The sun is shining, the days are getting longer and soon fruit will be bending bough, bush and cane as it ripens in the promise of summer. But don’t panic with the swift abundance (mangoes at $10 a box, berries turning to mush and cumquats falling off the tree). Preserving summer fruits for darker, colder days ahead might be an art dating back to Roman times but it still has a strong foothold in cafes and kitchens Victoria wide – and it isn’t always nanna stirring the pot or turning out the best jams, chutneys and jellies.

The trick to home jam making is to be fearless, notes Clem Bastow, journalist, music critic and this year’s titleholder for best berry jam at the Royal Melbourne Show. With a swathe of jam and preserve ribbons to her name since she first entered novice jams in 2007, it was her ‘just give it a crack’ attitude that won her an award with the very first entry.

“I entered on a whim,” Bastow says, with a laugh. “It was the year I realised you didn’t need to follow someone else’s recipe for jams – not like the cake section, where everyone uses the same recipe – so I entered novice jam and came first.” Surprise and delight still sparkle in her voice.

Since then she’s delved deeper into what makes a great jam, perfecting her preserves as she goes. Judges look for clarity and ‘set’, but she insists that the taste is paramount. “Really it comes down to flavour,” she says. “If I want to eat it, then that’s a good sign.”

The trick is in using what’s in season and doing as little to it as you can manage. The general rule being 1:1 equal weights fruit-pulp and sugar. Acid and pectin can be added to aid setting, but are best found in natural sources (lemon juice for acid and green apple or quince for pectin) rather than commercial jam setter.

Alex Patterson of Brunswick’s Milkwood cafe couldn’t agree more. “I grew up in Tasmania and my mum always made jam with beautiful Tasmanian berries,” she says. “There’s that nice sense of tradition involved.”

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But Milkwood “wanted focus on the seasonal and to preserve things when they are in season and at their best to have later in the year. It lets you capture all the flavour and it looks so beautiful, Alex says, smiling, as we discuss the long shelf of house-made preserves and jams that have become a signature of the homely Milkwood cafe.

For Patterson, colour is also a key indicator of a good homemade jam. “Consistency in thickness is important: you don’t want it too runny. But a good colour is vital; you need to make sure you don’t overcook it, because that affects flavours and turns it brown.

She’s also adamant that less is more when it comes to preserving fruit as jam. “If it’s too set then there’s probably commercial pectin in it, and jam really doesn’t need that. It’s best when it’s as natural as possible. People add stuff and you just don’t need to.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Phillippa Grogan, whose jams, preserves and chutneys have been an integral part of the Phillippa’s business since it first opened in 1994.

“We made a big batch of crabapple jelly right before we opened,” says Grogan, noting that despite the jelly’s popularity, it’s no longer on the menu due to the difficulty of procuring good quality crabapples. Customers looking for an accompaniment to Phillippa’s famous bread will have to settle for some of the jewel-bright raspberry jam. But we don’t hear anyone complaining.

“You need good fruit with a good flavour,” encourages Grogan. “Without that the jam won’t have a good flavour. And you must make sure there is no mould or anything on the fruit that will get in and spoil the jam.”

Grogan also recommends using regular sugar rather than jam-making sugar with added pectin, again because pectin takes away a jam’s natural character. But her biggest tip by far is to avoid making double batches in one go. “If you want a large quantity, make another batch. You need the pan to have enough room in it to allow for good evaporation.”

Back with this year’s award winner, Bastow says her indispensible items for home jam making are a good, heavy-based pot for slow and even heat distribution; a metal jam funnel to avoid a sticky scalding when filling hot, sterilised jars with hot jam; and separate wooden spoons for sweet and savoury batches (“there’s nothing quite like a chutney flavoured jam”).

But other than the nous to experiment and a bloody good pot, all you need is a little imagination – and good supply of ripe fruit. In season now.

What you’ll need:
• A large heavy-based pot
• Wooden spoons
• Good quality, ripe, seasonal fruit – the closer to picking the higher the natural pectin levels
• Sugar
• Clean and sterilised jars (to sterilise, place clean glass jars and their lids in two separate large pots of water on the stove, bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from water and fill while still hot.)
• A good jam recipe (try A Year in a Bottle by Sally Wise)

For supplies:
• The Essential Ingredient, Prahran Market – for pans, jars and spoons, (03) 9827 9047
• Fowlers Vacola, North Melbourne – for jars, (03) 9329 7799
• Vic Markets, South Melbourne Markets, Prahran Markets and the Melbourne Farmers’ Markets – for boxes of seasonal fruit

Milkwood cafe
Clem Bastow