Jane Purdy brings a white, plastic-wrap-covered bowl from the fridge to the table and hands me a spoon. I dip it into the thick golden jelly in the bowl and taste.
“That’s so good,” I say. “It tastes like honey.”
What I’m tasting is Jane’s dandelion jelly made from the flowers that grow in the yard of the Williamsdale home she’s lived in since 1986.
“I picked up a Country Woman magazine one day and it had recipes with dandelions,” she says. “There was a salad using dandelion greens and this dandelion jelly. It didn’t look hard and I thought, ‘There’s all kinds of dandelions this year, I’m going to try this’. So I went out and picked the dandelions and made a batch of jelly. It turned out pretty good.”
She made a second batch to offer as a novelty item at the UCW (United Church Women) sale coming up at the Collingwood firehall.
“I sold a few bottles because people were curious about it,” says Jane. “It was just an experiment. I have a fascination with recipes. I’ve always collected recipes. I’m the worst one, when it comes time for a sale, for trying something new. I know I’m not the only one but I’ll try something new, see how it turns out. That was one aspect of this, it was a new recipe and I was curious to see what it was like.”
This curiosity led her to search out a recipe for a wine jelly with garlic and rosemary that she used to buy at a farmers’ market but couldn’t get anymore.
“I’ve made enough jams and jellies, surely I could make it myself,” she says of the wine jelly. “It worked out fine. People I’ve given it to have liked it.”
Jane says she learned the art of preserving by helping her mother, Audrey Nix, who lives next door.
“After I was married, I guess it felt like country life to do preserves. We always had a garden so it was a way of keeping those vegetables throughout the year. We would freeze beans and peas. I’d can baby corn for stir fries and pickled beets, mustard pickles and relish. I always made jam. It tastes so much better,” Jane says. “I still can 50 pounds of tomatoes. That snap when the jar is sealing is so satisfying. I think it brings joy to know you’re going to have something that tastes so much nicer in the winter than stuff that you buy in the store.”
Although Jane runs into people who think homemade preserves are too expensive, she thinks preserving is making a comeback.
“It’s probably gone by the wayside to some extent because I think people have gotten away from it,” she says of preserving. “But I think there are more people getting into it. With the price of groceries and products, I think more people are trying it and doing it again.”
Speaking of country life, Jane, whose family settled in Collingwood when she was 13, says the community she’s lived in for almost 30 years has changed.
“There was so much industry, so many families who ran businesses. A lot of it in the last 30 years has been blueberries,” she recalls. “Now, with changes, people are moving into town where they can get work or moving away where they can get work. Some people that are moving out this way because they want to get out of the towns and cities but a lot of the recreation stuff is out of our community now. We don’t have that recreation stuff here so they have to go to Oxford and Amherst for that. They live here but they aren’t part of the community because they travel so much. They live here but there’s nothing to draw people together.”
They’ve tried, Jane says, hosting card and game nights but people just weren’t interested.
“You can only do so much until you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall. I think Internet and TV has taken over so much and there aren’t a lot of small children in our community anymore,” she adds.
A large grey tabby wanders into the kitchen.
“That’s Blueberry,” Jane laughs. “He came from next door.”
Next door is the Purdy family’s blueberry operation.
“The boys were feeding it in the shed through the blueberry season so they called him Shed. They asked Muriel if she wanted the cat in the house but she didn’t think so until she heard one of the boys was going to take him home. She ended up giving him to my daughter Tiffany.”
Which is how he ended up with the new name of Blueberry.
Jane was married to Muriel’s son Gordon who passed away in 2008, and following the example of her mother-in-law who was widowed in the 1980’s, Jane took over her husband’s work when she inherited his land. She’d worked alongside him since her daughter was born but now she became the farmer.
“I don’t do the spraying of the blueberry fields,” she explains, “but I still have a harvester and a mower. I hire somebody to run the harvester. Gordon’s brother lives on the other side of Mom and he has a machine so we pick together. I have six fields to pick and he has one so he picks with me and I pick with him. He works for me as a contractor. But I do my own picking as much as I can.”
Was there any question about whether she could handle it?
“Yes, totally,” says Jane, who turns 53 this fall. “Still, I just go year to year. Not knowing what the market is like, what workforce there is going to be.”
It’s external forces that affect her most, however, not her inability to do the work, as physically demanding as it is.
“We start picking blueberries the 7th or 8th of August,” she explains. “I leave the house here at 6:30 in the morning and I’m not home until 8 o’clock at night. The machines run from seven to seven. We have our breaks and some down time but that’s farming. You’ve got a certain window to pick those berries and get them off so that they are the best quality. I just go from year to year. Some year I might sell the tractor and let others do the picking. It hasn’t happened yet but it’s coming.”
When Gordon died in January 2008, their daughter was in her first year at the agriculture college. It was a struggle for both women to cope with the unexpected loss but they got through it together.
“Tiffany told me, ‘Mom, I don’t think I would have got through school if it hadn’t been for you.’ I just kept going,” says Jane. “She would come home in July and she’d take the harvester and tear it all apart and put the parts in it. We put the machine together. She’d work on the back for a couple of years then there was one year I couldn’t get a driver so I looked at her and said, ‘Well, maybe you’ll be elected this year’. So she ran the harvester that year.”
Has she surprised herself with what she can do?
“Yes,” Jane says. “Yes. I guess I have surprised myself that I’ve continued to carry on with this. But I didn’t have any brothers or sons so I guess I’m used to getting my hands dirty.”
|Jane's grandfather made this preserve cupboard.|