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This photo shows the shelves in my shed - all stocked up with local food for winter. It looks vast - it IS vast - but what amazes me is that it's actually not a phenomenal amount of work to do this. The first year it was - it took a lot of focus and energy. But this is my third time and I've definitely streamlined things.
Why do I do this?
- It's a cheap way of eating really good food. I buy in most of this food at "seconds" price, from farmers I meet at the local farmer's market. Because I'm buying at the peak of season and relieving them of their less attractive fruit, it's cheap. The food in the photo above cost me about $350, and I have calculated that at commercial organic-shop prices, this would be worth about $3,000.
- The taste is incredible. My home-bottled tomatoes simply don't compare to cans from a shop. My friends invite me to dinner and ask me to bring a jar of tomatoes. The fruit, too, is wonderful.
- Every bottle I produce is something that wasn't brought to me on a truck from far away - food miles are down, and so are the associated environmental costs.
- It's food security, and if we did hit a crisis, we wouldn't go hungry. This might sound ludicrous, but when Brisbane flooded last year, there were a lot of hungry people. The shops were cleaned out fast, and there was no way of restocking them until the water receded. For people evacuating, stuck for hours and hours on the exit freeways, there was no way of getting food. To be able to grab armloads of stuff from the pantry and shove it in the boot would have been fantastic. It's not just Brisbane - there are many cities in America where it's been days or weeks after a disaster, before more food could be brought in.
- Our rubbish bin is nearly empty as a result.
- I also like being part of hundreds of generations of women who have put up food for winter. Until the last couple of generations, that's what we humans did. All summer, we had to prepare for winter, in terms of food, clothing, shoes and firewood.
- It's really not THAT hard, nor THAT much work. And it feels great.
- In November or December I buy about 8kg cherry seconds and and 12kg apricot seconds from the farmer's market. It's helpful if you order them in advance, but sometimes I just luck out on the day. Plums are ready at this time of year - you might find a good tree to pick from. If I can get enough, I buy an extra 3kg of apricots to dry in my dehydrator. For each batch I process, it takes about an hour and a half to wash the fruit and get it into the bottles. Then they are boiled (it can take an hour to get to the boil, then needs another hour boiling), and after that I remove jars, label them and put them away. It's only about two hours of active work, but I do need to be home for a three hour chunk. And if you do the apricots and cherries at the same time, it's more economical, time-wise.
- In January or February, I buy grapes to dry into sultanas. About 8kg fits into my dehydrator, and it takes me a couple of hours to wash and destem them all.
- In February or March I bottle 12kg peach seconds, (a few hours, like the apricots), and then I do the tomatoes. Our family of three eats about 70kg bottled tomatoes in a year (we are tomato lovers). This translates to roughly two days of work, and is the biggie in our preserving calender. It's also a challenge because our tomato farmer doesn't tend to give us much notice, so when the tomatoes turn up, we have to drop everything to process them. Or if everything can't be dropped, preserve around our daily commitments. The tomatoes are hard work, exhausting, but once they are done, the preserving year is over for me.
The above makes up the mainstay of my shelves. In addition to this, we do little bits of preserving here and there. We were given a box of old apples, which we turned into apple cider, vinegar, and a few jars of apple sauce. We have a cucumber glut in the garden now and then, and Paula turns them into bread and butter cucumbers. When we do the tomatoes, we also make chutney or tomato ketchup, depending on what we've still got left from last year. In winter I also pick a large mason jar of olives from a local tree, and cure these.
How to bottle/can food:
- Collect jars. I inherited some Fowlers jars and an old vacola from my great grandmother. If I was starting over, I would simply reuse jars with metal lids. The Fowler's method requires purchase of new lids and rings, which are pretty expensive. Jars with metal lids can be salvaged for free. Ask your friends to start saving them for you.
- Wash the jars. You don't need to sterilise them. Just make sure they are clean.
