Belgian Strawberry Capital and Russian Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam

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

Method:

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.

Enjoy!

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.

Enjoyed this? Get blog posts via email:

Or, stay updated via:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • RSS

34 Comments

  • Lucas: This sounds like an amazing trip Vistoria! I know Belgium is not that very far from Poland but I’ve never been there. Definitely have to visit the country an the places one day. Maybe we could take a few-day-long family trip there or maybe I could try to get there by myself. Will see!
    If you ever happen ti visit Poland, especially Poznan I’ll happily be your guide 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Lucas! I will gladly take you up on the offer to be my guide. I don’t know Poznan that well, but I really would like to visit. Maybe, one of my trips back from visiting my grandmother in Ukraine.
      And of course, please let me know if you’re ever in Brussels. July 12, 2012 at 8:32am Reply

      • Lucas: Yeah, sure! I would love to meet up with you for a cup of coffee and a stroll around the city 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 10:33am Reply

        • Victoria: That would be fun! 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 11:34am Reply

          • Lucas: Definitely! And an additional lesson of Polish is included too 🙂 It will double the fun July 12, 2012 at 1:08pm Reply

            • Victoria: Sounds like fun! We might also want to add a chocolate store trip to the mix. 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

              • Lucas: Sounds deliciously great! Here in Poznan I could take you to the small niche perfume boutique, show you around the Old Town and we could go to the Exotic greenery. July 12, 2012 at 3:57pm Reply

                • Victoria: What is the Exotic Greenery?

                  The place you would love in Brussels is a perfume store called Senteurs d’Ailleurs. They have a diverse perfume and home fragrance collection, and the place is quite relaxed. I liked that I could smell in peace without being nagged by anyone. July 12, 2012 at 4:02pm Reply

                  • Lucas: Exotic Greenery is a place in Poznan, a big area under a building made of glass where exotic plants from places around the world grow. We have palm’s here and much more exotic greens. July 13, 2012 at 3:39am Reply

                    • Victoria: It must smell wonderful there! I love the scent inside the green houses. Even a small gardening shop nearby that a green house that keeps tempting me with its scent of soil and wet leaves. July 13, 2012 at 7:47am

  • Ines: Just a quick question – when you say berries at the beginning, do you mean the rhubarb as well?
    Or maybe I wasn’t reading carefully enough because I didn’t notice when is rhubarb supposed to come into the jam. 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 8:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Ines, I edited for clarity just now. Yes, add everything together. If you make a mixed fruit jam like pear and raspberry, for instance, you would have to cook them separately and mix the two batches together in the end, but rhubarb and strawberries don’t require that. Also, I don’t peel the rhubarb, because the peel holds the pieces together, as you can see in the photo. July 12, 2012 at 8:30am Reply

      • Ines: Thank you for the clarification. 🙂
        I saw in the photo the strawberries and rhubarb together so I just wanted to make sure if they start the road together or do they mix later on. July 12, 2012 at 8:44am Reply

        • Victoria: You’re welcome! Yes, they get married right away. 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 8:49am Reply

  • fleurdelys: Yummy! This reminds me of years ago, when I really got into jam-making. My husband and I picked strawberries and cherries, and we bought peaches, all of which I used to make preserves the old-fashioned way, without pectin. I would combine the fruit and sugar (I usually reduced the amount) and then it simmered away. My favorite jam was from the blueberries we’d pick by the boxful from you-pick-it farms in south central New Jersey. You’ve inspired me with your recipe, I’d love to try it. Never had strawberries and rhubarb together, although it’s such a famous combination! July 12, 2012 at 10:43am Reply

    • Victoria: We also used to go to pick-yourself farms in NJ. The very first time was a place where we could pick blueberries, and I still remember how much fun we had. And I know what you mean about pectin. When I started making jams, I experimented with pectin, and I discovered that the overcooked apple flavor is exactly what I don’t like about store bought jams. I would rather experiment with combining low-pectin fruit like strawberries or cherries with those that are high in pectin like citrus, quince, apples, currants, etc.

      When I make spreadable jams, I usually reduce sugar as well (1lb fruit–250-300g sugar is my standard ratio), but for the Russian style preserves, the sugar can’t really be reduced, since the fruit won’t candy properly. July 12, 2012 at 11:34am Reply

  • Absolute Scentualist: Thanks for sharing your recipe and travel experiences, Victoria. Strawberries are probably my favorite fruit and I can’t agree more about making jams and preserves at home. My grandmother made a strawberry jam that one stores in the freezer until use which she then taught my mother to make. We rarely had store bought jams and preserves as a child (though we lived not too far from Amish country so had an ample supply of freshly prepared apple butter as well) and it felt like a rite of passage when I learned how to make my own.

    Now, it is a summer tradition that I’ll probably be doing this weekend, and it really is a little bit of sunshine to spread some on toast on a freezing February afternoon or a wee bit on pancakes in spring. We’ll have to try your recipe this time round as Mr. Ab. Scent loves this flavor combination in pastries and pies. 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 10:51am Reply

    • Victoria: My grandmother usually made two types of strawberry jams–preserves like this one, and a thick, spreadable paste. I make both, but I also like to experiment. Every year I try something new.

      I’m curious about the freezer jam. How did your grandmother make it? July 12, 2012 at 11:26am Reply

      • Absolute Scentualist: Hi Victoria. A little late on the reply but my grandmother’s was a pectin recipe for the strawberry and a more traditional recipe that required lots of cooking for the cherry and grape versions I still have to get down on paper from my mother.

        I’m intrigued by the idea of using low pectin/high pectin content fruit for a balance of texture and flavor, though the strawberry jam we make is really simple. You chop and mash the berries, add sugar and let the mixture stand for 20 minutes, boil the pectin and water, then pour it over the berries and stir until well-blended. Then you scoop the jam into airtight containers and let it stand for a day then put it in the freezer and just thaw as needed over the months.

