Last month, one of our members, Louise embarked on WISH’s first visit to the WI’s training college, Denman.
Louise tells us about her experiences below. For more information about Denman college and details of future training courses click here If you are booking a course, let us know, there may be the opportunity to get a small contribution towards your travelling expenses.
Every year I dream of giving homemade Christmas presents. I love the idea of homely, lovingly made jams and chutneys to give to friends and relatives. So, how many of my friends and relatives have ever received such a gift from me? None! Why? Because every year, as Christmas approaches, I chicken out. What do I know about making jam and chutney? My only experience of jam making was 30 years ago in Mrs Hopkin’s Home Economics class, and all that talk in recipe books of pectin, setting points and sterilising jars is enough to scare anyone off.
So imagine my excitement when I discovered Denman College had a course designed just for me: ‘Autumn Preserves – An introduction to the secrets of making perfect jams, pickles and chutneys.’ It had my name all over it, so I threw caution to the wind and booked a place.
Before I tell you about the course, what can I tell you about Denman College? It’s a beautiful building, surrounded by manicured gardens, located in the picturesque village of Marcham, and the facilities and tutors in the cookery school are fantastic. They even grow mulberries that you can pick and put in your jam. If you want to learn a new skill, or develop an existing one, this is the place for you. If you want a fast pace and wild nights out, you might want to rethink your destination!
‘Autumn Preserves’ was described as perfect for beginners and experienced preservers alike. On our first evening, I joined my fellow delegates (there were 11 of us) for the course introduction and discovered our experience ranged from complete novice to county market weekly curd and chutney maker. I was the only novice. I felt out of my depth before we’d even started!
Our first challenge was chutney. Carrot relish, rhubarb chutney, banana chutney (nicer tasting than it sounds, I promise) and chilli pickle. I was tasked with carrot relish. I must tell you, one of the great things about the cookery school at Denman is that all the ingredients for each recipe are measured out for you – how cool is that? After grating carrot, chopping apples and onions, all I had to do was chuck everything in a pan, bring it to a boil and stir occasionally until it thickened enough to jar it up. Easy. What had I been so scared of if that’s all there was to it?
My confidence grew. Bring on the next challenge! Gooseberry and Bay jam. It turns out my confidence was misplaced. I was far too cocky and complacent, didn’t stir my sugar until it had dissolved, and managed to burn the lot. Carrie, our tutor, was very kind: “Your jam will have a lovely toffee flavour to it”, she said as I jarred my brown sticky mess into jars In the meantime, everyone else’s jam had taken on a lovely pink hue. I was despondent. It took 2 days of soaking to get the black tar off the bottom of my jam pan – my jam had gone way beyond ‘toffee-tasting’.
After my jam disaster, I determined to knuckle down and take home preserves I’d actually want to eat. I concentrated harder and had much greater success with my peach conserve, autumn and mulberry jam and lemon curd. During the 2-day course I also learned about spicing vinegar, making jellies and pickles, how to check for setting point using the ‘flake test’, the best way to sterilise jars and bottles, which sugars to use with which fruit, along with a myriad of other tips and techniques. It really was a great course and I’d recommend it to anyone.
On returning home, I knew I needed ‘to strike while the iron was hot’. I had a drawer in the freezer full of gooseberries donated from a friend’s allotment. Was I up to the challenge after my first disastrous gooseberry jam encounter? Time to find out. I located the family jam pan, gathering dust and cobwebs in my sister-in-law’s shed, trotted off to Lakeland for my wax discs and cobbled together a motley selection of jam jars. What can I tell you, I was nervous. I never took my eye off the pan for a moment, stirred it pretty much constantly, tried the ‘flake test’ far too often, but in the end my perseverance paid off. The colour was great, it set beautifully, and it tasted delicious. Success!
Since then I’ve made plum jam, more carrot relish and Christmas mincemeat. I’m currently waiting for a delivery of jam jars and have chosen the preserves I’ll be making for Christmas presents. Who says dreams can’t come true?