Jams, Jellies & Cordials at Vale House Kitchen

A selection of gorgeous ingredients
waiting to be preserved
Recently I was invited to join in with a summer Jams, Jellies and Cordials workshop at the Vale House Kitchen cookery school, run by Bod and Annie Griffiths. I’d heard good things, and when I discovered that it was going to be taught by the preserving queen herself, Vivien Lloyd, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. The Vale House Kitchen is on the outskirts of Timsbury, tucked into a fold in the hill and surrounded by a lush green garden (dripping with heavy rain on the day that I went – you could almost hear the fruit and vegetables growing), and the classroom itself is a lovely, airy space under the exposed beams of a restored outbuilding. The beautiful surroundings make these classes even more special, perfect for a birthday treat or perhaps a hen or stag party (gents, if you’re not so keen on jam-making, the school also runs shooting and fishing days, and butchery courses if you’re man enough to make with the cleavers).

Grateful to be out of the miserable weather (there’s nowhere better to be on a rainy day than a warm kitchen) we tuck into mugs of tea and hot buttered toast with a selection of Viv’s jams – my favourite is a delicate strawberry and rose concoction, although the redcurrant and chilli is something really different that would be perfect for cold winter mornings.

Viv in action
Once we’ve stuffed ourselves, the day starts with raspberry jam, which Viv explains is one of the easiest fruits to preserve and the first recipe she ever tried. Once you’ve got the hang of this, you’ve got a foundation to build on with other flavours. We warm sugar in the oven (a great tip to speed up the process of dissolving once it goes in) while great heaps of plump, spicy-smelling raspberries start to break down in deep pans, then combine these two beautiful, simple ingredients and bring them up to a rolling boil – the roiling pale pink mixture foams up into enormous bubbles, filling the kitchen with a glorious scent. We experiment with different flavours for each pan – fresh mint leaves in a muslin bag steep in one, whilst we add fresh vanilla to another and gin to a third – and finally transfer the jam to clean jars that have been sterilising in the warm oven. There’s something enormously satisfying about knowing that you’ve preserved this gorgeous summer fruit in a way that will keep it right into the depths of winter (if we can hold off eating it for that long – we keep running out of clean teaspoons because there’s so much tasting going on). Thankfully Bod is busy running up and down the stairs, sweeping away our dirty dishes and replacing them with clean ones. I could get used to this!

We all troop into the main house for lunch – vegetarian lasagne, a salad fresh from the garden, homemade garlic bread, and a gloriously sticky marmalade cake – and a chance to chat a little more (during the morning, we’ve been focusing too hard on boiling jam to talk much). Then we return to the classroom to get a bit more technical with jellies and cordials. Viv explains that jellies would normally be made over the course of two days, as the fruit needs to be softened right down and then left overnight in a muslin bag. In order for the jelly to be beautifully clear, no pulp must be allowed in, so the process can’t be rushed - the juices are left to drip through at their own slow pace.

To let us have a go, Viv has prepared the juice in advance, so that we can cut straight to the stage of adding the sugar and bringing the temperature up to boil hard until setting point is reached. I’ve always found this a tricky thing to assess – I’ve tried the cold plate test, and discarded it for my trusty jam thermometer, but even if the correct temperature is reached, the jam still isn’t guaranteed to set – so I’m delighted to learn a new failsafe trick from Viv: the flake test. Standing over our pans anxiously, we dip metal spoons into the mixture and hold them up to see if the jelly drips off the edge straightaway, or forms a little solid flake before falling – this means a good set has been achieved. Once we get to this stage, it’s all hands on deck to get the jelly transferred to sterilised jars and sealed before it goes lumpy in the pan! Although this has definitely been the tricky bit of the day, it’s worth it for the deep red jars that almost seem to glow in the watery sunshine.

The fruits of our day's work - not bad, eh!
Finally, we come to cordials, something I’ve been really excited to learn more about – I’ve had a go at making elderflower cordial, but I’m intrigued to see that Viv has some more exotic ideas in mind, involving a geranium plant which has been waiting patiently outside in the rain. It turns out to be a lemon geranium, which I’ve never encountered before – we dissolve sugar in water and add plenty of fresh squeezed lemon juice, then remove from the heat and add the geranium leaves to infuse. It’s an amazingly easy technique that I’m looking forward to experimenting on with other leaves and herbs. We also make a delicious raspberry and strawberry syrup – again with nothing more than white sugar and beautifully fresh fruit. It’s amazing to see how these simple, good ingredients can be transformed into such different end products, just by varying the technique.

At the end of the day, I can’t help feeling proud of all the jars and bottles arranged on the wooden butcher’s block in the middle of the room, created by our efforts. Although I’m sure she says this to everyone, Viv assures us that we’ve been star pupils! All that remains is to divvy up the fruits of our hard work – an armful each that I’m sure will last a good two or three days… 

To find out what I've been baking with my jars of delicious jam, click here!