A jar of carrot cake in a jam bar

 

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He served me a slice of carrot cake in a jar. The young, eager waiter explained that it was too soft and gooey that it didn’t present well on a dessert plate. I didn’t really need to eat a carrot cake. I was quite happy with my own recipe, passed on by a friend many years ago, that I could easily whip one if I so desire. However, curiosity got the better of me and at the excuse of expanding my knowledge of veggie pastry, I ordered one at the Pipaillon Coffee and Jam Bar.

A Jam Bar is probably one of the most original food concepts launched in Brussels these last few years. We’ve seen the arrivals (and the demise) of modish food outlets like cupcake salons and burger grills, but no one thought of a Jam Bar except Pipaillon.

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But what is a Jam Bar? Well, it’s a place where we can sample and buy jams. At Pipaillon, though the selection is a bit pricey, the jams are far from ordinary and they pride themselves with the quality of fruit (and vegetables) conserved in a jar.

Pipaillon, above all, is a cannery in the heart of Brussels. It lies on a street that was once part of an extended canal, allowing merchandise boats to lay anchor right in the city. The docks were all part of this flourishing distribution center in the 19th century. The canals have long been filled, giving way to a fountain and terraces, and the only reminder of its past are the names of the streets, such as the one where Pipaillon is, the Quai au Bois à Brûler (the dock of firewood). This street leads to the animated Place St Catherine where fish restaurants, a daily fresh produce market, and the Christmas fair have called it their home.

P1020437The cannery brings back the art of conservation – with sugar for jams, salt for capers, vinegar for chutneys, and oils for tapenades. I love their witty labels, jams with names such as Rhubarbra Streisand (rhubarb), Dancing Quince, The Dark Side of the Spoon (Prune-Chai-Yuzu), Miss Figgy, Onion Jack or savoury delicacies such as Little Miss Sunshine tomatoe sauce, Yellow Submarine for lemon confits, or Highway to Plum chutney or rare pots of Brussels honey, Bee Sweet.

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We can’t visit the cannery but we can sit at the Coffee and Jam Bar. The place also serves healthy lunches, abiding with the principles of the house: organic, local, artisanal. Catherine Bodson, who created Pipaillon, brings with her food traditions inspired by women in her family, who had at one point in their lives, were involved in food. There is also a strong commitment on buying from local farms – fruits grown in Brussels, Cerfontaine or Vielsalm, vegetables from Fouleng and Sambreville. And anything they need that does not grow on Belgian soil, like capers, lemons and olives, they buy from Sicilian cooperatives.

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I always had a preference for citrus-based concoctions and Pipaillon has quite a range to please my palate, though, I still have to graduate from my infatuation of Tangerine Love, a mixture of mandarines, rose petals and cardamon; and Pink Panther, pink grapefruit with pink peppers.

There is free tasting of at least three jams when you come in and sit at the bar, decorated with a sunny yellow wallpaper, touches of Tiffany blue and pink vintage chairs. Sometimes, they put a dollop of jam with your cake or unexpectedly, the young, eager waiter walks around and drops little pots of new, experimented flavours.

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I decided to concentrate on my carrot cake in a jar. It was indeed gooey and oozing with deep flavours of spices, mellowed out by the generous icing of yoghurt and salted butter. I scooped until the very last bite, downing it with a raspberry-orange smoothie and then, unhurriedly asked the bill from the young, eager waiter, who despite of the countless comings and goings, has not lost his uppity strut.

 

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Fifty pots of jam

My two plum trees are heavy with fruit, so heavy that their branches are literally kissing the grass. From afar, they look like weeping willows with ripe plums for tears. I’ve been checking them for the last three days…hesitating if I should pick them up just about ripe or ripe, not knowing exactly if the level of softness is some kind of an indication. To be truthful, I’m a little bit lazy to pick them but I’m at the end of my procrastination…its plum picking time.

