Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Preserving the Summer

Preserving the fruit from our plum tree has become a major undertaking this year, requiring five separate batches of canning the fruit in jars. Canning our plums became necessary when we couldn’t eat, give away, or find enough room in our refrigerator’s freezer to cope with an enormous abundance of fruit. People say that you can give fruit to food banks or soup kitchens, but then there are usually many others who have already beaten you to it.

(I also know firsthand that fruit isn’t as popular with the homeless as one would expect. My daughter serves snacks at a local soup kitchen and says they usually bypass the fruit and go for the cakes or doughnuts. This is understandable as it's known we're attracted to high fat and high carbohydrate foods when under stress--a drive that goes back to our hunter-gatherer origins when food wasn't always available. Loading up on fat and carboyhydrates offers some "cushion" for the body to fall on in times of famine.)

Since we don’t usually harvest this much fruit every year, and we don’t have the right kind of location (too close to a forest) to have a larger garden, we don’t want to invest in a chest freezer. Nor do we want to buy winemaking equipment. So that left good, old-fashioned canning. With canning, you need only a large pot with rack for holding the jars, the jars and lids, and some sugar--a total investment of about $50 at first and less than $10 a year afterwards. Then all you need to do is follow instructions.

The labour is what stops most people from doing home canning. It’s not especially difficult, but it’s time-consuming. Not including the picking of the fruit, canning takes usually a couple of hours to process about a dozen jars. It’s also a bit messy, requiring a lot of cleanup afterwards. So many people are time-strapped as it is; they don’t see the value in spending so much time over a steaming stove, just to have some jars of fruit later in the winter. But we love the taste of canned plums—it’s a bit exotic compared to the taste of the fresh fruit. They are still quite tart, but the cooking brings out another layer of taste that reminds me of black cherries.

Since my partner and I like the canned fruit, and we have more time this year as we’re not presently working, we ended up canning three-dozen quarts of plums. I’ve also made about a dozen 1-cup jars of apple-plum butter, a slightly sweetened fruit-rich sauce which is perfect on cooked oatmeal. I like looking at the finished product of purple-red liquid surrounding golden-fleshed globes, or the ruby-red apple-plum butter. I feel we have preserved the summer’s sweetness in jars to be enjoyed all winter long.

We have also preserved a method of food preservation that has been used by people in their homes for about 200 years. The recipes I follow come from a cookbook that’s about sixty years old. The method of canning as described in this book is still current. The only part of the process that has changed is the type of canning jar. Following an old recipe gives me a strong sense of preserving history. My parents didn’t can and neither did my grandparents, but they knew many others who did. Until the middle of the twentieth century, when freezers became affordable for the average family, canning was the most effective way to preserve the veggies and fruit you grew.

Growing and preserving your own fruit or veggies gives you a visceral connection to the food you eat. You are also assured that you know where the food was grown and how it was handled. Forget about the Hundred Mile Diet—how about the Zero Mile Diet!
We watched firsthand the cycle of flowering-pollination-budding-and ripening that took place in our front yard. We put up a makeshift stucco-wire fence to keep the marauding deer away, and made sure the slugs didn’t get to any windfalls first, and finally supported the fruit-laden branches with boards. All of this diligence sounds like more work than many would be willing to devote to just one plum and a few apple trees. But that fruit is the most delicious and healthy we could hope to eat.

We’ve also grown a few veggies in a raised-bed area that is fenced, but between digging out fir-tree roots every spring and then watching sow bugs, beetles or slugs work away at our struggling plants, we realized this is mostly a losing enterprise. Fruit and raspberries are more manageable, and we grow a few tomatoes in a little greenhouse. Fortunately we live in a semi-rural area and can buy fresh produce at farmers' gates or the weekly local farmer’s market. We can talk directly to the grower and learn whether or not they use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or if they grow organically. Most are small farms and rely on natural sources such as manure or compost to enrich their garden soil.

So many people today rely on their supermarket for their produce. They don’t know how much exposure to pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers or irradiation it has undergone. Nor do they know if it’s genetically modified. Many feel powerless to the big farming operations and the food companies who package the produce they eat.  Apparently a large percentage of people are choosing to do something about that. The organic produce market keeps expanding its market share, year over year. Others, like us, have put a few trees in the yard or use containers to grow some vegetables. Still others are joining community gardens so that they, too, can enjoy the fruits (or veggies) of their labour. If you live in Canada you most likely won’t harvest produce year round, but the reward of being able to enjoy anything you’ve grown for yourself is a timeless one.

 But if you grow a lot, lucky you, because then you may become another practitioner in the art of canning preserves!