Thursday, September 6, 2018

Bingtown Cherry Preserves

It was a simple tray of carved wood, one that Grandfather had brought back from the Spice Isles long ago. On it were six little pots of homemade preserves. Malta knew that the gifts were largely symbolic, gestures of remembered bonds and kinship. Even so, she could remember when the gift had been lengths of rainbow hued silk so heavy that Papa had had to help Grandfather carry them. It did not matter, she told herself stoutly. As if her grandmother [Ronica Vestrit] sensed her uncertainty, she whispered, “The receiver of the gifts tonight is none other than our old friend Caolwn Festrew. She has always loved our sweet cherry preserves. She will know we thought especially of her when we prepared this gift. All will be well.” Malta lifted her eyes to the top of the steps. The smile that dawned on her face was genuine. All would be well.

- Mad Ship by Robin Hobb, Book 2 of the Liveship Trader Trilogy from the Realm of the Elderlings series

Cherry Preserves from the Liveship Traders: made with lavender, black pepper and cinnamon.

I spent most of 2017 either engrossed in Robin Hobb's world or engrossed in my PhD thesis. (The seas were not smooth sailing for myself nor for the Realm of the Elderlings protagonists.) Malta is a particularly memorable character from this series. Hobb did a fantastic job at portraying a highly privileged girl on the brink of womanhood, surrounded by even more privileged people - she is bratty, but in a sometimes embarrassingly relatable way, smart and impulsive. This passage demonstrates the growth Malta has undergone over the last book or two. She doesn't throw a melodramatic fit at the idea of showing up to the Summer Ball with just a few jars of homemade cherry preserves. While her family's recent economic misfortunes mean she is wearing a recycled ballgown rather than the decadent dress of her dreams, she enters the gathering feeling proud and beautiful.

So of course, I had to recreate these Vestrit Family cherry preserves for myself.

As a recipe starting point, I turned to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. I thought a Victorian-era cookbook might be a good approximation of Bingtown cuisine. Like Ronica Vestrit, Isabella Beeton would have had access to all sorts of foreign goods imported by ship through trading hubs. Beeton was described as "in the climate of her time she was brave, strong-minded and a tireless champion of her sisters everywhere," (G. Nown, 1986) which is also a fitting descriptor of Ronica Vestrit. (Take a moment to read Beeton's Wikipedia page, it's an interesting read.) Finally, I loved her little note that this recipe is "Very delicious." It is rare that she annotates a recipe with that sort of remark, and I quite agree with her assessment.

Liveship Trader cherry preserves, based on Mrs Beeton's Victorian recipe

(Very delicious.)
    1529. INGREDIENTS.--4 lbs. of cherries, 3 lbs. of sugar, 1 pint of white-currant juice.
    Mode.--Let the cherries be as clear and as transparent as possible, and perfectly ripe; pick off the stalks, and remove the stones, damaging the fruit as little as you can. Make a syrup with the above proportion of sugar, by recipe No. 1512; mix the cherries with it, and boil them for about 15 minutes, carefully skimming them; turn them gently into a pan, and let them remain till the next day; then drain the cherries on a sieve, and put the syrup and white-currant juice into the preserving-pan again. Boil these together until the syrup is somewhat reduced and rather thick; then put in the cherries, and let them boil for about 5 minutes; take them off the fire, skim the syrup, put the cherries into small pots or wide-mouthed bottles; pour the syrup over, and when quite cold, tie them down carefully, so that the air is quite excluded.
    Time.--15 minutes to boil the cherries in the syrup; 10 minutes to boil the syrup and currant-juice; 6 minutes to boil the cherries the second time.
    Average cost for this quantity, 3s. 6d.
    Seasonable.--Make this in July or August.
- Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

