On the table before me are two jars of raspberry jam, which I have just eaten separately on two pieces of toast and washed down with a strong black coffee. One jam – ‘Best Raspberry Jam’ – is made by a well-known company and claims to be ‘Britain’s favourite jam’. The second is a jam I made myself two days ago under the careful tuition of my grandmother-in-law. Having completed my entirely subjective taste comparison, I can confidently say that, given a chance, my jam could become Britain’s new favourite. But it could also be best for our nation for a number of other reasons…
Living in London I’m pretty much completely cut off from the growers of the food I eat, though we have a pretty good farmer’s market in Kingston. So I had a real ‘townie’ experience when I was let loose in the Lincolnshire countryside whilst on holiday last week and we came across a Pick Your Own farm. All of a sudden my latent hunter-gatherer was roused and I decided it was a matter of urgency to pick as much fruit as I could carry and preserve it, to keep us stocked up throughout the cold, harsh winter which is undoubtedly just around the corner.
I understand that it makes economic sense for jam to be produced large scale and distributed to local supermarkets, so that people like me can do other jobs not involving food production – but who does this economic efficiency really serve? It was an afternoon’s work for me to pick my raspberries, cook the jam, bottle it and then taste-test it with cream and fresh scones. The raspberries cost me £0.96/lb so with 2lb of fruit and a 2lb bag of sugar my total cost was £3.91, which gave me four jars of jam at £0.98 per jar.
My off-the-shelf jam cost me £1.35. Not only that but (subjectivity aside) my jam is far superior in quality – it has better smell, taste, texture and colour, higher fruit content, fresher fruit and fewer additives. And I know the source of the ingredients because I picked them myself! In theory, as a consumer in a free market economy, I am always on the lookout for the best value product, which in this case should be the supermarket jam. But in fact what our economy has presented me with is a low grade product at a higher cost… what’s a rational, self-interested fella gonna do?
The thing is, economic considerations aren’t the primary way I make decisions about what is important in life. Take my interaction with Grandma. You could look at that from an economic perspective and observe that we made a mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services – I benefited from her knowledge and experience, and the use of her cooking gas, pans, and so on. In return she benefited from my labour and the transportation of the fruit, and at the end of the day walked away with a jar of jam!
But our interaction had value in a whole variety of other ways. As a family, we spent time creating something together in a way that celebrated our eldest member, instead of the youngest, as is more often the case. We took part in the most ancient form of skill-sharing, as I was apprenticed in a new skill which I now have confidence to go away and try myself. And from the visceral experience of picking the fruit in a sunny field, through stewing my own jam, to then enjoying it with good company, I have a new mindfulness about food, and am less likely to waste, buy junk, or overeat.
This has outworkings beyond my immediate family too. Buoyed by my new career as community jam-maker, I strolled down to the village full of community spirit for some fresh scones and cream with which to enjoy it. On the way I asked an old man for directions to the bakery – I’ve just made some jam don’t you know! – and helped a couple load a wardrobe into their van. Left to it for a couple more days I probably would have started selling my jam at the village fayre in aid of the church tower appeal!
If nothing else, my foray into preserving made me stop and question some of the things city-living makes me take for granted. There’s something that makes me uneasy whenever ‘the good life’ is presented to me by politicians or billboards, and now I know why: it doesn’t come in jars, you have to pick it yourself. So next time someone talks to me about a big society, I am going to politely blow them a raspberry and pass the cream.
Image by @joefoodie courtesy of Flickr