Believe it or not, the world is now living in an age of austerity (yes, it’s easy to forget this when you’re in Dubai). The globe is recovering from a decade of heady excess and, as a result, people are beginning to be more resourceful. Whether it be taking a packed lunch to work or cooking at home instead of eating out, people are paying closer attention to what they eat, how they eat and where they eat.
Perhaps this change of attitude can explain the resurgence of humble jams, pickles and preserves. Back in the days of yore, when we didn’t have the luxury of fridges and freezers, people would preserve fresh produce by jamming or pickling it, sealing the resultant sticky substance in a jar to enjoy as a tasty, healthy garnish to a main meal.
While jam is enjoying a comeback in Europe and the States, I wanted to find out whether the same thing is happening in the UAE, because I’m a big fan of jams and chutneys. My somewhat selfish campaign leads me to at the new Baker & Spice store in Al Manzil Souk, where I’ve been kindly invited to a jamming session with Baker & Spice founder Yael Mejia. She used to produce her jams at the store’s other Dubai location, across the road at Souk Al Bahar, but soon encountered problems.
‘The kitchen in Souk Al Bahar is so small and, for jamming, you need space – space to work, to put a stove, to put pots… it just got very complicated,’ laments Yael. Happily, she now works at the new venue, which has a kitchen big enough to cater for both outlets of Baker & Spice. ‘We couldn’t do any volumes in Souk Al Bahar’s [kitchen]. Now with the weekly farmer’s market at Souk Al Bahar, we’re selling an enormous amount and it’s very difficult to keep up with what is going on.’
Yael explains all this while standing by a large, shallow pot, bubbling with strawberries. I admit that I never knew one needed a special jamming station. ‘You do!’ she cries. ‘It’s one of the reasons I’ve put a solid top on [the stove], so that we have even heat on very large pots and you’re distributing the heat correctly. It means you don’t have to stir it so much.’
Stirring regularly – constantly, almost – is one of the secrets to good jam. ‘It’s better to do it in a wide pot with a shallow layer,’ explains Yael, gesturing towards her pot. ‘If you use a small pot that’s very deep, the temperature isn’t properly distributed. The stuff at the bottom boils too much, and the stuff at the top doesn’t get enough heat. What you get is an uneven product.’
Is this a common jam-making mistake these days? ‘I don’t know who makes jam these days,’ replies Yael sadly. ‘But for the uninitiated, it’s up to you. You can boil the jam for as long as you want – 20 minutes, half an hour, three days. Look at it, taste it, and if that’s what you want, fair enough. All this business of testing if it’s gelatinous, if it’s solid enough… who cares? If you like it dribbling all over your face, that’s what you can have!’
There’s great pride and no room for modesty when it comes to the jams at Baker & Spice (‘They’re sensational and unusual,’ asserts Yael), and they differ from most jams you’ll find elsewhere in the city because they use a home-made method that anyone can try, rather than following a commercial recipe. This also means that Yael uses a tiny amount of sugar in her jams, unlike those you’re likely to find on supermarket shelves.
‘ I don’t like food that is too sweet,’ she explains. ‘I’m the one who sets the tone here – whether anybody else likes it matters not a jot. I don’t particularly like anything that just has one tone. If I eat a fruit, I like a tart-sweet balance. It’s all personal palate, after all. Over the years, we have developed a methodology involving fruit that has a particular tartness, and we use a particular amount of sugar. If we need to change it, we do. We use 1kg of strawberries and we add 15g of sugar. So that the fruit is our starting point.’
True to her home-cooking ethos, Yael is fiercely passionate about using locally sourced produce in all her food – jams or otherwise. She tells me that the strawberries bubbling away next to me are from Abu Dhabi. I’m impressed, but surprised. ‘I didn’t think anything grew in the UAE,’ I remark flippantly. If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man.
Baker & Spice, Souk Al Manzil, Downtown Burj Khalifa, www.bakerandspiceme.com (04 427 9856)
Luckily for us, Yael isn’t the only one shouldering the traditions of home-made jams, pickles and preserves here in Dubai. Bekky Britton, the lady behind local home-based cooking company Lily Bakes, makes jams and chutneys to sell at the monthly ARTE Souk at Times Square Mall.
Bekky founded her enterprise when her sister, a jewellery maker, wanted to set up a stall at the souk, but didn’t want to go alone. ‘I’m not really artistic, but I can cook,’ says Bekky. ‘So I made a couple of cakes to sell, and with the leftover apricots made some apricot and ginger chutney, and it started from there.’
Bekky now hosts a stall at ARTE Souk on the second Friday of every month to sell her jams and chutneys, as well as lemon curd. ‘My mother and I always used to make lemon curd to give to friends as gifts, so you could say it’s my speciality.’ Every month, she produces three kinds of chutney: apple and ginger; fig, tomato and caramelised onions; and chilli apple. She also makes a special each month – this month, it’s pear and walnut.
For the uninitiated, chutneys are made in a similar way to jam, the only difference being that vinegar is used as well as sugar. Bekky tends to use 500g of sugar, 1kg of fruit and 500ml of apple cider vinegar. However, the ratios change depending on the fruit she’s using. ‘If you’re going to follow a recipe, try it before you jar it,’ Bekky explains. ‘I’ll play around with different spices, different vinegars – white vinegar, apple cider vinegar… If I’ve sampled a chutney elsewhere that I particularly like, I’ll try to recreate it from the ingredients without knowing exactly what’s in it, so I end up with my own recipe.’
Trial and error seems to be a respected method when it comes to making good chutney, as the chefs at the new Lime Tree Café in Al Quoz can attest. Lime Tree is renowned for producing fresh, home-made food, and jam and chutney have long been staples at its Dubai cafés. Their meetings often involve sampling different mixes of chutney – some of them work, some don’t.
Lime Tree executive chef Jonquil Parisian is the lady in charge of the brand’s chutneys, which include Arabian date, beetroot and apple, and roast tomato relish with spicy banana. After slathering them on an assortment of crackers, we can confirm they’re all delicious. Try Bekky’s chutney at the LilyBakes stall at ARTE Souk, Times Square Mall on February 11, noon-4pm (www.arte.ae, www.lilybakes.com). Alternatively, drop into the new Lime Tree Café in Al Quoz 1, next to Courtyard Gallery (04 325 6325)