Preserving Food (part 3): THE DRYING SHED

During the summer, with most of the volunteers away, the garden’s runner beans went on overdrive, as they tend to do, producing far more beans than I could eat for myself. So, feeling experimental, I hung about half of the beans to dry in the Common Ground garden shed. The shed has a corrugated perspex roof, transparent so it has a good greenhouse effect when sunny. I hung the beans on strings that I tied across the roof beams.

I had some years before experimented with drying food indoors when I lived in Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2002, using an electric heater, I dried slices of tomatoes, garlic, bread and apples; they all dried well and kept for a year, but ultimately they didn’t taste of anything, even when used as additives when cooking. Still, it was a start. Far more successful was the drying of green and red chilli peppers, which could then be crushed into a coarse powder and stored indefinitely.

The runner beans in the shed took their sweet time drying, seemingly impervious to the summer heat and days of blazing sunlight. But once the pods showed even the slightest sign of drying, the rest happened quite fast. On the whole, drying the beans took about four weeks. Some of the pods dried with beautiful uniformity, with the beans bulging along it, while other pods just shriveled up in a miserable way; I think this has something to do with the size of the beans inside the pod when I picked them off the plant – the larger the beans the more neatly they seemed to dry. If a pod contained very small beans, then the drying process often just destroyed them. When taken out of their pods, the large dry beans looked beautiful with their purple and black patterns, and I collected them in a jar to store for at least a few months. Some members have since suggested we use them to make beads for a necklace, but I’m thinking that eating them would finish the cycle more neatly. I like to take the expression “All things must pass” literally.

Seeing the beans drying in the shed soon inspired me to hang other things to dry alongside them. In the end I hung four seeding sunflower heads, some sage, mint, rosemary and thyme. I also placed some lavender, bay leaves and more mint in clear plastic trays to dry. The inside of the shed looked great, a place where stuff was really happening. I soon learnt, however, that some plants, such as mint and bay leaves, do not dry well in direct sunlight, as the leaves just turn scorched brown and crumble away, while other herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary seemed unaffected. For the mint I consequently built some drying boxes, stretching out string inside cardboard boxes for me to hang the mint on, allowing them to dry in relative darkness.

The dried herbs have been great for making tea or adding to dishes . . . that is, except for the lavender, which I put in little cloth sachets and put in my drawers to make my clothes smell nice (God, I must be getting old).

I notice tonight a pleasant winter chill in the air, and although this marks the end of sun drying vegetables, I might try my hand once again at drying things over the heater. I haven’t tried mushrooms yet. Try it yourselves, and let me know what you get.

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