Preserving is not just for old people but is punk fucken rock because it’s all about the DIY. Yes, making jam or growing your own tomatoes then making them into chutney is a completely amazing and revelatory experience!
Nowadays we can go into a supermarket and the majority of what’s on offer isn’t fresh fruit and veg but preserves, tinned and frozen foods, and a huge range of processed meals, some of which are exciting and tasty and a lot of which are just lots of salt and artificial flavourings, fat and chemicals livening up lifeless ingredients.
But doing it yourself is a whole other, much tastier kettle of fish and involves skills and knowledge that are always in danger of dying out. Before mass refrigeration and mass processing, there were many different ways of getting food obtained in abundance to keep for a longer period of time, over the winter or for travels. These traditional methods work, can mostly be applied on a small scale, and don’t rely on industrial processes and huge fossil fuel consumption.
Preserving is about using food that is in season and keeping it for times it’s not – rather than flying ‘fresh’ produce in from around the world whenever we take the fancy. It’s also another step in overcoming the alienation we experience in our modern relationships with what we eat.
Why food spoils
Since it’s organic matter, foods deteriorates naturally, as the naturally occurring enzymes get to work, yeasts grow and cause fermentation, or bacteria proliferate that can cause infections. Exposure to air and the funghi in it causes mould. So you can exclude either air or moisture, make it cold or alter the pH levels to create an environment in which these processes are inhibited.
Drying is probably the oldest method of keeping foods, i.e. removing the water from a product in slow heat or in the sun. It also ‘concentrates’ the flavour, and over time many methods of drying have been developed including adding flavour while drying or smoking over a seasoned fire. Smoking also has the added bonus of deterring insects. You can try it yourself with apple rings or pitted plums in an oven on the lowest setting or in residual heat. Another easy thing you can try is hanging up bunches of herbs, chillis or mushrooms.
Both salt and sugar are preservatives that prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Salt dehydrates as well (in fact, it was heavily used in mummification in ancient Egypt!). Both have been so useful throughout time that they have always been considered valuable commodities that have literally influenced the course of history. The rise of colonialism and the slave trade is directly linked to sugar consumption.
Vinegar creates an acid environment in which bacteria can’t live. Vinegar is made from grapes, from wheat or other grains or from fruit depending on what grows in a given area.
Oils and fat work as preservatives by excluding the air. You can also exclude air by canning/bottling and vacuum packing.
Fermentation is caused by microorganisms such as yeast that transform the food. Wine and sauerkraut are examples of fermented foods.
Using properly sterilised jars is really important when making preserves. Place clean jars without their lids in boiling water for 10 minutes, or bake at 160 degrees/Gas Mark 2 for 10-30 minutes. Pick them out with gloves or tongs. After sterilising, be careful not to touch the insides or the rim with your hands, and either cool before use, or fill with hot jam/pickle/chutney to prevent cracking.
Chutneys are combinations of fruit, vegetables and spices slowly cooked together and preserved with vinegar, and are great to have on hand for sandwiches or pies. Combinations you might like to try include apple and sultana, pumpkin and cinnamon, courgette and mustard seeds. Whereas you want to use only undamaged fruit and veg for pickles, you can be less fussy with chutneys.
- 1. Clean and finely chop your fruit/vegetables. Basic chutney ingredients usually include some onion, apples, raisins and maybe tomatoes.
- 2. Cook all the ingredients together in a large heavy bottomed pan, preferably not iron, aluminium or copper, adding salt, sugar, vinegar and spices. Use 20g salt, 400g sugar, 500ml-1 litre vinegar for every 4kg of main vegetables. Stir frequently as the sugar can tend to stick to the bottom of the pan.
- 3. Simmer until tender, uncovered, anything from 30 minutes to 3 hours, until the liquid has evaporated and it’s thick.
- 4. Pack while still very hot into sterilised jars, and screw the lids on tight. The lids should also either be plastic coated or covered with wax paper to prevent corrosion. You will probably then want to leave them to mature for up to a few months. They will keep for a year at least in a cool, dry and dark place.
This is the best chutney ever. It was in an old cookbook that the old lady who lived in my family house (Greenhoe) before us wrote. My Dad made it every year (his tomatoes never used to ripen). It has a lot more subtlety of flavour due to the ginger and mustard than your average chutney. Nowadays my Dad grows the most amazing ripe tomatoes and has to pick them green especially for this!
- 1. Wash and slice 1.8kg green tomatoes and 900g apples. Shred 6 dried chillis with scissors (or use 10g chilli powder), and peel and mince 110g onion or 55g garlic. Chop 110g preserved ginger.
- 2. Bring everything along with 55g crushed yellow mustard seed, 110g salt, 900g demerara or brown sugar, 450g sultanas and 1.7 litres malt vinegar to the boil in a heavy bottomed pan, stirring well. Cook for about 1 hour, until brown and soft.
- 3. Pack into sterilised jars, then leave for a couple of months for the flavours to fully develop.
- 1. Put 8 whole seville oranges and 2 lemons into a pan and cover with water. Simmer for 2 ½ hours.
- 2. Remove the fruit, keeping the liquid. Halve the fruit and scoop out the insides pith and pips etc. Put the insides in a pan with a little of the liquid from before and simmer for about 10 mins (to get the pectin out).
- 3. Meanwhile chop the orange (not lemon) peel into the size pieces you want in the final marmalade and place it in a 4 pint measure.
- 4. Strain the pith and pips mixture, adding the liquid to the 4pt measure. Discard the pulp.
- 5. Top up to 4 pints with the original simmering water (use plain water if not enough simmering water). Put in pan with 4lbs sugar and boil till setting point is reached (about 10 mins).
- 6. Maybe let stand a little while before jarring so that peel doesn’t all rise to surface.
http://stason.org/TULARC/food/preserving/ – an amazingly huge resource with all the FAQs you would ever want to know about preserving.
http://www.eco-action.org/teapot/anotherdinner.htm – ‘Another dinner is possible – more than just a vegan cookbook’ is our cookbook published last autumn by Active distribution and the Anarchist Teapot; there’s a chapter all about keeping foods that includes the recipes reprinted above (apart from the marmalade one, which we somehow forgot to put in…) and more!