"J"is for Jam

by Lisa Solomon

“…you have what they have not, an intimate and profound feeling for nature and a power of brush, with the result that a beautiful picture by you is something absolutely definitive.” —Théodore Duret

About a year after my daughter and I moved from California to Central Texas, I began reading “The Impressionists” by William Gaunt. Next to one of the paintings, I came across the above words of critic Théodore Duret addressed to the humble, steady, quiet and ultimately revered 19th-century painter Camille Pissarro—encouraging him to continue to paint pieces like “Orchard with Flowering Fruit Trees.”

The 1877 landscape Pissarro interpreted is a simultaneously calming and luminous French countryside scene captured and preserved in time with its modest, cream-colored stone cottages, deep crimson wooden shutters and vintage cobalt roofs tucked into a sloping green hillside behind rows of white blossoming fruit trees. The painting is set in the Pontoise region of rural France where the nature-loving Pissarro and his family settled.

I learned that Pissarro, along with many other Impressionists at the time, like Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot, developed his art with dedication and integrity while persevering through decades of financial strain, artistic obscurity and critical scorn. Knowing the uncertain conditions under which these artists worked, I appreciated even more the effects of luminous forest light on a woman’s skin in Manet’s once-controversial “The Luncheon on the Grass,” the enchanting shades of delicate color on shimmering wine glasses and a half-full carafe of tawny rosé wine set on a lunch table next to the rolling, speckled-blue Seine in Renoir’s “The Rowers’ Lunch” and the creamy-soft touches of rainbow-infused light captured in loose brushstrokes on a woman’s apron, a round table and the floor in Morisot’s “In the Dining Room.” Each piece fully transported me to the locations they depicted through masterful shadows, contours and light. Wanting to experience these works even more intensely, I soon found myself scanning the markets for foods from the places where these works were created. I discovered a good variety of fig, red raspberry, black cherry, four fruit and wild blueberry jams imported from France. On the front of one of the jar’s labels, it read “A delicious fruit spread made in France by an old recipe.” However, when I read that the spread was created by “gently cooking in the tradition of the French countryside,” I was most excited. When I opened the tightly sealed cap, the early day’s light revealed small, deeply hued blue-black berries floating atop a shiny, thick purple-black jam. Once spread on a slice of toasted granola bread, the little berries created shadows on the translucent layers of wild violet—reminiscent of how important the deep “analysis of shadow” was to the development of Pissarro’s work.

Remarkably, the bright, sweet, lively taste of blueberries grown and picked in another country, in an earlier season, seemed not only present and pervasive but even enhanced. I imagined the fresh, tiny fruits being gathered from an orchard like the one in Pissarro’s French countryside paintings, then steeped in small batches by the jam artisan whose family had lived among the orchards for generations, and who knew that the berries would be savored later, in some other possibly distant locale, as something sweeter, softer and only slightly changed by culinary taste, heat, the perspective of light and the passage of time.

Walking alone one morning in our suburban Austin neighborhood, I noticed tiny, hard, lilac-hued berries scattered on the ground beneath a row of tall evergreen trees. I later learned that the fruits are juniper berries from juniper trees (mistakenly called cedar trees), which, when dry-roasted, can be used to season meat. But it was the painterly image of those still-foreign, smoky-lavender fruits rhythmically appearing, smeared and whole, on the cold, pebbly, gray sidewalk, and forming a watery stripe of color along the curve of the charcoal-black street, that was beautiful. They offered a greater understanding of one of the principles of the Impressionists: to move away from the grand garden scenes and formal compositions to find beauty.

Inspired by the touches of natural berry color, and in honor of the unpretentious pockets of beauty in this new place I was just beginning to know, I adapted a jam recipe I’d first made in California. But while I was absorbing the comparatively spare but determined rhythms of the Central Texas growing seasons and her more limited but strong-tasting crops, the recipe began to reflect something simpler and deeper in color, taste and meaning. I have made this jam with fresh cranberries in the fall and frozen cranberries in the spring, and I never tire of seeing the deep shades of the raw red berries and how their imperfectly round shapes soften to become like translucent rubies—almost glowing before they darken and change shape in a thickening plum-red sauce. Their transformation is a further example of the power of change, the effects of temperature and movement, and the intricacies of light and shadows created and lost in small and perhaps larger, more mysterious ways. It’s what Pissarro meant when he told Morisot that “nature is the best of counsellors.”

The jacket of my now-well-worn Impressionists book features Pissarro’s painting, “Woman in a Field.” The scene was painted in 1887 when, after achieving both financial and critical success as an artist, Pissarro once again faced the rejection of buyers. He depicted—with exuberant, tiny brushstrokes of pale blues, rusty reds, warm whites, tender pinks and shaded greens—a rural setting of cottages behind a low, stone wall that frames a woman walking on open land. Yet, it’s the seemingly simple, violet-blue-gray shadows beneath a few small, scattered trees stretching across and creating the darkened contrast on the sun-tinted grass that give a visceral sense of movement to the scene and the tingling feeling of a peaceful summer day. The transporting image reminds me that timeless art, like ripe berries preserved in a jam, is inspired by a specific place at a specific time, with an intention to nourish, and perhaps comfort or even inspire, others in another place and at another time.