The Art of Preserves
Sounds, tastes, and smells have the ability to transform a moment into a kind of transportation device into our memories. We can be transported to places of warmth, hope, and consolation, as much as moments of disappointment and grief.
I remember it well: the evening we finished the last of the plum sauce. This was not just any plum sauce; this was the last of the plum sauce made from the fruit of the orchard at “Rosedale,” a property that had been sold years before.
The Orchard and garden at Rosedale had provided many years of marmalade, apple sauce, chutneys and pickles, preserved peaches and apricots, and, of course, the plum sauce, years of preserves made in the kitchen of my mother’s mother.
The proliferation of colour and the smells of preserving are unmistakable: Vacola Bottles and lids with pressed lettering, sugar, vinegar, spices, and buckets and containers overflowing with fruits and vegetables. After preparation, and much boiling, the preserved fruit and vegetables are placed in sterilised glass jars and stored in the cool of the pantry until they are needed, or given away to family and friends.
The making of chutneys, relishes, jams, and preserved fruit and vegetables is an art. The art of preserving food is not just utilitarian, though its most important function is to preserve the fruits of the harvest for the leaner winter months. Preserved food often provides variety in the diet. After all, when the fruits of the harvest have been collected, and you have tomatoes and apples filling every bowl, bucket and box you own, a little variety offered by the act and art of preserving becomes a way, in itself, of preserving the vestiges of thankfulness of that harvest when you are sick to death of tomato sandwiches. As my grandmother often says, “there’s only so many ways you can eat zucchini.”
The value of place and the ritual of preserves has a richness greater than simply the outcome of food for the winter. Preserving food in this way is rarely done alone. From the cultivation of the fruit and vegetables, to the preparation, peeling, cutting, and boiling of the ingredients in bulk, the work lends itself towards groups working together under the direction of a leader. In my case my grandmother, who uses the recipes of her mother and grandmother.
This domestic art is worth celebrating and cultivating. In the very least, the cost effectiveness of growing your own vegetables and using them in nutritionally healthy ways, is a wonderful use of the fruits of the earth, and something satisfying for the hands and the heart.
Aesthetically, the way the massed jars look on the pantry shelves has always fascinated me. The beauty of repetition of a simple pattern is the design principle, but nonetheless there’s a satisfaction about seeing the stacked bottles with their rounded shapes suspended in viscous liquid.
So why is it that the last of the “Rosedale” batch looms so large in my mind? It may be this: the recipes and process for preserving food is relatively simple, but like all art the true richness must begin with the quality of materials. Those plums were just something else. There has been other plum sauce, but it has never been, nor will be quite the same.
As I walked into her kitchen the other day, the smell of vinegar wafted through the air as the apple cucumbers were pickling on my grandmother’s stove. There were bowls overflowing with tomatoes on the counter, the stove, and in the fridge. And there was a bottle of plum sauce on the island bench.
Now let’s talk: Is this a domestic art you grew up with, still practise and cultivate? Why? Where do you source your fruit and vegetables? Do you think of it as a creative process? If you’ve never preserved food in this way before, have you ever considered doing so?