I have my own rebellious ideas about butter and jam that have nothing whatsoever to do with joyless products sold in foil wrappers and glass jars in supermarkets. On Sunday morning, I skive from church and go cherry picking in my neighbour's garden: Pitanga cherries, also known as Surinam cherries grow from trees that Nigerians like to tame, trim and keep as hedgerows but rarely consider worthy to be regarded as fruit or food.
From childhood, I have been fascinated with the bright red attractiveness or plush purple of ripe Pitanga cherries; the bursting sweetness and tartness of their juice and their unique smell of spice, pepper and newly cut grass. After a rather undignified morning flexing Pitanga branches to reach the cherries at the very top (my neighbour has kept her trees tall and wild), I spend my early afternoon crushing the cherries between my fingers and listening to Roberta Flack ooze The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. It is exactly this added decadence to my life that makes me snob store-bought spreads. I mean, what can I possibly tell you about a lump of ‘Lurpak' that will excite your senses, but when I tell you that I own a 20 feet butter tree in my backyard that produces the most exquisite, creamy, nutty, mild, sweet, luscious avocados the size of a baby's head that spread on toast like nothing manufactured on this earth, then you have cause to be envious and understand why a good Christian woman like myself would be rummaging in bushes on a Sunday morning.
I am making Pitanga jam.
One of the advantages of living rurally is that there is food everywhere you turn. In Calabar, we live in a small lush estate built in the 70s, at a time when a proud Nigerian middle class still grew fruit trees in spreading backyards as casually and as easily as we now send to the market for them. In the days when Sacramento, my estate, was built, people didn't waste good money buying fruits, and so our lease rapturously includes the produce of 30-year-old trees: Cherry mangoes weighing branches to the ground; red sugarcane; plump soursops; plantains, bananas, pawpaws, coconuts, cocoa, avocado butter, lemon grass bushes and a tree up front that rains local pears from the month of April.
There is something about the Pitanga that is just special. As it ripens, it ostentatiously changes colour from lime green to orange and then to red or purple. It just feels like too much flamboyance for such a small thin skinned fruit. The smell for me instantly calls for pepper: when I started to imagine how I would like my jam, peppery was the first word in my head.
Nigella Lawson in her book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, suggests the simplest of methods for making jam. She puts the same quantity of sugar and fruit in separate oven dishes and cooks them in an oven. I put 600g of Pitanga skin and juice that I had separated from the seeds in one oven dish and 600g of granulated sugar in another. To the Pitanga I add two star anises, cinnamon bark, a quarter of a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a quarter of a teaspoon of ground dried ‘hot' Cameroonian pepper.
Nigella says to use Caster sugar, but (sugar na sugar, abeg) I use granulated, which is what I have. After about 30 minutes at 180 degrees, my sugar becomes dark caramel, and my fruit bubbles up and thickens. I then pour the liquid sugar into the hot cooking fruit. The result: Pitanga Jam. I pour the jam into two sterilized glass jars, seal, cool and refrigerate them.
This method works beautifully with Pitanga because it keeps a strong fragrance of the cherries in the Jam. My first taste of Pitanga jam was in Enugu at the home of Hazel Kalu. It was traditionally made, cooked till setting point on a hob and therefore not as fragrant or as fresh as my version. The downside is that my jam cannot live outside the refrigerator. The pepperiness is a highlight of this jam. It gives 100 per cent added character. Not so much heat as a nice tingling. The cinnamon and anise accentuate the spicy fragrance of the Pitanga. The tartness of the fruit remains and is also highlighted by the ever so slightly burnt caramel suggestion in the sugar. My jam will be pure delight on my homemade savoury cassava bread made from gari Ijebu.
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