Sometimes, the process of growing your own food is completely overwhelming. Not so much because of the work involved, which for the most part is satisfying and creative, but because of the sheer abundance that comes to fruition at certain points in the year.
My household is currently at one of those points. Last Saturday, after a morning spent harvesting plums, potatoes, grapes, cucumbers, beans, tomatillos, apples, tomatoes, almonds, basil, chillies, blackberries and corn, Kylie and I swapped bemused glances, each of us pondering the same dilemma: what on earth are we going to do with it all!
Outsiders view the grow-it-yourself life as one of struggle, of barely scraping by. They’re dead wrong, of course. Anyone who’s grown their own food will tell you that the true cause for consternation, at least in late summer, isn’t an under-supply of produce but an over-supply. A small vegie patch can yield a surprisingly large quantity of food, and a mature fruit tree will easily produce more than a single household can manage.
So when I see the kitchen benches piled high with all kinds of produce, I can’t help but experience mixed emotions. First and foremost is thankfulness for such abundance. But in the back of my mind, I know that mountains of home grown produce can quickly become mountains of home made compost, and I’m reluctant to let anything go to waste.
Generosity is an obvious solution. We constantly give food away in summer, showering family and friends with a steady stream of organically grown produce. Another solution is community. We started a little produce exchange going here at Hampton almost a year ago, and get together once a month at a local farm or garden to swap excess fruit and vegies, and catch up with friends. At the last event we went with grapes, blackberries, cucumbers, and vegie seeds, but came home with eggs, honey, blueberries, potatoes, mangoes and apples, all locally, and most cases organically, grown.
Even after the pile of produce has been whittled down, there’s still more than my family can eat in the space of a week. But for centuries savvy home growers have found ways to save some for later and herein lies the foremost solution to the late summer glut – preserving.
On Saturday morning, Kylie and I were perplexed. By Sunday arvo, we were squirreling away container after container of food for use during winter. Jars of jam and sauce were stacked in the larder. Berries and tomato sauce were loaded into the freezer. Potatoes piled into crates and stored in the shed. And a carboy of red wine about to bubble away in the family room.
If you’ve never tried it before preserving ranges from being dead easy to reasonably scientific. Berries, liquids (such as stock and tomato sauce) and some vegies can be simply plopped into containers, and preserved in the freezer. Produce such as garlic and potatoes can be stored in a cool, dark shed. Make sure everything is perfectly dry before storing and facilitate airflow. Discard any diseased or damaged produce. If you don’t, rot may spoil the entire harvest.
On the more scientific end are bottled preserves. If not done properly, these can become infested with pathogenic bacteria, some of which (botulism for example) has the potential to be deadly. Cleanliness is vital. Jars and lids should be in good condition and must be sterilised before use. If you’re doing small batches, a microwave is convenient. Just nuke the jars on high for 30 seconds each, but don’t microwave metal lids. Boil them in a saucepan for 10 minutes or so. For larger batches, sterilise jars in a low oven (110C) for about 20 minutes.
In terms of what actually goes into the jars, the possibilities are endless. Some preserves rely on an acidic environment to keep contents fresh, either as a product of natural acids in the produce, in the form of vinegar, or as natural lactic acid formed as a by-product of fermentation. Other preserves rely on a high sugar environment to inhibit the growth of bacteria. Those that aren’t either sweet or sour keep best when heat treated using the water bath technique. This simply involves submerging filled jars in boiling water for a period of time to kill off pathogens, and sterilise the contents.
Wine and other alcoholic beverages are a different kettle of fish, so to speak, as brewing requires a combination of science and craft. Alcohol works very well as a preservative in low concentrations, but in high concentrations, can be toxic. It’s vital to have some idea what you’re doing, but get it right, and you could be enjoying the hard-earned fruits of your labour for months to come.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 16th February 2013.