        It’s easy enough that my 10-year-olds and the youngest can help with almost every step of the way which, they say, makes it taste even better. 🙂 It really does taste like you’ve just picked the berries and doesn’t have that preserved or overly cooked flavor lots of store bought jams and preserves possess. July 17, 2012 at 11:38am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much! I can just imagine how fresh and fragrant it would taste. My grandmother also made what she called a fresh jam–sugar and fruit in equal quantities, ground up together (no cooking needed). She stored this jam in the fridge and it tasted like summer itself. July 17, 2012 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Nancy A.: Hi Victoria,

    Simply stated, thank you, merci & I’ll have to forego Flemish but this is what I refer to as my printout article. Visually and edibly, love it. Is it my understanding that you have permanently moved to Belgium? Or is this a temporary home? I understand the adjustment you have to make but I believe there can be worse situations. At its best, Belgium offers up great diversity as you pointed out and the Belgians (at one time, anyway) held more 3 star restaurants than Paris! So, at its worst, when I was supposed to relocate many years prior to Belgium, I gained weight within a very short time (which I will not reveal) when I visited. Again, thanks for the beautiful recipes and photos. July 12, 2012 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Nancy, gosh, I understand how you would have! The chocolates, pastries, beer, cheese…

      I think that any new place requires you to make some important adjustments. Just trying to conduct day to day affairs in a new country and foreign language is already enough! Of course, Brussels isn’t a total culture shock for me, but I can’t say that it’s all smooth sailing either. Some things I loved immediately about being here–the diversity is probably the top one, others still require getting used to them. I know that I will feel more adjusted with time. And for now treating it all with a big of humor keeps me sane. And you guys make me feel as if my world didn’t get turned upside down in the end. BdJ is still here. 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 12:40pm Reply

  • Diana Maria: Belgium looks amazing! Very different from what I am used to observe around me. I have to visit Europe someday… when I overcome my fear of being 12, 14, 16 hours in a CLOSED!!! airplane haha (I am from Costa Rica).
    We make our own jam here in Costa Rica too and you are completely right, once you make your own the supermarket one doesn’t taste nearly as good.
    Pineapple and “guayaba” are my favorite 🙂 July 12, 2012 at 12:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: My brother is going to Costa Rica soon on a research project, so I look forward to his stories. I haven’t visited myself, but I’ve always been curious to go.

      I can just imagine how good guava would taste in jam. Mmmm…. The perfume must be so heady! Do you mix it with another fruit or make jam with it by itself? July 12, 2012 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Naheed: Wonderful post with full of colours and aromas. I love the flow in your writing which never lets me leave my monitor screen for a split second. Are you Russian in Origin, Victoria?

    I’ve never been to Belgium but it’s on my wish list which I will sure visit one day. God willing!! July 12, 2012 at 12:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your nice words, Naheed! I’m Ukrainian (well, actually half-Russian, half-Ukrainian).
      Until I came here, I confess that I didn’t know much about Belgium (I’ve been to Brussels a few times without ever leaving the airport!), so I’m making lots of discoveries and learning a lot at the same time. July 12, 2012 at 12:56pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Belgium is full of hidden gems. Did you know that it actually has a small German speaking community as well? Around Eupen in the east of the country. Language is very much a political issue in Belgium. Flanders, the Netherlands and Suriname are linked in the Nederlandse Taalunie. ( Union of the Dutch Language). With the Dutch spoken in the North ( the Netherlands) as the standard language.
    If you ever start exploring towards the Southwest, Ieper is very much worth a visit. The whole Zuidwesthoek is very lovely. Very difficult to imagine that it’s actually a huge graveyard because of WWI.
    A couple of months ago I was listening to a Belgian programme on the radio, all about jam-making. The lady interviewed had won several prizes for her jams. She cooked her fruit twice.
    Your recipe sounds very enticing; I love strawberry jam! July 12, 2012 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: No, I didn’t know, but I can believe it, considering how close Germany is. Yes, the language issues are strong. The moment you crossed that line, the language changes. The train that goes from the Flemish part into Brussels begins to make announcements in French as soon it enters Brussels Gare du Nord.

      I have a great book on jams by an Alsatian jam maker Christine Ferber. It has so many interesting ideas for all sorts of fruit that I have a difficult time picking a recipe to try. Her Nougapricot jam with apricots, almonds and pistachios is just heavenly. July 12, 2012 at 4:00pm Reply

  • Nikki: I love the skies over Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, especially close to the Dutch borders. They are just magnificent and the Dutch painting school in the Middle Ages has many examples of those amazing skies. I find the low-lying skies and flat landscape very enticing for daydreaming. I hope you enjoy your strawberries, we make creme chantilly with strawberry liqueur to pour over the strawberries… July 12, 2012 at 6:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: When the clouds start to gather, they look so picture perfect for a moment. 🙂

      That way of eating strawberries sounds wonderful. Strawberries and cream–what can be better! July 12, 2012 at 6:59pm Reply

  • Kaori: Belgium is sooo pretty! Thank you for the wonderful pictures. Have a great trip!

    Kaori July 12, 2012 at 10:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you liked them, Kaori. The countryside is so lush right now. It’s good to escape there from the city. July 13, 2012 at 3:03am Reply

  • Barbara: Reading this post was like taking a vacation! Thanks, V. July 13, 2012 at 6:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Barbara! 🙂 July 13, 2012 at 7:48am Reply

What do you think?

From the Archives

Latest Comments

Latest Tweets

Design by cre8d
© Copyright 2005-2016 Bois de Jasmin. All rights reserved.