Ilona is a poet, printmaker and designer - this last being financially beneficial! She has been published once in book form by Alhamra in 2001, thereafter in literary journals abroad and in the Pakistan Academy of Letters anthology locally. She has worked on editing projects with Alhamra Publishing in the mid 2000s and with the Canadian magazine Vallum, and has written essays on Pakistani poetry in English. She freelances for Newsline, writing about writers and art, and makes artists' books combining her prints and poems.
Jam Journeys: Seeking Flavour
Ilona Yusuf encounters time, memory, and their changing flavours as she stays committed to a kitchen activity that has been as nourishing as sustaining – making jam – in this lyrical personal essay.
It began with a crate of plums, on the return journey from a holiday in Swat in the late nineteen eighties, when the valley was idyllic with fresh streams and fruit, and the violence that grew to destroy the fabric of its society was only a seed visible to very discerning eyes. It was June, and the valley was filled with the fragrance of plums from orchards that we drove past, mile after mile of trees bowed with the weight of purple fruit with a cloudy white bloom. Then, miles of peach orchards, and after that the odour of onions. Following the river, past the Janabad Buddha carved huge into the rock by the road. As we descended through the valley, with the sealed crate in the back of the jeep, the sun’s heat grew stronger, and my husband worried that the fully ripe plums wouldn’t last until the next day. I had never seen fruit decay during a journey, so when we arrived in Rawalpindi, late at night after various stops, two small, exhausted children in tow, I was loath to unpack the large wooden crate. But it had to be done. Sure enough, heat and the sourness of fermentation rose from the crate as the lowest layers were unpacked, and the plums at the bottom were found to be wrinkling and slimy, peel giving way to warm wet pulp in my hands. It was a messy job, and the slightly rotting fruit reminded me of the time when, biting into a large, soft plum as a child in Wales, the juice slipping down my six-year-old chin, I drew the fruit away to reveal a large white maggot waving itself free of flesh and pit. My husband suggested that I put as much as could be saved into the biggest cooking pot in the narrow galley kitchen, and make jam the next day. I had never made jam, and I wasn’t sure, at almost midnight, that I wanted to. Some of the things I’ve grown to love doing have been begun with misgivings, or incertitude. Jam was no exception, more so because it was one more undertaking involving time and effort in the kitchen, of which as a working woman who also cooked for the family, I felt I had enough of. Now, on this hot June night, I couldn’t remember if I had a cookbook with recipes on how to make jam. This was the pre internet era, and we didn’t even have a telephone! I did know how to stew fruit though, specifically plums, this being my Polish mother’s standby dessert. And I knew that sugar preserves fruit. So in went the plums, into the cooking pot, almost to the top, with some sugar and a little water, given a preliminary boil before I finally went to bed.
I look back at that batch of jam as a reference point today, if only because of the perfection of the plums—and I was careful to separate the rotting fruit from the choicest, using the latter. But before I began, I knew that I wanted the flavor of the fruit, rather than the sugar, to be dominant. There were many slips between the cup and the lip in the making of that jam. Young and inexperienced, I didn’t anticipate it boiling over the pan. I didn’t realize that at a certain point jam demands your full attention, sticking to the bottom and caramelizing, and eventually burning if it’s not stirred often enough, even when on the lowest heat. Sans measuring equipment, technique revolved solely around feeling my way through the various stages, adding sugar in increments, dipping a spoon into the pot for continuous tastings, until I felt it was thick enough and sweet enough. But those very slips, and the deep red, ever so slightly caramelized result, which filled jar after unending jar, taught me the rudiments of jam.
Every summer, with each fresh batch, I reach back in time for the memory of that first flavor, its depth and concentration, from the moment when I sniff at the fruit before making my purchase to the moment when I must take the pan off the heat, now. The taste is still there, on my tongue, matched or compared with this year’s fruit, its tartness or sweetness, its hint of honey or acidity. During the Taliban offensive of 2009, plums became a memory, ‘those plums from Swat…’ something that we weren’t sure when or if we would ever taste again. Now that they’ve returned to the market, that crate of plums from 1989 is still the yardstick, ‘they’re like those plums we brought from Swat…,’ we say. In reality, plums are easily perishable and are crated and shipped before they are fully ripe, so they can’t be exactly like that. But these approximations are meant to revive memory: of that crate, that time, that place.
Now, at the cooking range, not just gut feeling but method and experiment are my guides, along with memory. Those slips so many years ago taught me about the meeting point of fruit and sugar, the basics of jam, to which adjustments of heat, and the little additions that one makes to enhance the fruit – vanilla, a sprig of rosemary, a handful of rose petals, cardamom, a pinch of salt, a dash of lemon juice, vinegar or liqueur – are subservient if important. As I learned on that maiden adventure in my jam journeys, perfect fruit combined with sugar makes a superb jam. But forays into the realm of flavor are short adventures into the curious, the unfamiliar and sometimes peculiar.
Time has taught me the value of clarity, an un-muddied texture in which the taste buds can identify each ingredient, comparable to the mixing of watercolors, in which the blending of more than three colors, particularly in equal measures, can spawn a mud puddle.
In my—albeit unconventional—jam-making technique, time is a key ingredient, so that a finished pot of jam sometimes rests on the unlit hob for several days. The dipping of the tip of a spoon into the pot to check flavor, the editing of taste is entirely essential, much as I come back time and again to a poem or a piece of prose, in my life as a poet and a writer. I will complete the almost scientific exercise of bottling only when I feel that now moment, that the ingredients I’ve brought together have released their elements to make something that I think works just right.
If plum jam retains its place in my jam-making firmament, the jam odyssey which began so many years ago has grown to encompass almost every fruit in season. It has travelled, from plum jam-making in Arizona, where I lived for several years and was introduced to cactus jam, that labour intensive pink jelly made from the prickly pear cactus; to my daughter’s London flat, where I revisited the blackberries which I picked as a child in the field behind our house in Wales. It has changed from being a family activity in which my children picked strawberries or helped to stone the slightly stewed fruit; to being an operation involving multiple bottles, to small experimental batches and combinations of unexpected flavors. Maybe this latter is an unconscious response to current culinary preoccupations with the unusual in this very connected world; the way common ingredients are paired with indigenous ones. A different kind of internationalism evoking shades of the colonial past with its penchant for accumulation of exotic flora. And maybe, again, it has something to do with that other half inside me, the Polish itch asserting itself beneath the skin. East European and other Continental dishes were dominant elements in my mother’s kitchen, and have continued in mine. And although jam wasn’t part of her food repertoire, plums and cherries, rose and citrus preserves are integral elements of Polish cuisine.
A short, parting note apropos of plum jam in Arizona; of time, place and memory: The plums used for this batch, made at my husband’s request, were hard and slightly sour and in comparison with Pakistani plums, I felt, they lacked fullness of flavor. I wouldn’t be lying if I didn’t confess now that this was a jam I wasn’t too keen on making. To compensate for their flaws, I caramelised the jam a little more than usual. Eaten only occasionally, the big jar stood at the back of the fridge for over 18 months before it rose to shine during the angst-ridden economic recession of 2008. Savoring its—yes, rich and deep flavor—returned us to easier times in this place, and the other, Pakistan.