I remember the first time I tasted blueberry jam. I was thirteen years old and had been in boarding school for less than a year. How did I get from my sunny little island to the cold, grey, rainy town of St Andrews over 4000 miles away? My first few months at boarding school has passed in a haze. Games, mufti, trucs, jabot; it wasn’t just a whole new vocabulary but a whole new culture. Bahrain was essentially a sleepy, old fashioned backwater during the time I lived there. My life was simple and consisted mainly of swimming and riding. Unfortunately, riding wasn’t really an option at school. After galloping in a wide open desert on my zippy Arab tackling oil pipes as jumps, plodding around a muddy school in ten layers of clothing on a furry pony held little appeal.
So my first few months in school were spent swimming. It was the only thing I knew how to do better than the other girls. They were so confident, willowy and athletic it was intimidating to have to spend day and night with these creatures. The language of lacrosse, Latin and exeats was as alien to me as the cold grey days with only an icy drizzle or a howling wind to distinguish between them. I was horrendously homesick although I would never admit. Used to being the smartest one in the room, I was now distinctly mediocre. I wasn’t artistic, athletic or a size 8. My parents didn’t own a dilapidated country pile or a Hong Kong condo. I don’t even like tea that much.
Break times and lunch times were spent in the school library which was luckily big enough for me to curl up in a corner and escape notice. I turned to my classics for comfort. Enid Blyton, Walter Farley and Susan Cooper allowed me to escape back to a reality I understood whose characters and storylines gave me the familiarity I sorely missed. The dreaded pre-dinner hour was more difficult. Those girls less athletically or musically inclined tended to congregate in the chilly common room; a bunch of misfits thrown together to discuss sourly how it should have been them striding across the games field or playing first violin.
Within my second week I discovered the school swimming pool. Tucked away at the bottom of the grounds it was a gloomy, aged building that was permenently bathed in a mist of damp and chlorine. It was also the last place any sane minded teenage girl would choose to spend their free time. So I swam. Up and down and up and down, remembering all my training from Bahrain where I swam in a club 3 times a week. I freestyled, backstroked and butterflied my way to oblivion under the mildly curious gaze of the games mistress, thinking if I pushed myself hard enough I could transport myself back to those easier times. Thus, my isolated existence continued in this vein. A couple of times some of the nicer girls did mention that I would never begin to adjust until I started to actually choose to spend time with them but honestly, I wasn’t ready to let go of home.
The day I was placed next to another girl in Science seemed routine at first. I had no idea that this day was going to be different. This girl looked like the others at first glance. Tall, slender with a plummy accent and glowing porcelain skin. When I was placed next to her, my heart sank. Would I spend the next 50 minutes being ignored or having to listen to intelligible words that made no sense to me which further highlighted my uncouthness? To make things worse, I quite liked Science as it was one of the few subjects that seemed to be to be taught in a universal method (I mean, an atom won’t change it’s structure depending on which country you are in and your digestive system will always have an oesophagus, stomach and intestine connected one after each other).
“So am I.”
“Really? Where are you from?”
“From a village nearby – I’m only here during the day. I don’t board.”
Suddenly I realised something. This girl was as much of an oddity as me! Being a day girl was unusual. Unless you were particularly keen day girls slipped in after breakfast, went to lessons and then slipped away before that dreaded hour of free time before dinner. They had no more than a desk to their names in the various boarding houses and unless they were super gung-ho about games and music, tended to drift about quietly like wraiths. Fantastic. I could get on board with this.
“Do you like Science.”
Oh dear. To be fair, as an opening gambit it was particularly lame but they say in enlightened circles (actually Cosmopolitan – between the fashion pages and the article that tells you how to be more slutty for your partner) that in order to form a connection with someone, you need to find a common interest within the first five minutes of meeting. I had to try again.
“Do you like hockey?”
“No. I don’t do running. ”
SUCCESS! I had found the only norm in the herd of braying, hearty games fanatics.
“I hate games. Why do we have to wear bright red tracksuit trousers under a netball skirt. Will we forget we are girls if we don’t put the skirt on? Can’t we just wear the trousers (true story)?”
“It discriminates against the poorly coordinated. Like me.”
I was falling in love. From the outside she looked like one of them. But inside…it was a totally different story. She was a double agent! It is worth saying that at no point were we told to be quiet by our science teacher. Our wraith-like presence also extended to the staff.
“What do you like doing?”
“I have a pony. I love horses. And cheese.”
