Harvest season is upon us. This is the reward of summer-long labors. I’ve been talking to neighbors who are canning dilly beans and corn, making peach jam and drying herbs. One neighbor is seeing what she can rescue from the late blight that is hitting many tomato patches in the area. Harvest time can be hectic when so much produce is coming in at the same time.
I don’t do much canning any more. I depend more on the freezer, and a cold closet where I store winter squash. However, this week I tried out a new recipe for a turnip and beet pickle from my Ottolenghi Jerusalem cookbook. Delicious, and I don’t think I will have any trouble finishing the jar within the month – as recommended.
I always admire the canning display at the Heath Fair and the even bigger display at the Franklin County Fair. Those sparkling jars of beets, tomatoes and corn, of relishes and jams glowing with color and flavor are so inspiring. I am reminded of all the canning my Aunt Ruth did back in the 40s and 50s, turning the basement into Ali Baba’s cave. I also remember hot summer days and making sure I stayed out of the steaming kitchen with its bowls of produce and boiling kettles.
Preparing for the Fair and reading about the root cellar workshop that was held at the Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield last weekend (unfortunately I was not able to attend) I got to thinking about the many ways food has been preserved over the ages. It is all very well to invent agriculture, but even that will only take you so far. Winter comes and the fields are covered with snow. How did the ancients preserve food?
One of the oldest methods of preserving food was drying. Dried grains have been found in ancient Egyptian and Chinese tombs. Most of us don’t dry grains anymore, but it is easy to dry beans and store them for the winter. I know people who air dry apple rings, and others who now use dehydrators. The skill of drying food has come a long way since 3500 B.C. when all you had was the sun and breeze, to the 21st century when you can have a little electric dehydrator on your kitchen counter.
Once fire was invented drying meat and fish took on the extra dash of smoking, adding an interesting flavor to the drying process.
Fermenting was also an early food preservation technique that resulted in the happy invention of beer and wine, but also the fermented milk drinks of Asia. We must also remember that when Johnny Appleseed was making his rounds his apple trees were intended to make cider. Hard cider. Fermented apple juice. Cider could be much more reliable than water for safe drinking in those days.
It is interesting to think how the ancients learned the rules of fermentation, and how to control the process for ever better flavor. In fact for every development in food preservation there must have been careful observation, and perhaps deliberate experimentation to make these techniques work dependably. They may not have come up with any ideas about the microbial action that caused spoiling, but they could observe that certain actions kept food edible for a longer period of time, as well as adding new flavors.
Pickling was also invented and used in ancient times. The first pickles were a product of fermenting. Real Pickles in our own neighborhood uses the ancient techniques of fermentation to make their array of pickles. I also have friends who make their own sauerkraut, another fermented food.
Most of us these days use vinegar to make our dilly beans or bread and butter pickles, or chow chow relish. When was vinegar invented? First you needed wine, but the discovery that spoiled wine could be useful was not far behind. Legend has it that 5000 years ago the Sumerians used vinegar as a cleaning agent as well as food preservative and condiment. Caesar’s armies drank vinegar and hot and thirsty 17th century colonists drank switchel, water, vinegar and a sweetener like honey, or maple syrup.
Another of the simplest ancient ways of preserving food is cooling, as Emmet Van Driesche explained at the Bullitt Reservation. Here in Heath we had a Cellars and Cave Tour this past spring, organized by the Heath Agricultural Society. We got to see how several of our Heath neighbors set up root cellars in their basements without the work and expense of digging a root cellar. The trick is to maintain temperatures above freezing and below 40 degrees.
My Uncle Wally and Aunt Ruth had a big root cellar on their Vermont farm. When we bought a house in Maine there was a root cellar set up in the basement, equipped with rat traps. In confusion and dismay I asked Uncle Wally what I should do? “Set the traps,” he growled. We never used the traps or the root cellar because we moved to New York before the harvest was in.
Nowadays my own food preservation activities are limited. We hardly heat our upstairs (I require a cold bedroom for sleeping) and the guest room closet works well for storing cured butternut winter squash. There is the freezer for green beans and berries. Obviously I am lucky that I am not dependent on my own labors for fruit, vegetables and condiments to feed me during the cold season of winter.
Are you putting by any of your harvest?
Between the Rows September 6, 2014