Friday, October 22, 2004

Les Ardennes en Automne, Part I: Jam with the Bartholomé Brothers

jam, originally uploaded by azurenath.

Belgian’s bus, tram and metro drivers had planned a strike yesterday, so Brussels was jammed with thousands of extra cars trying to circulate the city. Once out, though, the road smoothed, and Amé’s shuddering car bounced along the autoroute like a thirteen-year-old boy’s nervous hand on his first girlfriend. I was as excited as a thirteen-year-old boy, too: on my way to visit Philippe and Gilbert Bartholomé, brothers and professional jam-makers at the Confiturerie St.-Amour. (The real hard-on would have been if they made nutella, too, but no luck there.)

Philippe is balding and jovial, and Gilbert shy, thin and silent. Their accents are so thick I could barely understand them. But when they work they do so gracefully, their hands a fluid ballet of coordinated motion, stirring with wooden paddles fruit that bubbles and caramelizes under their touch.
Ten copper basins line the wall of their long, narrow kitchen, the same ones their father used. Into each they dump five kilos of fruit or flowers—dandelions and lilacs in spring, strawberries and cherries and blackberries in summer, hawthorne, rosehip and elderberry in the fall. They ship in exotics like kiwi or lime over the winter.

To the fruit they add five kilos of sugar, some pectin, water and lemon juice, and heat the bowls until the fruit gurgles and dances of its own accord. Gilbert glides between them, stirring and stirring lest the fruit stick to the bottom and burn, and checks the consistency with a ladle, off of which he lets the jam dribble slowly and heavily back into the bowl. He pronounces it ready when it clings to rather than slides off the spoon (quand elle la nappe).

Philippe then takes over, transferring the rumbling contents of the copper bowl into a copper jug, which he then pours into glass jars, tops off with lids, and sterilizes in boiling water. Their old mother, white-bunned and doddering, carries the jars over to the store in the next room where they sell their products. The store carries their jams, but also homemade sauces (bearnaise, tartare, cocktail), local honey, small pots of nutmeg, sage, tarragon, dill, marzipan in plastic wrap, little sacks of grilled almonds, old-style peppermints, foot balm, and local brewery beers. All the labels are handwritten, ostensibly by Mrs. Bartholomé, and some prices are still listed in francs, which the turn of the millenium rendered obsolete.

Philippe has never taken a plane—and indeed never wants to—but has learned some key words in Japanese to communicate with the tourists whose bus stops for lunch on the route between Amsterdam and Paris. The man has only ever been to Brussels once but knows that tempopo is the Japanese word for dandelion. I was in Liege a month ago, he says. But I try to avoid the big cities. I probably won’t go for at least another two months. (Liege is the size of Providence, RI). His brother Gilbert, on the other hand, studied agronomy and biochemistry in Brussels and Namur for eight years before coming back home to make jam.

Twenty-first-century artisans like the Bartholomés value the tradition their work entails but understand that they have to sell it to live, and that their main market is tourists. Locals can buy Bonne Maman at the GB for half the price, or make jam themselves. It’s foreigners that sustain the artisans here (just like in Lecce), and I keep wondering what this does to our illusions about the authenticity of artisanal work.

But both of them like making jam. It’s a job like any other, says Philippe. I take my dog out for a walk in the fields every day. I like hearing the birds sing. Doesn’t take much to make me happy. He works every day, this Keebler elf plunged inside his candied fog, and rarely takes vacations but doesn't really feel the need to, a sentiment I heard echoed by the ostrich farmer, the cheesemaker and the couque-baker too. It’s hard to know whether attitudes like these come from provincial insularity or just satisfaction and simplicity. One thing’s for sure: the artisans I’ve met seem calmer and more serene than many big-city professionals I know.

Do you eat jam, I asked, or are you sick of it? Sure, said Philippe. Every day. Your own? I wondered. Of course! he said proudly. Come on, now. What do you think?

Bartholomé Brothers’ Jam: (Confiturerie St.-Amour)
• 5 kg fruit
• 5 kg sugar
• water to cover
• pectin, lemon juice
Cook for a half hour, until the consistency thickens enough to coat a spoon. Pour into sterile jars, seal, and place the jars in boiling water for twenty minutes. When you take them out make sure the seal is vacuum-tight.


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