My ideal weekend would be spent reading or watching my favorite movies, but since we moved to Belgium my routine has been completely upended. Our apartment is so tiny that even the most minimalist notions of privacy are compromised–this is further compounded by the transparent bathroom door. To escape our weird living situation we’re taking lots of weekend trips. Belgium is a small country, but its size belies its impressive diversity. The travel distances are ridiculously short, especially by American standards, and if you are here as a tourist, I highly recommend renting a car and seeing the country this way.
A couple of weeks ago we were once again on the road going south. Belgium is divided into two regions; the Dutch-speaking Flanders spread out to the north, and the French-speaking Wallonia to the south. The line that bisects the country at Brussels may be imaginary, but it’s easy enough to get your bearings. Once the street signs start appearing shorter you’ll know that you’re in French-speaking Wallonia. Dutch, like German, has a tendency to fuse several words together in a string that looks unpronounceable to me.
On this particular trip, we visited the citadel in Namur and the Belgian strawberry capital of Wépion. Namur is the capital of the Walloon Region, an elegant city dominated by a sprawling medieval citadel. Right next to the citadel, there is a large perfumery called Guy Delforge. We could hear the sounds of Mozart and smell a typical “perfume shop” melange of odors as soon as we got out of the car. The fragrances reminded me of the simple blends one finds at the Fragonard and Galimard boutiques in Grasse–linear and a tad rough, but the store was beautiful and the staff very friendly.
The interminable rain colored the horizon a dull grey. I was already concerned about being dressed too lightly, but the lush green of the sprawling countryside was a delight. At one point Wallonia was the center of the steel and coal industry, but with the depression in those sectors, its economic strength has likewise diminished. Today it is an important agricultural region, and some of my favorite Belgian specialties like smoked ham, jambon fumé d’Ardennes, and Rochefort beer come from this area. All around are bucolic vistas of pasturing cows and hazy blue flax fields. Only occasionally is the view punctuated with a farm house, looking as if an old Master had painted it in with delicate brush strokes.
Wépion is situated between Namur and Dinant. Incidentally, Dinant was the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. Driving up to Wépion, you’ll notice stands advertising “La Véritable Fraise de Wépion,” the real strawberry of Wépion. The Flemish-Wallonian politics affect even these fragrant berries, and so the Belgian strawberry capital that Wépion proudly proclaims is usually understood to mean “the Belgian strawberry capital of the Walloon Region.” In Flanders, the strawberry capital title is most likely to fall to the town of Melsele, which produces delicious berries.
Whether or not you’re interested in strawberries, Wépion is a picturesque, quaint town, full of picture perfect houses bedecked with flamboyant geraniums. The strawberries are sold throughout the town from small stands, and there is even a strawberry museum, with an exhibition on the history of strawberries in the region. I still don’t understand how anything can ripen under the stingy Belgian sun, but the strawberries were juicy and sweet, with a heady perfume of hot caramel and pineapple. Apparently, the season here lasts well into September, nature’s compensation for the rainy summers.
At the end of the day I had 4 pounds of ripe strawberries on my hands. I may be in Belgium, but when it comes to cooking, my roots are Eastern European. As I was getting dizzy on the strawberry perfume, I thought of my family summer ritual–jam making. Technically, the correct term for candied pieces of fruit suspended in thick, transparent syrup would be preserve or spoon sweet. Whatever you want to call it, this confection is what my grandmother makes with her surfeit of produce. Every year she turns out dozens of jars in variegated colors–the emerald green of gooseberry, the burgundy of sour cherry, and the golden amber of pears, capturing the aromas and hues of the sunny days for the long winter evenings.
The idea of making preserves might strike some people as old-fashioned and time consuming, but I promise that once you taste your own homemade jam, you will be reluctant to go back to the supermarket variety. Unlike my grandmother, you don’t have to preserve buckets of fruit; half a pound would do for the first time. if you are worried about pasteurization, simply store your jam in the fridge. Or follow the advice of Kitty Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “put some paper over the jam, and moisten it with a little rum, and without even ice, it will never go mildewy.”
The effort pays off amply when you open a jar of your jam and become seduced by the intensity of the flavor. Although the addition of rosewater might see distinctly non-Slavic, many 19th century Russian cookbooks suggest floral waters to flavor various berries. Here, the honeyed warmth of rosewater marries the tart rhubarb and sweet strawberries, lending this classical duo an unexpectedly glamorous accent. This jam is wonderful spooned over yogurt, ice-cream, cheese or simply served Russian-style with tannic, black tea. It’s a taste of summer suspended in ruby red syrup.
Russian-Style Strawberry-Rhubarb Preserves (Варенье, Varenie)
Makes 2 pint jars
1lb(450g) strawberries (small berries can be left whole, large ones cut in half)
1/4 lb (125g) rhubarb, cut into 1/4” pieces
1 1/4 lb (575g) white granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon rosewater (optional), where to buy
Night before: place berries and rhubarb pieces in a large bowl, add sugar and cover the bowl. Store in the fridge.
Day 1 Morning: Bring fruit and sugar to boil over low heat, shake the pan from time to time to encourage the sugar to dissolve. Let the preparation simmer for 5 minutes, skim the foam that rises up, set aside and cover with a towel.
Day 1 Evening: The berries are now floating in a thick syrup and look small and shriveled up. Don’t worry, they will plum up as they release water and absorb sugar. Bring to boil over low heat, skim and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Mix the berries very gently. Set aside and cover with a towel.
Day 2 Morning: repeat the boiling. The berries should start plumping up and the syrup will thicken. Add lemon juice at this time.
Day 2 Evening: Bring jam to boil once again. The fruit should start getting plump and transparent. Simmer very gently for 10 minutes or until the syrup is thick enough to coat the spoon (if you have a candy thermometer, the jam is done when the syrup reaches 221F). Add rosewater, shake the pan to mix it in and let the jam simmer for another few seconds. Remove from the heat and ladle into hot jars, as described in the headnote. Seal tightly, turn upside down and let the jars cool before setting upright again. This ensures that the berries don’t float to the top and remain suspended in the syrup.
A Few Jam Making Notes (for those new to home preserving)
There are a few simple rules to follow when making a jam: use ripe fruit, cook it gently and skim it thoroughly. Russian preserves usually follow the same method: macerate fruit in equal quantity of sugar, bring to boil the next day, simmer for a couple of minutes, skim the foam, remove from the heat, cool. Repeat 3 more times. So don’t be scared by the advanced preparation; there is no need to stand over the stove for hours. I usually plan my jam making in such a way that I macerate the fruit the night before, bring it to first boil before leaving for work and doing the same thing when I return. The evening on the second day, I bring the jam to final boil and transfer it into prepared jars.
As you boil the fruit and sugar mixture, you will notice that it starts forming a lot of foam. All of that foam should be removed as much as possible. This is essential to have a beautiful clear syrup coating the fruit and a long shelf life. When my cousin and I were little, we fought for “penki,” the delicious foam from the jam. So, don’t toss it away–it is fragrant and delicious when spread on bread.
On sterilization and pasteurization: there are lots of guidelines online on canning procedures. Some are straightforward, others are so convoluted that I get a headache reading them. The method I follow has never failed me in the past 10 years, although I encourage you to read other sources as well. To sterilize Mason jars, I wash them and the lids in hot water with baking soda. Then I bake them in an oven preheated to 240F. I ladle hot jam directly into the jars. I don’t pasteurize sugar rich jams like this one, although it can be done following these preserving guidelines. If you store your jam in the fridge or a cool space, it’s not necessary. Wear thick gloves and take care as you work with hot jam.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.