At eight years old I thought the height of sophistication was a Snowball in a champagne saucer topped with a cocktail cherry. I’d sit up at the bar sipping my frothy yellow drink, my feet swinging limply from the high stool, my shoulders twitching in time with the jukebox. I knew full well my cocktail had barely a wiff of alcohol – just enough Advocaat to tinge the lemonade pale-yolk-yellow – that I’d be whisked off to bed just as soon as the pub got busy. But that didn’t bridle my joy at sitting up at the bar, Snowball in one hand, cheese and onion crisp in the other listening to the Kinks.
My granny ran a pub on Durham street in Oldham called the Gardeners Arms, a traditional free house serving Robinson’s ale, bitter and stout. It was an almost handsome, heavy-set place, with patterned carpets, brass topped tables and a curved wooden bar. Two or three times a year we’d surge – my parents and three small children – up the M1 motorway to Oldham. Arriving late, besieged by over-tiredness and over-excitement, there was invariably whining and weeping. So my dad would scoop us out of the car, whisk us through the bar, up the stairs and straight into bed above the pub. We’d resist sleep with all our might, before falling deeply, the faint pulse of the jukebox below, the smell of clean sheets not quite masking that of park drive cigarettes, Robinson’s bitter and my grannies Lancôme face cream faint on our just kissed cheeks.
The next morning we’d charge down the stairs. The air thick with Brasso and the howl of the Hoover, my aunty May and granny – all slippers and house coats – would already be hard at work. While barrels of beer rolled off the brewery lorry, down the hatch and into the beer cellar, and crates of stout and Schweppes were brought clinking-in to replenish the shelves, we’d eat bacon butties with Uncle Colin. Thick slices of white cottage loaf and best back bacon. The trick was to squash the sandwich between both palms to make it manageable. Then we’d run, like excited terriers, around the pub, brandishing pool cues, pestering for jukebox coins.
In the days before continual everything, English pubs would open for lunch and then from 7 until 11 20 with last orders at 11. When the Gardener’s Arms opened it’s doors at 11, my brother, sister and I would scramble up onto bar stools and pummel our fists, as thirsty regulars do, on the bar. Until the age of ten I thought anything in an individual bottle was exciting. Add a straw and it was even better. Add cocktail cherry on a stick and I was beside myself. So we would sit, Rosie with orange, Ben with Cola and me with my Schweppes ginger ale, our bottles spouting straws, umbrellas and sticks on which flourescent cherries were impaled. We’d slurp and crunch, we’d put another coin in the jukebox and sing along to songs we didn’t really understand.
Although I’m still partial to a cocktail cherry or three – ideally the real thing but I’ll happily gobble a luminous one for old times sake – these days I prefer my cherries warm from my friends tree, straight from the brown paper bag on the way home from the market or chilled until they’re so cold and taut they burst between your teeth. Then once I’ve had my fill of cherries hand to mouth, I poach a few, soak a few in alcohol and make some jam.
Given the choice between boxes and jam, I’ll take the jam. I am also genetically opposed to moving house in an organised fashion. Rogue packing fueled by anxiety and too much caffeine is more my style. Also I’d run out of jam and was eating chestnut honey on toast. Which was fine for a day or two, but by the third day breakfast was disappointing, which isn’t a good start.
Satisfyingly simple jam. Having washed, stalked and stoned your cherries, you leave them to macerate with sugar and curls of lemon peel for a few hours. You then bring the fruit to the boil, skim away the purple tinged froth – that reminds me of my aunty May’s purple rinse, then lower the heat and leave the deep purple jam to bubble and burp quietly for just over an hour. Your jam is ready when it is thick, clinging to the back of the spoon and decidedly sticky. We had it for breakfast, on toast primed with almost white butter made with cream I really can’t afford. Dark, intensely cherry-sweet and lemon edged, we were not disappointed.
