Preserving Food (part one): WE’RE JAMMING!

There seems to be a kind of (inadvertent?) conspiracy about preserving food such as through making jam or pickles. On the one hand, people in the West increasingly seem to grow up with the notion that unless food is prepared in sterile factory conditions, or under the guise of experts, then it is a bacteria-infested deathtrap. On the other hand there is also an impression given from other quarters of society that making jam or pickles at home is the preserve (excuse the pun) of middle-class housewives.

Rubbish.

There are two extremes to making preserves such as jams and pickles. One is by looking at it from the entirely culinary point of view, using elaborate and over-priced equipment available at those you-will-only-use-this-stuff-once-a-year specialized kitchen shops, throwing in tons of ingredients that apparently make all the difference (to your bank balance, mostly) and ending up with an admittedly tasty preserve that your friends and neighbours will rave about for months, but which oddly needs to be kept in the fridge and used within a week before it turns blue. The other extreme is looking at it from the strictly preserving aspect, just using what you need to make the jam or pickle last at least a year, knowing that the food is safe to eat and strictly satisfied with your jams tasting of fruity sugar and your pickles tasting of vinegar.

Personally, I prefer looking at it from the latter perspective, keeping things cheap and simple, but probably making something more robust and longer-lasting than the more florid preserves. This doesn’t mean that I won’t allow a little room for culinary experimentation, merely that I use the cornerstone notion that my jams or pickles are there to last, the same way some of our great-great-grandparents had to rely on preserves to see them through the winter.

Up till now the Common Ground garden has focused on growing food, with the journey pretty much finished at the harvest stage. I’d like to expand on that a little, looking into traditional food preservation techniques which I hope to write about in the coming weeks. I’m no expert on the subject, just a guy who tried it out. But trust me, if I can do it then anyone can.

We’ll start with jam.

MAKING JAM

Back in July, a rich crop of blackcurrants in the Common Ground garden convinced me to try my hand at making jam. To make it I used a method described in the great little book Food for Free, by Richard Mabey, available in those nifty pocket editions for under a fiver. There are also loads of recipes on the internet, though the basic principle remains the same. I placed the currants in a saucepan and just covered them with water, simmering them for half an hour. I then measured the resulting goo and added a gram (gr) of sugar for every milliliter (ml) of goo, bringing it back to the boil for a bit while stirring. I didn’t bother straining the pulp, nor did I use any of the scientific equipment to make sure that the jam boiled at 105°c – I just boiled it and tested it for setting by putting a spoonful of it to cool in the fridge for five minutes. Meanwhile I had thoroughly cleaned an old pasta sauce jar which I then sterilized with boiling water and dried in an oven at low heat. When the jam was ready and still boiling I poured it into the jar and secured the screw-on lid straight away, as the jam cooled, the seal popper on the metal lid collapsed back in, showing it was well and truly sealed.

The jam, I am pleased to say was delicious. Since then I’ve repeated my first success, making jams with raspberries, plums, blackberries and apples. Not bad for a complete beginner.

Jam settles because of the pectin in the fruit (the ton of sugar helps too), but some fruit lack this pectin. Fruits like lemons, apples, plums, blackcurrants and apricots contain lots of pectin, although they tend to lose it the riper they get, while fruits like strawberries and grapes contain very little pectin. If the fruit you are trying to make into jam is low in pectin, then you may need to stir in some pieces of crab apples during the boiling process, or adding in bottled pectin, which is available in shops, though easiest is to just squeeze in some lemon juice. So once done and bottled, put the sealed jam jar into a cupboard to cool and settle out of sight, leave it overnight and check it in the morning. A watched kettle never boils, and a watched pot of jam never settles!

Andy

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GARDEN PHILOSOPHY: PULLING OUR FINGER OUT

I joined the Common Ground garden back in March 2011, when I saw a poster calling for people to help with the Spring planting. I had been trying to up my game in matters of self-sufficiency and bushcraft skills, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little about growing vegetables . . . admittedly, the girl who I saw put up the poster was also really cute (I’m no Islington angel). A one-off day of planting turned into a couple of weeks, and before I knew it I was being handed a set of keys to help with watering. Come June, at the closing meeting for that academic year (as we remain at the core a student-run society), I was voted in as the Common Ground society president for the 2011-2012 year. Another fine mess I’d gotten myself into.

Some people might ask, why was a student with just three months experience in the garden picked to run it? The answer, I guess, is because I’m the student who kept turning up every week, and in the end, that’s what a garden really needs. Common Ground doesn’t run on cliqueness, and any new member (like me) that’s gets fully involved can quickly end up playing a major part in what we do. Some longer-established members might know a lot more about gardening than I do (that’s pretty much a certainty), but that knowledge is useless unless it is put into practice.

This is the first year that the garden will run without one of its founding members at the helm, something of a test for Common Ground, finding out if it has the impetus to run on without those who created it – continuation is often harder than creation. Of course, as one of the people in charge this year, it is my responsibility to make sure that people are interested in our work, be they students or non-students. We have all sorts of members at Common Ground, some have just a passing interest in gardening, some try it out and find they don’t like it, some love it but have busy lives. These members have all made a contribution, no matter how small, for which we are very grateful. But all ships need their skeleton crews, and while we always welcome casual members and visitors, we’re also on the lookout for our core working group and our next garden leaders. There is no reason why a first year student at SOAS couldn’t be running the society next year.

Student-run societies sometimes fall into the trap of just becoming talkshops, especially those with a political agenda. You can see this happening when a society’s idea of action starts to become increasingly tenuous, such as by just filling in online petitions or organizing talks that just preach to the converted. Luckily at Common Ground we have a garden to keep us firmly grounded (literally). Some of us get involved in the garden to learn about self-sustainability, some are worried about climate change, some worry about peak oil, some just like eating fresh vegetables, and some might even join just because they saw a hot girl or guy helping out there. Regardless of our motivations, vegetables don’t grow themselves, they certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about our political inclinations, and you definitely can’t grow edible food on Facebook (though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I am proved wrong). So first and foremost, quoting from Voltaire’s Candide: “We must cultivate our garden.” In the midst of all the elephant talk and debating we still need to pull our finger out and get active.

So get involved, be you a student or not, find out what we do, learn what we know and teach us what you know. See you there.

Andy

BIZARRE SUMMER OR JUST THE CLIMATE BEING THE CLIMATE?

This summer’s crop at Common Ground was a mixed bag. The lettuces and chard grew fast (too fast) while the strawberries gave up early on. The wet climate is (apparently) to blame for a poor tomato crop and for the pumpkins ripening in mid-september. The pumpkins have grown to a record size, but only a third of them made it to maturity, while the others rotted in the wet. The sweetcorn started off well enough, but something went wrong along the way, although that may or may not have something to do with a break-in we had in September (and a special thanks to the scumbag responsible for the damage caused). Of course, the runner beans did well, but runner beans always do well.

So the media tells us it’s been a lousy summer in the UK, the worst in years, apparently. Okay, so London wasn’t exactly the Costa Del Sol in August, but the weather wasn’t that bad, was it? It rains in England, it’s what happens, yet we still get so miffed about it. I don’t imagine Eskimos in Alaska get depressed about snow, but then again maybe they do too. Perhaps I’m being selective, but I can’t remember a summer in the past ten years that wasn’t criticized for not being normal enough, always either too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet. Some would say it’s a sign of climate change, some would say it’s just the climate being unpredictable as it always has been. All I know is that gardening, like the weather, is not an exact science, gardening books are there to give general guidelines, but that’s what they are, just guidelines. The weather will do what it does, and a good gardener knows how to adapt.

All I need to do now is become a good gardener.