic experts were cautioning against overflow bottling, although as this 1979 school workbook demonstrates, it remained common throughout the century.
Also popular was the water bath technique, where sealed jars of prepared fruit in syrup were placed into a pan and covered with water. The jars were then heated in the water until the contents were completely cooked and sterilised.
The sticky morass
These descriptions make the process sound relatively straightforward, but make no mistake about it, preparing and preserving many kilograms of fruit and vegetables during the height of summer was difficult and tiring work.
Author Mary Scott provides a wonderful account in her 1936 novel Barbara and the New Zealand Back-blocks, written from the perspective of Barbara’s beleaguered husband. Wrangled into helping to preserve a crop of nectarines, the grumbling narrator writes:
‘At such times I feel strongly that man’s place is outside. My heart yearns unspeakably for the great open spaces. But it was no use. Barbara simply said, “We’ll all turn to. What’s one night’s sleep anyway … And it’ll be worth it. Just imagine masses of fruit all winter.”
I may be, as my wife declares, a man of poor imagination and limited horizons. Frankly, the prospect of winter’s wealth thrilled me not at all. Lying darkly between was the sticky morass of summer’s bottling.’ (6)
A history worth preserving
No doubt some readers still make their own preserves, and as this wonderful photo from the Alexander Turnbull Library demonstrates, jam competitions remained a popular feature of New Zealand A&P shows throughout the 20th century.
However, the practice of preserving did go into sharp decline from the 1960s. Partly this was because the introduction of chest-freezers meant it was easier to freeze produce than it was to bottle it, but it also reflected the growing proportion of women who worked outside the home (and therefore had less time for gardening and preserving), and the decreasing size of urban sections.
Do you still make your own preserves? Have you perfected the technique? If so, please share your thoughts and recipes below!
- Helen Leach, ‘Fruit and Vegetable Preservation in 20th Century New Zealand,’ The Aristologist: An Antipodean Journal of Food History 3 (2011): 9.
- Anne Earncliff Brown, The Farmer’s Wife: A Country Woman’s Calendar (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1939), 125.
- ‘Plain Jane’s Cook Page,’ New Zealand Farm and Home (31 January 1933), 619.
- David Veart, First Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008), 67.
- ‘The Art of Jam Making,’ New Zealand Herald, 23 December 1914, 5 (Supplement).
- Mary Scott, Barbara and the New Zealand Back-blocks (New Plymouth: Thomas Avery, 1936), 190.
- Matt Morris, ‘Unpaid domestic work – Making clothes and preserving food’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.