Mad Ship recipe recreated from an old cookbook recipe for cherry preserves

    1512. INGREDIENTS.--To every lb. of sugar allow 1-1/2 pint of water.
    Mode.--Boil the sugar and water together for 1/4 hour, carefully removing the scum as it rises: the syrup is then ready for the fruit. The articles boiled in this syrup will not keep for any length of time, it being suitable only for dishes intended to be eaten immediately. A larger proportion of sugar must be added for a syrup intended to keep.
    Time.--1/4 hour.
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

I wanted to adapt this recipe to something that Ronica Vestrit might be known for. Ronica proudly tends her garden, and on a few occasions incorporates flowers from her garden into food. Of the edible flowers I found readily available, hibiscus and violet seemed the best matches for cherry. While the hibiscus initially added a promising tartness to the preserves, this became a bit redundant once the currant juice was added and the hibiscus flavor itself became a bit too subtle. My first attempt with lavender was a little overpowering, and so I titrated it down a few times before I was happy with the effect. (This is the opposite of my experience with making lavender chocolate truffles - perhaps lavender flavors extract better in water than in cream!) I also wanted to reflect Bingtown in the preserves. As such an important trading port, it has access to spices from all over the place. I tried a few spice combinations, ultimately settling on black pepper and cinnamon. The black pepper adds just the tiniest bit of heat. Together, the three flavorings make the jam taste elegant, and just a little bit exotic. A great match for a Trader family.


Makes a little over 2 cups of preserves.
  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
  • 1.5 tsp dried lavender
  • 4 sticks cinnamon
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 lb cherries, with stems
  • 2 1/4 cups water, plus 1/4 cup water for making currant juice
  • 6 oz red currants, white currants, or 1/2 cup of white currant juice. (If using juice, skip Step 7)
Spiced cherry preserves, with lavender, cracked black pepper and cinnamon.


As Mrs Beeton notes in her syrup recipe, these preserves are intended to be eaten immediately since their sugar content isn't high enough to truly preserve them. Don't worry about cumbersome canning protocols, just store the preserves in the fridge for up to a week.
  1. Gently crack the peppercorns in half, either by pressing slowly with a mortar and pestle or by slicing them with a chef's knife. Kept whole, the peppery flavor isn't released, but ground too finely and the pepper pieces strain through into the preserves.
  2. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, 2 1/4 cups water, lavender, cinnamon and cracked peppercorns to a gentle simmer. Boil from 15 minutes.
  3. In the mean time, rinse the cherries and remove the stems and pits. If you don't have a cherry pitter, this article has some excellent suggestions for MacGyvering something from your kitchen drawer. I strongly suggest you wear something red.
  4. When the syrup is ready, strain out the spices (I found it convenient to use the fine mesh strainer in my teapot) into a saucepan. If I can solve something with a teapot, I will use a teapot.
  5. Add the cherries to the syrup and return to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and skimming the foam from the surface. Pour gently into a container, cover and allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight.
  6. The next day, strain the cherries from their syrup, reserving both the cherries and the syrup.
  7. Rinse the currants and remove them from their stems. Put the berries into a saucepan, and add 1/4 cup water, or enough to cover the surface of the pot. Bring the berries to a simmer, mashing them gently with a potato masher or a large slotted spoon. As the berries heat, the skins become easier to burst. Once all of the berries have broken, strain out the seeds and skins using a fine mesh strainer. (Yes, you guessed it, I used my teapot again). Use a spoon to press the last bits of juice from the flesh through the sieve. This should produce about half a cup of juice.
    Mrs Beeton's historical cherry preserve recipe uses white currant juice but I couldn't find any white currants.
  8. Add the currant juice to the cherry syrup and bring to a gentle boil in a small saucepan, skimming the foam from the top every few minutes. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the cherries. Return the mixture to a gentle boil, and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture from heat, and skim one final time. Use a slotted spoon to divide the cherries across two small jam jars, or one large 500-ml jar. Then pour the syrup over top.
  9. Serve with bread or scones, and lady grey tea.

Cherry preserves inspired by Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderling series, based on a historical recipe.

For more from The Realm of the Elderlings:
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