The little tree

We have a tree in our front garden.
A small, pretty fruit tree planted by my wife some years back.

I’ve never given much time to it before. In the summer it blooms modestly and then in Autumn little buds threaten to turn into fruit before they wither and rot like unfulfilled dreams.

That’s always been the way. Nothing much to see.

Until this year.

Whether by some shift in the weather or the composition of the ground I can’t say but the hardy little tree has come magnificently of age these recent weeks. Its branches have been weighed down by a dazzling display of proud crimson orbs. It looks like the happiest Christmas tree.

The fruit is a variety of crab apple. Smaller than eating apples, a much fiercer shade of red.

Watching the little apples grow, crowding together like baby birds, has given me a lot of pleasure as I’ve left and entered my home. While I can take no credit for the harvest, I can still enjoy the outcome.

But just watching the process of growth isn’t enough. I’m struck by the potential for waste if I don’t preserve the fruit. It seems almost immoral to just let the apples become wrinkled and soft and drop onto the grass. I know that I have to pick them.

I’ve held off as long as I can, playing a game of dare with the lurking hungry crows. This week the apples seem like they’re set to burst if I don’t act. They’re perfectly ripe and I plunder every single little globe, leaving the tree bare.

I dash into the kitchen and empty the bulging bucket of fresh fruit into my largest pot. It’s only just big enough. I fill it with water to just cover the apples and start to boil them. I can’t see any point in chopping or peeling apples of this size. A quick rinse is all I allow before I begin the heating process.There’s something splendid about cooking with crab apples in that they’re one of the few foods I can think of which isn’t available to buy commercially. I’m sure they can be purchased at some farmers’ market somewhere but the most common source is the garden tree.

I boil the apples for about half an hour until they are soft and pulpy, revealing the scarlet flesh. Now it’s time to strain.

I’ve got a straining kit which looks like one of my son’s broken toys. An ugly red scaffold holding a jelly bag over a bowl. A thin tea towel over a fine sieve would do just as well.

The real trick here is patience. The straining process should last for 8-12 hours so overnight is ideal. It can be massively frustrating watching the pure juice trickle out so slowly but I resist the temptation to hurry it along by squeezing the bag. I know this would ruin the beautiful clear quality of the jelly.When I have strained the apple juice it’s time to make jelly. I return the liquid my biggest pot and add sugar. Ten parts liquid to seven parts sugar. I have about two litres of juice so I add 1.4kg of sugar. And the juice of one lemon

I use caster sugar but granulated is fine too. Special jam-making sugar with higher pectin levels is available in the supermarket but I’ve never seen the need.

I bring the mixture to a rolling boil. It bubbles away for about 40 minutes while it reaches setting point. If you want to do it scientifically with a thermometer then it is 105 degrees Celsius. If you want to do it the old-fashioned way chill a spoon in the freezer. Dip the spoon in the boiling mixture and if a fine film sets on the back of it you’ve reached setting point.

While the mixture boils I remove the white skin which comes to the surface because I don’t want that ruining the colour of the jam.I’ve got some sterilised jars ready. Some people tend to go overboard about sterilising but warm when straight out of the dishwasher is fine.

I pour the mixture into the jars. It begins to set almost immediately.There’s a beautiful clarity to the jelly. It’s clear and vibrant, almost violent in its bright shade of red.

I allow it to cool in the jars but seal with lids while they’re still tepid. I add little wax discs below the lid as a disincentive to mould in case any of them are not opened for a long time.The next morning the jars are cooled and the jelly is properly set. I want to keep most of them as Christmas presents but I can’t resist opening one up for a taste before breakfast. The jelly is firm but with just enough give to be spreadable. The taste of apple is unmistakeable but it’s more tart. There’s an earthiness which makes the top of my mouth tingle. It’s absolutely delicious. I imagine you could have this on toast, or as an accompaniment with cold meats or crackers and blue cheese. It’s less sickly than cranberry jelly..

And the best thing is knowing it came from my own garden. The unrivalled satisfaction of the process of growing, picking, preserving and eating. Understanding and harnessing the processes of nature. As a Christmas present it’s got to be way more thoughtful and personal than aftershave and socks.

This morning as I leave the house to take my son to school I pass the little tree in the front garden. It looks a little miserable and puny shorn of its brightly coloured fruit. Soon the little bit of green that is left will wilt when the frosts come.

Then it will all begin again.

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