COMMENTARY, Aug 19 — My friends have been asking me about the fruit jams and preserves I’ve been making at home of late.

They rave about my easy-peasy vanilla spiced berry compote and hint not so subtly they wouldn’t mind volunteering their services as taste testers.

The truth is far less romantic than an ambitious bout of artisanal jam-making and has more to do with clearing out my pantry. Waste not, want not.

Also, my pantry, my fridge and my freezer have been fuller of late due to fewer trips to the supermarket. (Safety first and spending as little time outside one’s home as possible, after all.)

Groceries are now an unexpected source of adventure for me: planning days in advance of a supermarket visit, figuring out the most efficient route around the aisles so I’d spend the least amount of time there, thereby reducing the number of unnecessary trips just for that one item left out of the shopping list.

Which is why making jam or any sort of fruit preserves (from chutneys to compotes) can be a lifesaver.

That bag of fresh apples looking decidedly less than fresh, wrinkly almost, in the fruit and vegetables compartment? A punnet of frozen strawberries taking up space in the freezer? Let’s make some jam.

What a spread: Jars of assorted artisanal preserves and a Kiwi-style brekkie.
What a spread: Jars of assorted artisanal preserves and a Kiwi-style brekkie.

I am as surprised as you are that I’d be so diligent in the kitchen or quite as thrifty. But we take our inspirations where we can, and sometimes we find them in the most unlikely of places.

Who knew I would discover the economical craft of jam making in a brunch café in New Zealand? Certainly not me.

This was early last year, barely a month before the pandemic struck. We were on a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand.

Walking across the North Ground fields in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Walking across the North Ground fields in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The previous day, we had flown into Dunedin from Wellington. Now we were about to embark on a journey that would take us along the beautiful coast of the Otago Peninsula, deep into the Catlins, then onwards to Queensland.

But first: breakfast.

Dunedin is a pretty city, with charming houses along sloping hills. We left our rental car at our motel and walked across the North Ground fields in search of some hearty brekkie; it was too fine a day to do otherwise.

In no time at all, even with our unhurried pace, we arrived at The Good Earth Café. We had noticed the coffee shop the prior afternoon, when we were exploring the neighbourhood.

Besides the café, we had observed fresh faces of the University of Otago students, many of them Asian. Dunedin is a university town.

Table of diners at The Good Earth Café in Dunedin.
Table of diners at The Good Earth Café in Dunedin.

Elsewhere other students were busy getting drunk; it had been St. Patrick’s Day. We had heard loud music and hollering; the teamwork of troops of housemates carrying cases of beer uphill from the liquor store.

No doubt they were sleeping off their hangovers this morning. Indeed, there are fewer faces about, fresh or inebriated. When we entered the café, we were one of the earliest to arrive.

A quiet space, then, in a coffee shop suffused with the morning light. (Is there ever a light more divine?) A slow brekkie before our drive into the Catlins later that day.

Before perusing the menu, scribbled in tidy letters on the blackboard above the bar, we ordered a couple of flat whites to kickstart our day (not to mention caffeine for the drive ahead of us).

What better way to kickstart the day than with a flat white?
What better way to kickstart the day than with a flat white?

The choices for breakfast (or an early lunch, had we lingered) were tempting enough: Blueberry and lemon muffins with lemon cream cheese frosting. Herbed potato rosti stack with bacon and parsley hollandaise. A black peach frangipane tart.

In the end we settled for a simple breakfast. Bacon, bread and fried eggs. What more did we need?

While waiting for our food to arrive, I cast my gaze around the café. Only one other table was occupied; the three ladies were already happily tucking into their apple crumble pancakes with fresh whipped cream, their free range poached eggs on Dauphinoise potatoes.

What captured my attention, then, wasn’t the gossip of strangers nor their meals but the jars of preserves and jams that dotted the sunlit window sills. As though they were tiny treasures left behind by a summer Santa.

A simple breakfast: bacon, bread and a fried egg.
A simple breakfast: bacon, bread and a fried egg.

Plum jams and sauerkraut relish. Orange, lemon and whiskey marmalade. Tomato, apple and mustard chutney. The flavours enticed, full of possibility.

Not only for us to sample and savour, but perhaps to give a go at making some ourselves, when we got home. Why not?

But where would we find the time, I laughed, not realising the year and more ahead would offer just that.

The name of the café, I remarked, reminded me of Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Good Earth. The story revolved around a family in a Chinese village in the early 20th century; family life and family strife.

I believe the café owners were probably thinking more of their gluten-free, organic menu than a literary classic. Of sustainability and of the environment. Of climate change.

The sunlit entrance to The Good Earth Café.
The sunlit entrance to The Good Earth Café.

So yes, perhaps also life and strife.

On that note, the final sentences of Buck’s novel haunt me still:

And they soothed him and they said over and over, the elder son and the second son,

“Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold.”

But over the old man's head they looked at each other and smiled.

It’s easy to take our good earth for granted. To neglect the bounty Mother Nature offers to us.

According to the Solid Waste Management and Public Health Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp), Malaysians have been generating over 200,000 tonnes in household waste nearly every month since the first lockdown last year. Based on its study in 2019, almost a third of that is food waste.

This problem is prevalent everywhere in the world, of course. It’s not just us, though that hardly makes it better.

So we do what we can. We plan our food purchases wisely and do our groceries intelligently. And if there are fruits past their prime in the pantry? Well, we can always make jams, the way I was inspired by at a café in Dunedin, and hold on to those vibrant, delicious treasures a little while longer.

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