Don: cakes, fruit trees and fig jam

Don was the youngest of six sons to his immigrant Scottish parents, and grew up in a country town in Central Western NSW. He has a wonderful memory and has written about his childhood in his memoirs. For a lively tale read today’s installment below.

Don aged 11, with his parents

Don’s Memoirs 1

My Mum was a great cook. She needed to be as she had a husband and six ravenous sons to feed.

Back in the 1930’s cooking was usually done on gas or more often on wood fired stoves. Our kitchen had a wood fired stove and I usually fell for the job of carting the wood chopped by my older brothers up to the house and stacking it ready for Mum to use.

Mum did most of her baking on Saturday morning when she baked a fruit cake, scones, etc and sometimes bread. My “job” defined by my elder brothers during the baking of the fruit cake was sit handy to the stove and when Mum had a peep in the oven and said it nearly cooked the first chance I got if Mum left the kitchen I was to smartly to open and shut the oven door and then move quickly out of the kitchen.

This resulted in the cake sinking in the middle which was exactly what my brothers wanted. That was how they liked their fruit cake. Mum could never understand how some of her fruit cakes sank in the middle while others rose beautifully. I guess it was just as well she never guessed how it happened or I would have had to eat my meals standing up.

Dad was a great gardener and we had a pretty big block of land most of which was dug up for garden beds and planted with peach, apricot, plum and fig trees around which all sorts of vegetables were grown. Grapes grew on trellises down one side of the house and over a bricked patio across the back of the house. Grapes varieties grown were white, black, muscatel, lady finger and seedless white.

With all the fruit at hand Mum made all the jam which her hungry horde consumed with great gusto.

In those days the best container for jam was a beer bottle with neck and tapered bit removed by heating with a red hot circle of metal and then quickly dipping in cold water. The neck piece snapped off cleanly and was then ground on a house brick to remove sharp edges. The bottles were then put on the copper and thoroughly boiled. When filled they were firmly sealed with several layers of brown paper soaked in flour and water paste.

Using a large caste iron enamelled boiler on the wood stove Mum then made fig, peach, apricot, plum and grape jam as well a few mixtures. The best part of this operation was while Mum was busy doing the sealing, which gave me the opportunity to make sure that whatever was left in the boiler didn’t go to waste. Very yummy!

The favourite amongst great assortment was FIG jam. Each batch Mum produced disappeared down hungry gullets with amazing alacrity which was a sore point with Mum. So when the next crop of figs was still green but well formed I was ordered up the fig tree to pick enough for a batch of jam. These were very smartly split lengthwise in halves and into the boiler they went and in due course they went into the jam jars, were sealed and placed in the jam cupboard. I was informed that should I be so stupid to say anything about this batch of jam I would not sit down for a considerable period of painful time. Mum’s idea was to slow down the consumption rate of her fig jam.

When the current bottle of jam was consumed Mum produced a bottle of the new fig jam. Eyes popped and mouths watered, bread was swiftly buttered, the Jam opened and what came out were complete halves of figs in a thick sauce. After a moments hesitation my eldest brother Jack popped a couple on his bread and took a mighty mouthful, chewed and swiftly devoured his slice of bread and green fig jam. Mum, expecting Jack to look disappointed and ask what went wrong with the batch, watched in amazement as that bottle of jam disappeared even faster than her “best” fig jams. 

Don is 92 years old now, and spends his days doing the basics, reading books, playing games on his computer, or doing a crossword puzzle. Since he received his palliative care diagnosis for cancer of the bladder and the bile duct about four weeks ago, he has lived with us. He loves living here surrounded by bushland, kangaroos and wallabies, and he often has his camera out to capture something beautiful. Here he is fishing on our beach a few years ago.

9 thoughts on “Don: cakes, fruit trees and fig jam

    • so glad to have your encouragement …. we used to encourage him to write them down, but now there will be no more … it is important to spread these stories of life as it was to help our own perspective isnt it …

  1. A fabulous piece or oral history, and one that has given me a sense of the time and place that Don and his family lived in.
    Can you tell Don that Fig jam is my favourite too – the only difference is that we get ours from a friends mum in France 🙂

    • Funny about fig jam, I loved it too when I live with my grandmother for some years … we had a big old tree that descended from one brought out from england about 100 years earlier .. I still make it each summer but mine is never as good!

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