- Wash the fruit and remove stems. If you can be bothered, remove stones from stone fruit, but if you can't, they bottle fine as is. Since I have limited storage space, I like to get as much fruit as possible into a jar. I can do this by stewing the fruit first, which reduces its volume considerably. So I halve or quarter the fruit, stew it until soft (I don't add water - I let it stew in its own juice for best flavour), and then spoon it into jars. The cherries I simply destem, pack tightly into jars, and then add a tablespoon of honey and a squeeze of lemon juice to each jar, to make them taste good. I top up with water. Leave an inch of headroom at the top of the jars - this is necessary so that they can seal well.
- Put the lids on jars, tightly. If using Fowler jars, put rubber rings on jars before you fill them with fruit. Add lids and clips afterwards.
- Put the jars into a large pot, and fill to one inch below the jar lids with water. The jars all need to be the same height for this to work.
- Bring the pot to the boil (this can take an hour if the pot is large, the water is cold and the fruit inside the jars are cold, and it can be really quick if you put jars of hot stewed fruit straight into the pot). There are complicated methods of calculating exactly how long you should boil your fruit for, depending on jar size and where you live. I simply boil them for 45 minutes to an hour, and start timing once the water reaches a rolling boil.
- Remove from the pot (be careful not to burn yourself!), allow to cool, and label the jars with their contents and the date preserved. Double check at this point that all the jars have sealed. It's common for one jar in a batch to have a dodgy seal. Eat it up soon, or try to work out why it didn't seal and try again. Maybe the lid is damaged and you need another lid, or there's a chip in the jar? If so, recycle the dodgy equipment and get it out of your kitchen.
To complete our pantry, we also have a stack of food-grade 20 litre buckets in the shed:
We have a bucket of local honey, a drum of local olive oil, a bucket of sea salt, and a few buckets of local wheat. We've also got some rapadura sugar but when that runs out I won't replace it, since we are doing well only using honey, which is local. If I liked dry beans I'd also have a bucket of them, but they are a taste I'm still trying to acquire. By buying 20kg sacks/buckets of the above foods, we get them vastly cheaper than in shop-sized packets. The trick to managing the buckets well is to buy more when the previous bucket is down to half. Then you always have food security and you never run out. Because we have everything in such enormous quantities, the feeling of stinginess around food has left me. I feel fine to add generous lashings of olive oil to our food, use as much honey as we want, and use salt medicinally and for preserving as well as in baking.
Between the jars of preserves, and the above buckets, we can eat really, really well. Add in some fruit and vegies from the garden (or the shop), the meat that's in our freezer (from our home-reared chickens and from the farmer's market), eggs from our chooks, and a regular delivery of milk and cream from a local farmer, and we have an entire diet. Since these ingredients are the cheapest and most nutritious I can source, we make an effort to eat within this framework, and only buy occasional packets of other dry goods, out of season produce, processed products etc.
Having preserved/stored all this good, cheap food, you need to make sure you use it. The first two years, I created a ration calender for winter: I calculated how many jars I had, and how to spread them over the winter. In a typical week I'd bring in a bottle of cherries or plums, a bottle of apricots or peaches, two jars of tomatoes, and a small jar of chutney. Paula, who does the cooking, serves the fruit inside pancakes, in baked custards, on top of porridge, or simply with cream. The tomatoes are used in pasta sauce, stews and casseroles.
By grinding the wheat, we can make wholemeal bread, pasta, pancakes, crackers, sweet biscuits and pastry. We sweeten absolutely everything with honey, instead of sugar.
If you embark on this journey, keep detailed notes. Write down how much you bought, what varieties and when, how many jars it made, how many jars you ate in a year, and so on. By doing this I've been able to streamline everything. For instance, I know that 12kg of stone fruit fills 12 no.27 jars, and my Vacola fits exactly 12 jars when full. This saves me having one extra jar of fruit that didn't fit in the vacola, or having to run it with empty space in it, which is less efficient, fuel-wise. You'll soon discover what your family likes to eat, and can save your energy for the preserves you like the most.