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Twenty kilos of plums. What do I do? I have no inspiration for tarts so the next best thing and the easiest (in my opinion) is to make jams. Once made, they keep forever, except that at home we consume one jar of jam a week so my jam stock does not carry “eternity” as an expiration date.  I also believe that we should all make our own jams, our own peanut butter, our own chocolate spread (and why not grow our own vegetables, sew our dresses, paint our walls….)  The time you spend in making them is time you don’t spend in eating them.

This is a five-minute thing which actually takes me ages because I multi-task at the same time. This time, I got consumed with a book I bought on sale, simply because it had “bakery” on the title. It’s like grabbing any product at the supermarket with “sugar” on the ingredients list. I got worried, though, that a book on sale is probably a bad book but it turned out to be a very interesting discovery of a new author to follow. “The Little Beach Street Bakery,” by Jenny Colgan, author of bestselling novels.  She also wrote “Meet me at the Cupcake Cafe,” “The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris,” and many sweet-toothed books.

Before flipping the first pages, I washed my fruit and left them to dry. Then, I took out my heavy casserole that I inherited from my mother-in-law, my weighing scale, a wooden spoon and my recycled jars. I am a firm believer of recycling but I don’t enjoy scrubbing old labels from used jam pots. My arthritis-finger is complaining. Next time, I should remember to soak them overnight in soapy water.

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Cut the fruit in quarters. Sometimes, I leave a stone or two (seed, in another language). Grandmothers say it gives jam a better flavour. I do batches of two kilos, add my secret ingredient Pec-plus (a gelifying agent), and cook on low fire for about 20 minutes. I like to slow-cook my fruit until they are tender. And I know that the purists will crucify me for using an industrial pectin when I know that lemon juice would do the trick. But I’m lazy today and decided I was not pure and besides, I don’t  have a lemon.

So, the book talks about the life of Polly. She could have been well called Louise. Oh dear, story of my life – an island, at a crossroad of a career change, and baking. And so current – written, published, reprinted and bargained in 2014. This is the kind of book that speaks of a character whose arrival in a small village stirs it from its sleepiness or tranquility, similar to the book “Chocolat,”  a shop that made an entire neighbourhood alive. This book makes you want to bake and write your own novels. But i’m upset…. someone stole the  storyline of my 10th unfinished book.  How could you, Jenny Colgan?  In between the chapters of Polly kneading her dough, making friends with a seabird, chatting with her botox-bimbo-bestfriend who does not eat potato chips and falling in love with a hipster – I keep an eye on the bubbly jam.

I wait until the fruits are well-cooked but with remaining chunks. I don’t like jelly-like jams. I want to keep pieces of fruit so when I spread it on my bread, I can feel my teeth digging on the soft, sweet flesh. Half of it will be juice. At this point, add granulated sugar. For two kilos of fruit, I only add one kilo and a half of sugar, even if all recipes say a kilo of  sugar for a kilo of fruit. I find that too sweet and I prefer a bit of tanginess in my jams. Once you add the sugar, put on the high fire and stay close to your casserole. I give  the same advice when caramelizing sugar – before starting, go and make a pee (and wash your hands!!!). You cannot leave one second once your sugar is on the stove. Same for jams. A one-minute boil should be good. If you want to check if your jam is ready, carefully scoop a teaspoon of hot jam and drop it on a plate. If the jam does not “run,” it should be ready. Ladle on pots and close well. Some people turn the pots upside down to prevent air but I don’t and my jams stay mold-free even for three years (well, those that I forgot in my pantry).

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So, Polly starts from being an assistant in a bakery to becoming her own boss, receives a fantastic oven from a super rich acquaintance she just met (I have rich friends for more than 20 years and none of them gave me an oven) and ends up with a wealthy executive who turned his back on a well-paying job to become a beekeeper. Okey, okey…story quite predictable. Book talks about baking but not really giving enough technical details (unlike “Like Water for Chocolate” where sweat, tears, spirits and stolen kisses intervene in the final taste of a dish) but Jenny didn’t write a baking encylopedia anyway. Her books are sweet, light and entertaining. And the bonus are her bread recipes, found at the back pages.  Just what I need  – good bread to devour with my fifty pots of jam.