I’ve just spent a few days up in Scotland. Lots of fresh air, scenic landscapes and – gasp – sunshine. Well, to be fair, the days were peppered with a few fleeting light showers, just to keep everyone on their toes, but it was mostly a case of blue skies with fluffy white clouds.
The first stop was Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. It’s a compact city on the banks of the River Ness, and was a good place for a few pints of local beer before venturing off inland.
The main draw was a weekend in the small town of Muir of Ord on the Black Isle (actually a peninsula, not an island). The origin of this dramatic name is unknown, but there are suggestions that it can be traced back to the thick, dense forests that once covered this land, or the dark, fertile soil which grows the barley used in whisky making.
No trip to the Highlands is complete without a long walk, ideally up a large hill. The local focal point is Ord Hill, which took me past fields of cows, through pine forests and up onto the hill itself. Up on top, you could see the imposing Grampian Mountains to the south and, to the east, three firths (a Scots term which roughly means where a river meets the sea) – the Cromarty, Beauly and Moray Firths. I know this because, as our little group was sitting at the top, a man ran past, stopped, gave us the tourist low-down, then carries on running. Good timing indeed!
When you look at much of the Scottish landscape, it is often called “bleak” or “rugged”, and people think it’s heather and not much else. Well, that’s not really true. Large parts of the country are covered in forests of pine, beech or birch, and in the middle of all these woodlands, you can find all manner of fruits ripe for the picking. Well, ripe when they are in season – Scotland is not, generally, that warm, so you do need to be patient!
One of my favourites is the blaeberry, the European cousin of the blueberry. While the American berries are large and grow in little bunches that make then fairly easy to pick, blaeberries are tiny – less than the size of a small pea! This means that if you’re lucky enough to find them, you’ll easily find yourself down on the ground rummaging around in bushes looking for your precious treasure. The plant grows very close to the ground, so you really need to be willing to crouch down, or, in my case, to reach up into awkward places along a footpath. As a result of my efforts while walking up Ord Hill, I managed to come away with a small bag of berries, as well as an elbow that had been sliced open as I tried to reach a good patch of berries, only for my foot to give way on the soft earth (luckily – superficial damage only!).
Now, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. I had easily picked more blaeberries than I had ever managed to collect in my life, but not quite enough to make something. Was it going to be a case of just eating them on muesli and yoghurt for breakfast? Well, of course not. Luckily, a bit further down the hill there were lots of wild raspberries, so I was presented with a perfect opportunity to gather some of these jaunty little red fellows.
Now, wild raspberries are also smaller than their cultivated relatives, but they are also about six times the size of blaeberries, as well as growing on bushes. Much easier to pick! If you’ve never tried them, wild raspberries are sharper and more tart than normal raspberries, and absolutely delicious. Adding the raspberries to my blaeberry haul meant that I ended up with a large bag of free, fresh and organic berries.
I’m telling you all this because I have, for many years, harboured a fantasy that I would one day gather enough blaeberries to make jam. That way, I would be able to enjoy their flavour and bright purple colour all year round, and not just for those few months in autumn. While my little hike up Ord Hill did not quite allow this to come true, I was able to combine the blaeberries with the wild raspberries. And as it turns out, this combination is a popular flavour in Scandinavia, known in Sweden as Drottningsylt (“Queen’s Jam”). If this combination is fit for a queen, then who am I are to argue?
The recipe itself is very simple – equal parts of raspberries and blueberries, and then almost the same again of sugar (I aim for about 80% of sugar to berries by weight).
At this point, you may wonder where I made the jam. In some kitchen up north while on holiday? Nope. I did it the hard way – transporting the berries back from Scotland to London. I was, of course, completely paranoid that they would leak juice all over my luggage, so these things were packed in multiple plastic bags, just in case. Luckily, there was no juice incident, and the fruit arrived intact, ready for a jam session.
If you’re making this with foraged blaeberries and raspberries, then chances are this is a jam you would only every be able to make in small batches. However, if you’re keen to make bigger batches, or just don’t fancy all that crouching over small shrubs, you can buy blueberries and raspberries for a similar effect. You’ll still end up with a fruity, deep red jam that is delicious on toast, croissants or stirred through yoghurt. Of course, made with berries you picked yourself…then you know it’s going to taste just that much better!
To make blaeberry and wild raspberry jam (makes 2 small pots):
• 200g mixed blaeberries and raspberries
• 180g white sugar
• 3 tablespoons water
• 1/2 teaspoon pectin
1. First, the boring bit. sterilise some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.
2. Rinse the fruit, removing any bad berries. Mix the sugar and pectin, and throw into a saucepan with the berries and water.
3. Place the pan on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, and use the back of a spoon to burst the blaeberries are they cook (the raspberries will break up on their own). Keep the jam on a slow rolling boil for around 10 minutes. Start to check for a set every minute or so – put some jam on the cold plate, leave for a moment to cool, and if it wrinkles when you push with your finger, it’s done.
4. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.
(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.
Worth making? Yes – it’s perfect!