`Mes Confitures', subtitled `The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber' is written by Ms. Ferber herself, in French, translated by Virginia Phillips, and introduced with a foreword by Alain Ducasse. In case these circumstances are not enough to clue you in to what is afoot here, let me tell you that this book is not about your grandmother's strawberry jam. It is also not about your mother's Smuckers and certainly not about your Polaner jelly. This book is about artisinal products as carefully done as French wines and cheeses. In fact, the similarity between wines and these preserves are a lot closer than almost any other comparison, as the raw material of both is very similar.
Before going much further, I must give a word or warning that I do not consider this book a complete manual on how to make and preserve jams and jellies. In fact, it is telling that the title and subtitle DO NOT include the word `preserves'. While I am not an expert on preserves and canning, I have enough knowledge, acquired from a typically excellent episode of Alton Brown's `Good Eats' to know that successfully packing a confit in a sterile container is not the same as prepping a PRESERVE which can safely sit on an unrefrigerated shelf for up to a year. So, if you are serious about making confits and preserves, get a very good introductory book on canning, as Ms. Ferber's book is much more of a master class on the subject, which assumes you know a lot about the mechanics of canning and preserving. The book is primarily a collection of primo recipes for producing jams and jellies worthy of smearing on your artisinal breads or filling your handmade Linzer cookies.
The book's recipes are divided by season, and there is an extreme attitude about selecting the very freshest fruits at the very best time of the season and the day. I am rarely swayed about goings on about using fresh ingredients. I will only state that there is probably a much bigger connection between the quality of your starting ingredients and your final product in the making of fruit comfits than there is in the making of a soup or braise or any other cooking method using most meats from hoofed or winged beasts and using most vegetables, even the seasonally persnickety tomato. The one condition which tempers this fact is that unlike most pedestrian recipes for fruit confits, Ms. Ferber's recipes often contain several spices and other seasonings which may buffer the impact of a less than perfect crop of apples or peaches.
While Ms. Ferber lives and works in the fabled Alsace district of France, her seasons are not too different from temperate North America, so there should be few incongruities on the part of geography. There may be several difficulties in the fact that Ms. Ferber uses several cultivars that may simply not be available in a timely manner to us Nordamerikaners. But, we carry on with the best substitutions we can do.
Spring recipes open with a big surprise with two recipes for comfitted carrots. Otherwise, the stars of the show in spring are cherries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, and rhubarb. Here we first encounter green apple jelly, which is the `veal stock' of the fruit confit world. Just as veal is one of the richest sources of thickening gelatin, green apples are one of the best sources of pectin for gelling the confit, while the apple taste is tame enough to stand in the background, behind stronger tasting fruits. One puzzle Ms. Ferber does not elucidate is how one gets a supply of green apple jelly, a product whose season comes in the fall, when you wish to use this ingredient in the spring.
The stars of the summer recipes are Bergeron apricot, generic apricot, wild and generic (farm grown) blueberries, nectarines, currants, celery, zucchini, raspberry, melon, and apples. Some of the more important costars seem to shine in the summer recipes. These are vanilla, black pepper, chili peppers, anise, pinot noir, almonds, chocolate, essences of edible flowers and flower petals, and eau-de-vie. Citrus juices and zests, especially those from lemon contribute to a large number of recipes in all seasons.
The stars of the autumn recipes are dried fruits, nuts, pears, quinces, rose hips, figs, grapes, vineyard peach, honey, ginger, cinnamon, apple, tomato, and Gewurztraminer (wine). Winter is devoted to tropical fruits such as citrus (marmalade, marmalade, marmalade), pineapple, banana, mango, and passion fruit. It is the one season where there are recipes for a particular event (Christmas). It is also no surprise to find tea as an ingredient here, as bitter orange is, itself, an ingredient in Earl Gray tea.
The recipes are very well detailed. You should be able to do everything in every recipe if you have the tools listed at the beginning of the book. As canning is an old American rural custom, none of the equipment should be much farther than a good hardware store or good mail order or Internet source. The book gives an excellent list of American sources, although there is no guarantee you will be able to get some of the cultivars found in the Alsace.
My mind's virtual taste buds tell me that this is one excellent collection of recipes for fruit confits, and, a fair amount of improvisation is certainly allowed. Which is even more of a reason to exercise your canning skills on a few simpler recipes before tackling the 20 plus ingredient Christmas jam.
Every food subject has its quality leader or artisinal high end. This is the high end for jams and jellies!