That’s it. Game over. I was officially in love. I met my soul mate, my partner in crime, the yin to my yang. And so it began. I had finally found a friend. Which is how I found myself for the first time in a year with somewhere to go on an exeat (leave out weekend). In the past I had stayed at school and had to pretend that the achingly pathetic jaunts organised for us by the housemistress on duty (Multiplicity at the cinema followed by Bella Pasta anyone?) were fine. But it really wasn’t fine. It was excruciating and even worse when it was followed by looks of sympathy masquerading as pity. But now I was with my friend! In a proper house! And I didn’t have to watch a Michael Keaton film (my housemistress’ slightly disturbing obsession).
One of the more unusual traditions I had been exposed to at school was the constant consumption of toast. I understood how it was an important component of breakfast but I never considered it as a snack and therefore totally acceptable to wolf down multiple pieces between meals. However, the unaccustomed cold which seeped into the marrow of my bones and the long active days were soon assuaged by swathes of hot buttered toast. The bread was always white and a value brand called Sunblest (I have never seen this type of bread outside school) that disintegrated if handled too strongly. The butter was another unknown that tasted more like margarine that had maybe had a dalliance with butter at some point in its past. Still, who doesn’t like toast?
However, the toast I was handed by My Friend (MF) on this blessed exeat day was completely different. A thick, springy white baguette that crackled comfortably as it was sliced dripping in proper butter and glistening indigo jam. I had never tasted blueberry jam before and it was a revelation. Sweetly tart jam and salty richness from the butter had me asking for more while my mouth was still full. And even better, as the sign of a true friend, there was zero judgement! My future forays with Sunblest where never going to compare with this Marks and Spencer baguette, Bonne Mamman jam and proper butter.
Needless to say, MF and I are still going strong. There are many more stories and food memories I have to share but this particular memory jumped into my mind. I was perusing the shelves in my local supermarket last week and my eyes fell onto a single, lonely jar of Bonne Mamman Wild Blueberry Conserve, all the way from France. Immediately I was transported into that warm, homely kitchen eating jam on toast whilst discussing boys, exams and of course, horses.
I had had a lovely Skype chat with MF the night before, marvelling how after more than twenty years (EEP!), just hearing her voice makes me feel calmed, centred and most importantly, loved. When you find that friend, falling into conversation and chatting for hours like you have never been apart is truly a sign that your relationship is indeed special. So when I saw that jar of jam I knew I had to recognise her in some way and being my BFF, the thing she would appreciate the most would be food.
For over twenty years MF has been next to me for every milestone of my life. From my first boyfriend to my (first – ha, joking!) wedding she has always supported me in a generous, thoughtful and non-judgemental way. She has put up with my hedonistic behaviour, moving to the other side of the world, swept up after heartbreak and celebrated every success with no ego or envy. She is hysterically funny, amazingly easygoing (you have to be to put up with me) and incredibly intelligent. There are not enough superlatives for MF and I just wish I could tell her so every single day.
So MF, I hope when I’m next home I get to make these Blueberry BFF bars for you because…well, I just don’t have the words. But until then, here’s the recipe to tide you over until I do…
Thanks to Suelle of Mainly Baking who’s recipe I have bastardised for you today..
You will need:
- 300g white chocolate with 50g chopped into chip-sized pieces
- 150g butter (urghgh Turkish butter…)
- 50g caster sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 eggs at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or just use 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
- 130g all purpose flour
- 150g blueberry jam
Pre-heat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm square tin with baking parchment. I used a glass pyrex dish which worked fine. Melt the butter and 250g of the white chocolate together in a large bowl, over a pan of simmering water. Don’t use a plastic IKEA mixing bowl. They just melt. Trust me.
While this is happening, chop your chocolate.
Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt.
Mix in the eggs, one at a time, then mix in both the vanilla extract and bean paste.
Gently fold in the flour, followed by the chopped chocolate, and put the batter into the baking tin.
Dollop the blueberry jam onto the batter in 5 or 6 equal portions, and swirl into the batter using a knife and a figure of 8 movement.
Bake for around 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack, then cut into 12 bars when completely cold.
These bars turned out amazingly! They were moist, fudgey and the balance of flavours was excellent. I think they would also work really well if you substituted the vanilla flavour for lemon zest and lemon flavouring. Or you could use any type of jam or fruit curd you fancied – it really is a very versatile recipe. However, most importantly, it has turned out to be a fitting tribute for MF.