Preservation of a Summer Tradition

I have a beautiful story about two beautiful souls, Wilson and Pansy Hayes. It's too long to share here, but I can tell you that they were old-fashioned foodies, the kind of people who grew and raised almost everything they ate. They had a healthy and deep respect for the land and its creatures, and nothing was wasted. 

Pansy's Fig and Lemon Preserves

During the hot summer, Pansy preserved (or put up as it's called in the South) fruits and vegetables for winter. When the figs came in, she kept them whole, added sugar, a few whole cloves (the spice) and very thinly sliced lemons. She'd cut the lemons in half from one end to the other and slice each half from side to side. The seeds would be removed, and the lemon slices would be stirred in gently with the figs. She would add a little water and wait until it boiled. The heat would be turned down to a simmer and she'd turn her hand to snapping green beans or washing greens.

Preserves are jam-like, but the fruit is kept whole and kept in a thick syrup instead of a thick jelly (as we have with jam or marmalade). Similar to confit, one of the oldest ways of fruit preservation. To confit something is to cover and simmer in its own fat (as in duck) or its own juice and sugar, as in preserved fruit. Once you begin looking at definitions of jams and jellies and preserves, it gets a tad confusing. Here's my take:

  • Preserves: Any fruit that is kept whole and cooked in sugar. The result is fruit that is tender and in a thick syrup infused with the flavor of the fruit and any aromatics or spices used. It can be canned (airtight seal) or kept in a jar as long as the fruit is below the surface of the syrup.*
  • Jams: Cut fruit and sugar cooked until the syrup gels. Typically acid is used to help with the thickening.
  • Jellies: Same as jams but strained. Can also be made just with the juice of the fruit.
  • Marmalade: Made with citrus fruit juice, sugar and zest/peel (which is where the essential oils are). So, kind of a jelly with thin strips of citrus peel.
  • Conserves: While we don't hear this word used much in the U.S., it's a jam made from mixed fruits and can often have nuts added.
On toast or on a fresh-from-the-oven biscuit, this is heaven!

(as remembered by Despina Yeargin)

I made this by watching Mrs. Hayes (Pansy) and repeating it at home for many summers. Then I stopped. Why? Probably difficulty sourcing figs, I think. Have you ever tried to recreate a recipe from memory? I have. It goes well if you repeat the cooking with some regularity. If you take too long of a break in between, the memory of how it goes gets a little foggy--something like a soft-focus photograph. Ugh! Last summer, in the midst of our Covid lockdown, I was fortunate to have friends share their surplus of figs. This is the recipe that I reconstructed.

  • 3 cups quartered lemon slices (Wash lemons, cut off pointy ends, slice lengthwise in four elongated quarters or wedges, remove seeds and slice across each quarter very thinly. Now, measure the thin slices.)
  • 6 cups sugar
  • 12 cups figs* (Make sure they're whole)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves (adjust this to suit your preference)
  1. Bring everything to a boil, stir and reduce the heat to low.
  2. Simmer for thirty minutes.
  3. Cool and pour into sterilized jars.
*Figs can be small or medium, even large if you're in the Mediterranean. Do your best with the measuring, and take notes for next time. If there's more syrup than figs in the end, well, you do know how to pour that over a  scoop of good vanilla ice cream, right?
JUST good vanilla ice cream. JUST the fig syrup with a few bits of lemon.

I enjoy eating the fig preserves in the traditional Greek Heritage Cooking way, as a spoon sweet. One or two figs with pieces of the lemon served on a small plate with a demitasse spoon. A cool glass of water on the side.


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