If you ask me, there's nothing better than a jar of homemade jam. Especially if you crack it open on a cold winter morning so that you can decorate your porridge with strawberries or cherries or blackcurrants which you picked long, long ago - when it was sunny and you could walk around barefoot...
Homemade jam for Latvian-Latvians is no big deal. During the Soviet era you couldn't really buy mass-produced preserves from the shop, so every granny and person with a garden would make their own jam, jelly, cordials, pickled cucumbers and salads etc. Typically, gran always made WAY too much and lots of my friends seem to have memories of getting jars of jam from the cellar which had been there for years, and remember feelings of frustration because gran kept making new jars, before the old supplies could be finished off. Even today it is accepted that the store-bought jam is the 'posh', high quality stuff. But not for me!!
A few years ago I thought I'd try my hand at making jam, and haven't looked back. No pectin, though. You just boil the berries with lots of sugar, let it cool, boil it again, let it cool, until it thickens and then just whack it into jars. I know that I'm probably meant to have thermometers and bottling accessories and recipes and stuff, but I don't want to overcomplicate things. And also - why bother when the kids slurp down my strawberry jam faster than I can make it? One little touch that does make a difference, though, is a kiddie-drawn label.
So it all starts in late June with strawberries - last year my aim was to make enough jam so that I wouldn't be forced to buy that soul-less, smooth supermarket version. Let me tell you, there's nothing more heartbreaking than a pot of burned strawberry jam. Ask Jem what a grown woman does when she burns it!
We have berry bushes all around our house - blackcurrants and gooseberries, and there are also red currants and raspberries just down the hill. When Mikus is sleeping and Tiss is otherwise occupied, I am partial to plonking myself down next to one of these bushes with a little bucket and picking berries. Those tiny balls of flavour and vitamins. Mmmmmm. When we first moved over here, I was intrigued and just that little bit offended when the workers building Kugures mentioned that there were some great wild strawberries and raspberries growing on our property - and they had just been eating them. When I asked them where, they answered: "Not telling!" And they meant it. If you know a good wild berry patch in Latvia, you certainly don't share the info around.
My triumph this summer is making jam from rowan berries, pīlādži in Latvian. They turn red/orange when the weather gets colder and are small, hard, bitter berries with a black cross on the end. A pīlādzis is a magical plant in Latvian folklore. Good against witches and other evils. Anyhow, I made jam with rowan berries, some apple, and a dash of good gin. Mashed through a sieve to remove the hard stones. And it worked! Great with meat or a tart jam to put on a grown-up toast.
My biggest jam-making disappointment this year were the cherries - we usually have oodles of sour cherries from the trees around our house, and this year was shaping up to be a BIG year. Ages ago I gave up making "Latvian olives" - hours of painstakingly removing stones from cherries and then layering them in a jar with rum or other such spirit, leaving them soak so that around Christmas time you can spend many sozzled evenings remembering summer and the fruits of the harvest - because soon after making the 2 five-litre jars of Latvian olives, I got pregnant, and had to miserably watch everyone ELSE eating them that Christmas... so I got into making cherry jam instead. Much more politically correct and child-friendly. BUT this year it was not to be. One weekend, when we were away camping, a flock of birds flew down and ate everything off the trees. It must have been a big flock because when we returned from our 2 days of camping (me with my jam-making pot ready to go), there was NOTHING left. Not even a sole cherry stone on a stalk. I felt very ripped off, and still do. So next summer you will see me running around the orchard like a madwoman, hanging bits of alfoil and nets over everything!
I could go on and on about berry culture, but I'm sure I've said enough.
PS. Above is a friend, Kaija Moore, enjoying wild strawberries we picked in a Kūgures field this summer - yep, I gave away the secret location

Sorry to anyone who actually reads my ramblings - I haven't been writing much lately. Partly because I've been computer-deprived, but mostly because I've not had much to say! Too relaxed and busy picking berries. Berry picking will definitely have to be the subject of my next entry.
Being in the country has been so wonderful, but soon we will be returning to the 'mean streets' of Riga. During the summer we have been back a handful of times for various commitments - and returning after so much time in the country is always a bit of a shock. When you live here you get used to that fine, black street dust that covers everything, but after the vivid green of Kūgures, Rīga is looking greyer and dirtier than usual. It seems as if everyone in the family feels it: this time the kids went psycho the minute we walked in the door of our apartment, I felt a big stress ball descend on all of us.
I had forgotten my big mental wall of resistance I usually have set up when in Riga - the wall that deflects all of the 'agro' you feel when out on the street. I'm talking about that hard city-stare and those elbows when you're queuing. Too many people who put way too much time into thinking about what they are wearing rather than about how to respect and care for their fellow pedestrians and neighbours. People who believe that if they can scam/earn/steal enough money to buy a luxury car, they have the right to park where they want and drive how they want: and by extension anyone who doesn't have a car like theirs is a lesser human being. It's a crass, simplistic, 'nouveau riche' style and attitude which rules the streets in Rīga, and after a while of living amongst it, it starts to affect you in all sorts of ways. You become self-conscious if you have run down to the corner store in your tracksuit pants (yes, Joel, even YOU); you fret if the kids start yelling too loudly in the park; and worst of all - you find yourself slowly but surely, looking at others who aren't following the "dress and behaviour code" as strange - or even inappropriate.
I know this is the story for a lot of cities - but Rīga seems especially good at it.
I have spent quite a while watching and trying to analyse this and I know the background, there's lots of reasons for it to be this way: previous enforced Soviet conformity and oppression; the influence of our large (and often tasteless) neighbour; the influence of the seemingly priveliged West; the rapidly changing economy; the fact that our neighbourhood has turned into an yuppie, sought-after area lately; etc, etc. I know there's good justification but it's annoying nevertheless. So I have to start building that wall again, I suppose. Oh, and keep the kids' yelling down to a dull roar!


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