A Community Preserves its Traditions Through Jam-Making

A Community Preserves its Traditions Through Jam-Making

In the Anglo-Indian settlement of McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, the abundance of seasonal fruit is preserved through a community tradition of jam-making.

“It’s a surreal feeling, to be able to enjoy fruit from trees planted by your ancestors,” says Karen Meredith, whose backyard is full of fruit trees, most planted by her father and grandfather. Guava, litchi, orange, peach, pear, mango, mulberry, gooseberry, and banana. Her grandparents were among the first 300 residents to settle down at McCluskiegunj, and the family has been making gooseberry, mulberry and plum jam ever since. “Each compound has a few fruit trees. Plum and jamun grow everywhere. It was down to the women of the house to make use of the abundance of seasonal fruit. And making jam was an economical way.”

The Anglo-Indian hamlet of McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, where I grew up, resembled the English countryside more than the tribal belt of the Chotanagpur plateau, where it’s located. And that wasn’t just because most of the bungalows in this settlement were colonial-style, with acres of backyard, and rose gardens hemmed in by picket fences — strong European influences were felt in their culinary offerings too.  

Fruit trees in Karen Meredith's backyard

Fruit trees in Karen Meredith's backyard

In 1933, when Calcutta businessman E T McCluskie established the township, he intended on providing a permanent hometown for his community of mixed European and Indian descent, and envisaged an opportunity for people to be able to sustain themselves off the land. Making jams and jellies has always been an Anglo-Indian way of life, a throwback of their European lineage, and this stretch of land served that larger purpose. Everything flourished here: fruit, vegetables and tea.

These jams and jellies became flavours that reminded me of my growing up years in McCluskiegunj. For the most part, the weather was salubrious, and inspired exciting fishing trips and picnics. But my fondest memories are associated with the contents of those picnic baskets; delicious mustard and cheese sandwiches, slices of sponge cake with the light, bitter, lemony zing of marmalade, or plain jam and bread, and a fresh seasonal fruit . On cold winter mornings, when the temperature would sometimes touch zero, and only the crisp sun outside could keep us from freezing, a generous dollop of grandma’s saccharine plum jam, spread on a warm slice of toast, was our first taste of heaven.

Winter was the season for plums, and it was only the prospect of gorging on these juicy, ripe fruit that lured us out from under our quilts. A basket in one hand, and laggi (a bamboo stick with a wire hook on one end) in the other, we would march off to the plum grove in our backyard, where plum trees older than our grandparents stood. The dew-smeared, marble-sized red fruit glistened in the sun like rubies waiting to be plucked!

Image credit: Aysha Tanya

Image credit: Aysha Tanya

According to the women of our house, these plums were perfect for jams. That meant the fruit was not only sweet and fleshy, but slightly acerbic; just the right proportion required to make the best plum jam. Plum jam is made from tree-ripe plums, washed, stoned, and put into a pan with water. The plums are boiled until soft, before adding sugar and lemon juice, and cinnamon for flavour. Stored in airtight jars, plum jam would last right up to the next plum season, if given a chance. But with Christmas time, and children returning from boarding schools, old friends meeting again, and relatives from all over the world visiting, that was very unlikely.

A jar of jam or jelly is a memory brought back to life, less bright than the original, but sweeter and mellower.

The annual sports meet, held around Christmas, was the most anticipated event, with the Christmas hamper being the biggest draw at the end of the day. The hamper consisted of traditional homemade goodies; cake, wine, jam, jelly and pickle, contributed by each family. These savouries often ended up in boarders’ tuck boxes, and in the luggage bags of visiting relatives.

In her book titled The Joys of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 200 Classic and Contemporary recipes Showcasing the Fabulous Flavours of Fresh Fruits, author Linda Ziedrich describes the strong emotional connect with making jams and jellies: ‘A jar of jam or jelly is a memory brought back to life, less bright than the original, but sweeter and mellower.’ For residents of McCluskiegunj, the flavours of these preserves, evoke a nostalgia for their hometown. Roderick S. Cameron, who now lives in Bahrain, and whose family once had a flourishing school at McCluskiegunj that would convert into a guest house during holiday season, says, “My heart is always in the Gunj,” a term residents often use to refer to their hometown. He recalls the fun times spent there, the community gatherings, and the tradition of making jam. “My wife Patricia too would make guava jelly. We had quite a few trees at our place, but would also source the fruit from Konka (a village on the outskirts of the township),” says Cameron.

 With guava trees in almost every resident’s backyard, and long, languid summer days that confined people indoors, when power cuts were the norm of the season, the best way to pass the time time was by making guava jelly from the summer crop — considered the sweetest from sun-ripening. But over the years, although the guava yield has not dwindled, the vibrant community of over 300 families has. With migration in search of better job prospects, barely a dozen Anglo-Indian families remain. Those who still inhabit McCluskiegunj have taken it upon themselves to ensure these traditional flavours aren’t lost forever.

Malcolm Hourigan who runs a hostel for school students here, and whose family were among the first settlers, believes the only way to preserve these traditional flavours is by making them at home. Sharing his family recipe, he says, “I wash, peel and deseed the ripe guavas, and boil them for about an hour, on low flame. Then allow them to cool before straining through a clean cloth. Add sugar to the juice, and boil it once again, until you reach the right consistency, adding a tablespoon of butter, and when done, lime juice, for preservation.”

And if there’s anything Hourigan loves more that recreating his family recipes, it is distributing jars of homemade jams and jellies, so more people can savour the traditional Anglo-Indian flavours he cherishes so deeply.

Lesley D Biswas is a freelance writer from Kolkata.
Banner image by Aysha Tanya