Then seeking further avoidance, I made a cherry jam tart or Crostata di ciliegie. My granny Alice was not only a good landlady, one who kept an immaculate beer cellar and pulled a good pint while looking rather lovely, she was also a deft pastry maker. Cold hands, cold butter and iced water she would remind me. I can picture her cold, clean hands with neat well-scrubbed nails rubbing the diced butter into the flour, the fine breadcrumbs spilling back through her fingers into the bowl. I can also picture her behind the bar, making pint pulling seem effortless – which it isn’t – her hair set and secured with lacquer, her girlish smile.
Back to Rome and my avoidance tart. I put barely any sugar in my pastry yesterday knowing the jam was sweet enough. After leaving it to rest for an hour in the fridge, I rolled the pastry thinly and then manoeuvred it into my tin pie plate. Which again made think of Alice, and in turn my Mum, both fond of a tin pie plates. Having spooned the jam into the case I then crisscrossed the top with pastry strips. Egg yolk glue and a firm hand ensured sure they stayed in place even in the oven.
A tart like this needs 35 minutes or so in the oven. You need to keep an eagle eye on it, especially during the last five minutes. You also need to let the tart rest for 30 minutes or so, longer if possible, so it settles and slices neatly. Some very cold, thick cream would have been nice, but we ate it just so, the buttery scantly sweetened pastry at that nice point between crisp and flaky (but not crumbly, I’m not a fan of crumbly when it come to pastry) and contrasting nicely with the sticky, sweet, lemon-edged cherry jam. It was even better this morning.
Now I think I have well and truly run this to the wall, I have to be out of here the day after tomorrow, I haven’t even collected enough boxes and my removal man has disappeared again. It’s ridiculous, even for me! I am not sure what’s going to happen about the internet, I didn’t fully understand what the operator was saying, but it sounded complicated. Which means I can’t be sure when I will next be here. I could do with a snowball or a pint, but I’ll make do with another piece of tart.
Marmalata di ciliegie Cherry Jam
Adapted from the Silver Spoon
The addition of lemon peel gives the cherry jam a sharp-lemon edge which is reminiscent of sour cherries. I love this, you may not, in which case omit the lemon peel and be frugal with the lemon juice.
Makes 2 jars.
- 1.5 kg cherries, washed with stalks and stones removed.
- 750 g fine sugar
- a unwaxed lemon
Put the washed, stoned and stalked cherries in a heavy-based pan suitable for jam. Pare away five thick strips of lemon peel with as little pith as possible attached. Add the strips of lemon peel to the pan. Cover the fruit with sugar, stir and leave to sit in a cool place for 3 hours.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the cherries. Stir and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the jam is thick, coating the back of the spoon and of an even consistency. I also do a saucer test to see if the jam has set. That is: put a saucer in the freezer for a few minutes, then put a spoonful of jam on the cold saucer, wait a minute and then run your finger through the jam. If the jam wrinkles, remains in two parts and doesn’t run back into a single puddle it is set.
Ladle the jam into warm sterilized jam while still hot. Screw on lids immediately and then leave the jars to cool upside down which creates a seal.
Crostata di ciliegie cherry tart
- 200 g plain flour
- 100 g cold butter, cold and cut into 1 cm dice
- 20 g icing sugar (optional)
- 1 small egg
- a glass of iced water acidulated with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
- pot of cherry jam
- 1 egg yolk for sticking egg white for glazing
You will need a shallow 20 cm flan tin or pie plate.
Put the flour and cold, diced butter in a large bowl, With cold hands, using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add sugar.
Beat the egg in a small bowl and add to the flour and butter breadcrumbs. Add the teaspoon of iced water. Using first a metal spoon and then your (cold) hands to bring the ingredients together into a smooth even dough. Add more iced water if nesseasry. Cover the dough with cling film and chill for at least an hour in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 180°. Set aside a third of the pastry. Flour the work surface. Sprinkle the rolling-pin with flour. Roll the other two-thirds into a round just larger than the tin or pie plate. Use the rolling pint to lift the pastry over to the tin or plate. Leave a small overhang as the pastry will shrink. Spoon the jam into the pastry shell. Roll the remaining third of pastry out, then cut it into thick strips and criss-cross them across the tart painting the ends with egg yolk and pressing them firmly into the pastry case. Paint the criss-cross strips with egg white. Bake the tart for 30 – 40 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.