“It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.” Julian Mitchell, Radio Times, (30 October 1976)
Afterall, nowhere does food play a stronger role than in Tolstoy’s epic saga. It is the distinguished gentleman whose refined upbringing prompts the most basic of Russian feasts to be ordered in French, accentuating the loss of patriotic roots in favor of cultural advancement. It is the devilish rogue whose statement of economic prowess mirrors his ability to carry bills at several established restaurants. Finally, it is an an antique recipe box momentarily transfixed in an argument over jam making.
As with all provincial chronicles, our tale begins with a gaggle of ladies gossiping around a stove.
The entire company of women gathered on the terrace. They generally liked to sit there after dinner, but today they also had things to do. Besides the sewing of little shirts and the knitting of baby blankets, with which they were all occupied, jam was being made there according to a method new to Agafya Mikhailovna, without the addition of water.
Kitty was introducing this new method which they used at home. Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been in charge of it before, considering that nothing done in the Levins’ house could be bad, had put water in the strawberry and wild strawberry jam all the same, insisting that it could not be done otherwise. She had been caught at it, and now raspberry jam was being made in front of everyone, and Agafya Mikhailovna had to be brought to believe that jam without water could turn out well.
Boiling is key to jam making causing the fruit to yield the pectin necessary for thickening. With the addition of water, Agafya Mikhailovna could instantly put kettle to stove with the limited usage of sugar to set the jam. Afterall, sugar was considered an expensive spice well into the 1800s.
Agafya Mikhailovna, with a flushed and upset face, her hair tousled, her thin arms bared to the elbows, rocked the basin in circular movements over the brazier and stared gloomily at the raspberry jam, wishing with all her heart that it would thicken before it was cooked through. The princess, feeling that Agafya Mikhailovna’s wrath must be directed at her, as the chief adviser on making raspberry jam, tried to pretend she was busy with something else and not interested in the jam…
Kitty’s method, on the other hand, is directly aimed at preserving a moment in time, with perfectly cooked pieces of fruit lovingly suspended in a flavorful syrup. Her jam is sweeter, fruitier, and slightly more foolproof than Agafya Mikhailovna’s as evidenced by Agafya’s concern that her jam would “thicken before it was cooked through.” (Fruit yields water as it cooks; therefore, the additional liquid could drown the resulting jam before it ever sets). Still skeptical? Well, before we know it, Kitty’s method proves her point.
I’ll do it,’ said Dolly, and, getting up, she began drawing the spoon carefully over the foaming sugar, tapping it now and then to knock off what stuck to it on to a plate, which was already covered with the bright-coloured yellow-pink scum, with an undercurrent of blood-red syrup. ‘How they’ll lick it up with their tea!’ She thought of her children, remembering how she herself, as a child, had been surprised that grown-ups did not eat the best part the scum.
Mmmm, already making my mouth water. My sincerest apologies to Agafya Mikhailovna!
‘Well, it seems to be ready now,’ said Dolly, pouring the syrup off the spoon. ‘When it leaves a tail, it’s ready. Cook it a little longer, Agafya Mikhailovna.’
By the way, re-read Dolly’s thoughts before you throw away the penki, or “foaming sugar.” Skimming the foam is aimed solely at the appearance of the finished product. We eat with our eyes first right?!! What’s more appetizing – a richly rouged strawberry jam with ripe berries waiting to greet you or a cloudy, unrecognizable jam? That foaming sugar is delicious, it just doesn’t belong in our jam!
‘Well, Agafya Mikhailovna, is the jam done?’ said Levin, smiling at Agafya Mikhailovna and wishing to cheer her up. ‘Is it good the new way?’ ‘
‘Must be good. We’d say it’s overcooked.’
This jam-off, if you will, between the aged Agafya Mikhailovna and the young Kitty Scherbatsky, is the Tolstoyan equivalent of setting the historical table that in Agafya Mikhailovna’s day would’ve been riddled with staples, plainly prepared and simply dressed as differentiated with the affluent tablescapes of Kitty’s era, complete with exquisite floral spreads, fine china, and exotic foods on their way to becoming everyday treasures. Is it any wonder that for Agafya Mikhailovna, seeing is believing?
‘So much the better, Agafya Mikhailovna, it won’t get mouldy. Our ice has all melted by now and there’s nowhere to keep it,’ said Kitty, understanding her husband’s intention at once and addressing the old woman with the same feeling. ‘Besides, your pickling is so good, my mama says she’s never tasted the like anywhere,’ she added, smiling and straightening the old woman’s kerchief.
‘Please do as I advise you,’ said the old princess, ‘cover the jam with a piece of paper and wet it with rum: it will never get mouldy, even without ice.*
558 pages into Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy blesses us with a vintage recipe, moistened “with a little rum” to stand the test of time. An aural cookbook preserved in idyllic scenes of Russian country cooking that will never spoil and will always remind us that food is not just a character in a novel, but a figure in our own lives, ever changing with Kitty’s times, evergreen in Agafya Mikhailovna’s memories.
*Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
- 1lb strawberries, cleaned, dried hulled, cut into eighths
- 1½ - 2 cups granulated sugar, depending on sweetness
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
- Wash, dry, hull and cut the strawberries into eighths. Stir in 1½ - 2 cups granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness. Cover, refrigerate and macerate overnight. As it sits, the sugar will absorb the juices of the fruit leaving you with a lovely berried syrup.
- The next morning, bring the strawberries, syrup, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste, 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for exactly 5 minutes, remove from heat and set aside to cool. Skim the foam off the jam, cover and refrigerate.
- That same evening, bring the jam to a simmer again over medium heat for exactly 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Skim the foam off the jam, cover and refrigerate.
- The next morning, bring the berries to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for exactly 3 minutes, remove from heat and set aside to cool. Skim the foam off the jam, cover and refrigerate.
- That same evening, clean, dry and prep 2 (4 ounce) jam jars.
- Test the jam for doneness. In most cases, the jam will set and gel beautifully. If the jam is too thick, stir in an additional 1 teaspoon of lemon juice prior to simmering.
- Bring the jam to a simmer again over medium heat for exactly 2 minutes. Remove from heat, decant into the clean jam jars and set aside to cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Yields approximately 8oz of jam.
- If you like, take a page out of Tolstoy's book and top the jam with a little splash of rum prior to sealing and storing.