There aren't too many, now 'middle-aged', kiwi kids that can't remember their mothers in the kitchen bottling the 'summer harvest' for winter's consumption. Sadly the same can't be said of the next generation.
The availability of store-bought 'ready-made' preserves and seasonal produce sourced overseas in past decades has fuelled a market that will pay for convenience to save time - unfortunately at the cost of quality. Unless you are buying organic preserves, which are not widely available in the market, preserving organically really is a DIY art and for newbies to this nostalgic practise an enjoyable one. If you have never preserved before and have young children it is also a fantastic way to get kids learning about food, encouraging them to eat healthy produce (made easier because they have made themselves), and in the process create some lovely family memories.
The smell of stewing apples still reminds me today of cold winter mornings sitting at the kitchen table awaiting the arrival of Mum's stewed apples over our winter porridge. So why not put aside a Saturday and get busy in the kitchen?
Drying, pickling, or bottling are all methods of preserving that enable you to store your excess produce to use when your garden is bare and save money in the process.
Store-bought dried foods are especially expensive and yet so easy to make yourself. Add dried tomatoes and peppers to dishes to intensify the flavour of meals and dried fruit to school lunchboxes or cheese platters for that wow factor - it's nature's candy shop without the sugar. Dried fruit and vegetables retain about 20% of their moisture when dried and produce a sweeter taste because most of the water has been removed and therefore the sweetness is concentrated. To begin, first, wash and thinly slice fruit and vegetables and arrange them in a single layer on a baking tray. It should only take a few hours on the lowest temperature setting for your oven (approx 125 degrees celsius) for them to have shrunk in size and be almost crispy. When dry, store them in a sterile airtight container. Alternatively, you can purchase a dehydrator to make this process even easier. Typically dried produce keeps for a couple of weeks so you will need to ensure they are consumed in this time.
Bottling will keep produce for about 12 months. Most recipes use sugar which helps to hold the texture and retain the shape and colour of the fruit but for the most part, it is primarily used to add flavour so it is not essential and may be omitted if you chose. Invented in 1809 by a French confectioner, Nicholas Appert, bottling is a process of heating food and sealing it in airtight containers. On the stovetop, bottling can be done using the water-bath method of which there are three variations, the slow water bath, the quick water bath, and the Pressure Cooker. The oven method has two variations; slow oven - dry pack and moderate oven - wet pack.
My preference is to use a Pressure Cooker to assist with bottling because it consumes less energy and time - typically 20 minutes in total. Pack the fruit or vegetables in warm bottles which have been thoroughly cleaned and fill with boiling syrup to within 2.5cm of the rim of a suitable jar (preferably an Agee jar). Fit rubber rings, lids, and clips, and if using screw bands screw on loosely. Pour 850ml of boiling water into the cooker before inserting the bottles. With bottles in the cooker, put the lid on with the vent open and heat until steam appears. Close the vent and bring the pressure up to Low. Remove from the heat after 5-10 minutes and allow to cool for 10 minutes before letting the pressure off. Remove the bottles one at a time with a pair of tongs or thick cloth and put them onto a wooden surface. Immediately tighten the bands on the screw-topped bottles and leave for 24 hours before testing that the seal is complete. Easy really especially when you have a pressure cooker.
Chutneys relishes, sauces, jams, and jellies are all condiments that can be added to meals but are most probably the most difficult of all preserves to perfect. To really master this art, learning from an expert is wise - and the Country Women's Institute is one of the best places I know of to learn (and have a lot of fun in the process).
For beginners, though this is my 'preserving made easy' dictionary. Pickles which include chutneys and relishes refer to condiments that are stored in vinegar or brine. The rule of thumb (defined by the English) is that chutneys are typically made with fruit and relish made with vegetables although this is not a worldwide standard. Sauces tend to be more processed and spiced vinegar is typically used as a base. Jams and jellies have been preserved with sugar and sometimes a setting agent is added if the fruit is low in pectin such is the case with strawberry and tamarillo jam. Lemon juice and tartaric acid are two setting agents commonly used. Jellies use the juice of the fruit only to achieve a clear consistency and jam the whole fruit.
So that's how you preserve your garden! but let's not forget the easiest way of all - freeze it. In summer when a windfall of produce is on your doorstep and you may not have time to preserve, freeze excess crops to be eaten whole or transformed into wonderful preserves later when you are not so busy in your garden. Its a double blessing when you are admired for the produce you have grown and the works of art you have created through preserving. Happy gardening!