Preserved

Andreae Prozesky cans it.

Sometimes, when you put something out into the universe, it comes back at you bigger than you would have ever imagined.

Tell a few (thousand) people about your passion for rhubarb, and, before you know it, you’ve got co-workers and loved ones raiding their gardens and bringing you beautiful bundles of red-green stalks. Move into a house with a blackcurrant bush and you get hit with a bumper crop. Let a friend know you’ll take a few red onions off her hands, and you end up with a twenty-five pound bag of them in your porch.

It’s a strange phenomenon.

I don’t have a deep freeze, and the fridge here at Food Nerd Laboratories is packed with mysterious half-full containers. I have neither cold room nor root cellar. What I do have, though, is a fair bit of puttering time and a perverse affection for the look of a nicely-sealed Mason jar.

And so a new obsession is added to my already lengthy personal catalogue: small-batch home canning.
It’s a bit of a throw-back, I know. There’s no reason why a person would need to do their own canning here in the twenty-first century, unless, of course, that person was ideologically opposed to saying “no” to free produce that was lovingly plucked from neighbours’ tomato plants, or from relatives’ apple trees.
I do believe that everyone should know how to cook a few things for themselves, whether they make a habit of it or not. Canning, however, is pure hobbyism. There’s a certain DIY aesthetic to it. An urban homesteader vibe. It helps me sleep easy in my confidence that, should I be snowed in for a month, I would survive fatly on my delectable array of jams and jellies, conserves and confits! Provided, of course, I had a crate of crackers and some decent cheese to go with them.

It’s the blackcurrants in the backyard what started all of this. When I moved into this place a few months ago and first identified the lovely sprawl on the side of the house as a blackcurrant bush, I wasn’t sure whether it would grow the right sort of currants for eating. My wild berry guidebook listed them as “edible, but not choice.”

The owner of the house, though, suggested otherwise. As the berries grew plump, off I went to open my every-­cookbook-in-the-house to the Fruit Preserves section, determined to turn the musky purple-black currants into jars of sweet-tart jelly.

Growing up I rarely witnessed the making of preserves. If I were to have any ancestral knowledge of the art, I don’t know where I might find it. I also have no idea where I might find a jelly bag in this day and age. So I made my own out of an old tea towel.

A jelly bag, if you’re wondering, is a cloth bag into which you slop cooked fruit so that the clear, unpulpy, un-seedy juice can run out. Using the juice to make your jelly, you can toss what’s left or make it into fruit butter.

The currant-straining process was impressive, if I do say so myself. I hooked my makeshift jelly bag onto the knob of a cupboard over my counter, and watched—in equal parts delight and horror—as thick, hot, blood-red juice dripped into the large brown crock pot. Steam was wisping from the jelly bag, and it looked for all the world as though it held a freshly-removed liver.

Anyone looking in would suspect hideous butchery.

But the juice was lovely and I made some wicked jelly out of it.

Next, it was canning green tomato chutney. Then it was apple-whiskey jelly, apple butter, and apple-date chutney. …Pear-ginger chutney happened when all those baskets of pears went on sale at the grocery store and I knew there was no way I could eat them. …Then there was rhubarb-pineapple conserve with walnuts, which took care of the rhubarb glut. That bag of red onions? Now a wonderful caramelised condiment for steaks or for throwing on top of some baked Camembert.

I’ve got rose-hips left to pick and preserve, and we haven’t even hit citrus season yet. There’s marmalade to make!

Oh yes, there’s marmalade.

Send your questions, comments, and throw-back suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca