Jams and Jellies

By Amy Crowell
Photography Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny

When I first began searching for ways to preserve my wild harvests, I found a lot of jelly recipes. At first, I couldn’t imagine adding anything to dewberries or mulberries to make them taste better, and since most jelly recipes call for tons of sugar, I chose to freeze most of my harvests instead. Then I started collecting loads of agaritas, prickly pear tunas, elderberries, green mustang grapes and many other perfectly edible—though less tasty—wild fruits. At that point, I gave in to making some jams and jellies and learned that sugar is a fabulous preservative that complements the flavors and textures of wild fruits.

I asked Stephanie McClenny of Confituras—a local company that makes small batches of locally sourced jams, jellies and preserves—to share some of her creativity and wisdom, and was pleased to find out that she has concocted several jellies out of wild fruits.

“Many foraged fruits can be kind of, well, rustic,” says McClenny. “They often include indigestible or unpalatable seeds, or are somewhat bitter on the palate on their own. This is why I believe they are very well suited for jellies rather than jams or preserves.”

To make her jellies, McClenny cooks down and mashes the wild fruits to extract their natural juices, then strains them to remove any impurities. Sweeteners, such as sugar and honey, are added, as is lemon (or some other type of acid), and often some type of pectin to preserve and provide a gelling agent. She adds as little water as possible so the flavor of the fruit doesn’t get diluted.

Many of the recipes I found were actually from the olden days, before freezing was feasible. “Back in the day,” McClenny notes, “folks would make jellies out of just about anything that wasn’t poisonous. Not only would it help to put up fruit to stretch the seasons, but would also assist in elevating the gamy meats and heavy biscuits that were part of country life.”

Since those early days when I thought fruit should be eaten only in its original form, I’ve experimented with honey, agave nectar and sugar when making jelly and other fruit spreads out of prickly pear tunas, agaritas, green mustang grapes, mesquite beans, Texas persimmons, elderberries, mulberries, dewberries, Mexican plums, farkleberries and hackberries. Most of these fruits can be found in the spring or summer in Central Texas, and are all good candidates for your jam or jelly experiments!

Find out more at confituras.net.

Amy’s note: The most common agarita in Central Texas (Berberis trifoliolata) is a low-growing evergreen shrub with prickly leaves that resemble holly leaves. When walking through the Greenbelt or along fence lines in the Hill Country in April, you might be lucky enough to smell the incredibly fragrant flowers. Watch for the tiny yellow blooms to turn into ripe, red fruit that is ready to harvest in late April or early May.

AGARITA JELLY

Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny, Confituras
Makes about 4 to 5 half pints

There are more than a few methods of getting agarita berries off the bush, but most include a scraped-up arm or two. I’ve heard of folks putting an upturned umbrella at the base of the bush and, well, shaking the heck out of it. Handpicking works too, but you need some dexterity—so rubber gloves over clumsy leather or cloth ones would work best. It’s worth it, but you have to be willing to get in there!

3 lbs. agarita berries, picked through, sorted and rinsed
Enough water to cover the berries (about 3 c.)
¼ c. lemon juice
4 t. calcium water (for information about this, visit the FAQ section of pomonapectin.com)
4 t. Pomona’s Pectin powder
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. local honey

Put the berries and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir and mash the berries (I use a potato masher) and cook 5 minutes more. Pour into a jelly bag or over dampened cheesecloth set inside a fine-mesh strainer placed over a bowl to catch the juice. Allow to drain for at least 2 hours. There should be about 4 cups of juice—add a little water if it’s short.

Pour the measured juice into a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and calcium water and slowly bring to a boil. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, thoroughly mix the pectin powder with the granulated sugar. Add sugar mixture to the boiling juice, stirring vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the honey, then pour the mixture into prepared jars and process for 10 minutes in a water bath.

Note: This is a lower-sugar version; sweeten to taste. The fact that you can control the sugar is the good word about using Pomona’s Pectin.