Rekindling a passion for competitive jam making at the Royal Melbourne Show. By Clem Bastow.

Competitive preserves at the Royal Show

Doreen Napier (left) and Laurel Cockerel judging preserves at the Royal Melbourne Show.
Doreen Napier (left) and Laurel Cockerel judging preserves at the Royal Melbourne Show.
Credit: Courtesy The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria

“If you can’t get plum jam to set, you might as well give up.”

Truer words have never been spoken than those of the Royal Melbourne Show preserves judge I overheard nearly a decade ago. And each year her edict rings in my ears as I stand in the middle of kitchen chaos, overcome by the pressure of preparing my preserves for competition, wondering why I can’t bloody well get my jam to reach “wrinkle phase”.

Such is the life of an enthusiastic amateur preserves cook, for whom the show’s “Arts, Crafts and Cookery” competition looms, come springtime, like the grand final, Melbourne Cup or Archibald Prize. As soon as jasmine blooms on the corrugated iron fences of West Brunswick, as soon as I can wear a T-shirt and no jacket after 6pm, I know it is nearly show time.

In Vincente Minnelli’s sublime Meet Me in St Louis – a film I have watched during every show cooking session since 2007 – the Smith family greet spring’s arrival in clotted-cream lace and white seersucker. I welcome it with a raspberry-juice-stained apron and a knitted brow.

Preserves preparation begins long before the first kiss of spring: in the dead of winter I will ponder which fruit combinations might dazzle this year’s judges. Some truly dedicated preservers have already bottled their entries by the end of March, and need only give the jars a once-over with Windex and paper towel come September.

As the sage writer Barry Dickins said of the show, “the detritus of life goes one way and the urgency of growth and renewal certainly goes the other. Each year, out there in some of Melbourne’s embalmed suburbs, noble and anonymous individuals put up a prayer that at this Show their drop-scones will be right on the button. So eagerly contested are the Open Scone Heats, it must be demoralising to come equal Third.”

When the show rolls around, the art and craft pavilion’s glass cabinets will house names that wouldn’t trouble the batting of a casual observer’s eyelid, but to whom the aspiring show champion might as well read “Michael Schumacher”, “Adele” or “Adam Goodes”: Angela Fleay, Anne-Marie Primmer, Noel Button.

Theirs are the seemingly unbeatable legacies of kitchens that must be built on crossroads or constructed from powerful crystals, so stunning are their cookery abilities. One year Primmer said that she couldn’t cook a sponge cake to save herself; she must have only said as much to make us mere mortals feel better about our shortcomings, because a few years later her winning sponge recipe was printed in the Herald Sun. I saw Fleay dropping off her shortbreads one year and nearly walked into a wall, I was so excited. There are rumours that some champion marmalade cooks insert the peel into the jelly using surgical tweezers, measuring the distance between slices with a ruler.

The hope in entering the show cookery contests year after year is to happen upon just the right recipe; the perfect blend of ingredients that will secure you blue-ribbon glory for the type of winning streak – the Fleays and their forebears have been blue-ribbon winners since the 1940s – that would make The Undertaker’s 21 straight WrestleMania wins look lazy.

There is no proud history of preserves cookery in my family, so any Bastow jam legacy will commence with me alone. My maternal grandmother is more of a teacake expert, and while my late paternal grandmother was known for her prodigious cumquat marmalade output, she was also fond of boiling the fruits down to a viscous jelly the colour of ancient amber. This is not, I surely don’t need to tell you, a method for competition marmalade success.

My father didn’t heed this warning, entering a batch of the family recipe into the open Household Marmalade (Breakfast/Chunky) in 2007. His mood was so dark when his cumquat marmalade did not place, while my strawberry and rose petal jam took the Novice Jam blue ribbon, I was worried I would be disinherited. It was his first and last attempt at show gold.

See, competition preserves are about doing your best, but they are also about trying to do better than anybody else – and the preserves cook who says anything to the contrary is lying to you through their slotted spoon. I have seen jam cooks crying in the back row at a public judging after their jams were deemed unworthy of tasting, and seen others still pointing with a sneer at the seed distribution of the jar that beat theirs to a place.

In truth, I’ve never tried to make plum jam, much less get it to set; my specialities are raspberry and “four fruits” (blackberry, raspberry, blueberry and strawberry). Last year I did alright with a blush-toned mix of strawberry, pineapple and peach, while other adventures into combinations such as “gold kiwifruit and banana” have been less successful. Raspberry remains my chosen instrument.

Raspberry is, quite literally, in a class of its own: PRE20, Raspberry Jam. A good competition raspberry jam should have a bright colour, firm set, even seed distribution, and a fresh taste. I think of mastering PRE20 as a little like Picasso learning to paint classically before his art practice deepened and diversified. PRE22, Jam Other Than Berry, is the Guernica of the preserves contest.

Since 2012, I have been haunted by the memory of a dodgy batch of raspberries that ended my two-year reign as the blue-ribbon Raspberry Jam cook. As I cooked them, I worried aloud about some of them looking a little “doughy”, and my concerns were realised when the blue ribbon slipped from my hands. So devastated was I by this calamity that I didn’t even enter in 2013. There was also the small fact of my living in Los Angeles at the time, though I briefly considered sending a batch back via sea mail.

It was then I realised my mistake. Why did I give up? As Dickins said in that same essay about the show, “Failing is not the worst thing; not going in something is. [...] Meanness and men’s vanities have no bearing upon such things.” I returned to Melbourne in December of 2013, determined to make amends for my jam-related tantrum.

In the intervening years, I have been slowly clawing back my show preserves mojo. So much so – with two second-place ribbons in 2015, for Raspberry Jam and Collection of Jams –that this year I feel confident enough to branch out into other classes.

With this change of attitude has come a deepening and broadening of my methods. I’ve let go of some of my superstitions. Well, I was forced to when we accidentally threw out my disgusting flesh-toned plastic ladle, which I had previously used each year since 2007. I’ve switched out Meet Me in St Louis for no-holds-barred wrestling matches and Kanye West records. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but I feel the spirits of Yeezus and CM Punk were with me when I bottled my golden cherry tomato relish in August.

I’ve saved the raspberry jam for last this year. I’m trying a new brand of sugar and a new variety of lemon, and something in the air feels like I could be back on top. I won’t know until the first day of the show, of course, and either way I will see my wares in the art and craft pavilion and take an embarrassing thumbs-up photo posing next to the glass cabinet, and my friends will send me excited photos of my jars, and my cousins will “visit” my jams and my uncle will place an order for green tomato pickles, his favourite.

And maybe next year, I’ll think about plums.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2016 as "Trick out the jams".

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Clem Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.

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