The Art of Preserves

Sounds, tastes, and smells have the ability to transform a moment into a kind of transportation device into our memories. We can be transported to places of warmth, hope, and consolation, as much as moments of disappointment and grief.

I remember it well: the evening we finished the last of the plum sauce. This was not just any plum sauce; this was the last of the plum sauce made from the fruit of the orchard at “Rosedale,” a property that had been sold years before.

The Orchard and garden at Rosedale had provided many years of marmalade, apple sauce, chutneys and pickles, preserved peaches and apricots, and, of course, the plum sauce, years of preserves made in the kitchen of my mother’s mother.

The proliferation of colour and the smells of preserving are unmistakable: Vacola Bottles and lids with pressed lettering, sugar, vinegar, spices, and buckets and containers overflowing with fruits and vegetables. After preparation, and much boiling, the preserved fruit and vegetables are placed in sterilised glass jars and stored in the cool of the pantry until they are needed, or given away to family and friends.

The making of chutneys, relishes, jams, and preserved fruit and vegetables is an art. The art of preserving food is not just utilitarian, though its most important function is to preserve the fruits of the harvest for the leaner winter months. Preserved food often provides variety in the diet. After all, when the fruits of the harvest have been collected, and you have tomatoes and apples filling every bowl, bucket and box you own, a little variety offered by the act and art of preserving becomes a way, in itself, of preserving the vestiges of thankfulness of that harvest when you are sick to death of tomato sandwiches. As my grandmother often says, “there’s only so many ways you can eat zucchini.”

The value of place and the ritual of preserves has a richness greater than simply the outcome of food for the winter. Preserving food in this way is rarely done alone. From the cultivation of the fruit and vegetables, to the preparation, peeling, cutting, and boiling of the ingredients in bulk, the work lends itself towards groups working together under the direction of a leader. In my case my grandmother, who uses the recipes of her mother and grandmother.

This domestic art is worth celebrating and cultivating. In the very least, the cost effectiveness of growing your own vegetables and using them in nutritionally healthy ways, is a wonderful use of the fruits of the earth, and something satisfying for the hands and the heart.

Aesthetically, the way the massed jars look on the pantry shelves has always fascinated me. The beauty of repetition of a simple pattern is the design principle, but nonetheless there’s a satisfaction about seeing the stacked bottles with their rounded shapes suspended in viscous liquid.

So why is it that the last of the “Rosedale” batch looms so large in my mind? It may be this: the recipes and process for preserving food is relatively simple, but like all art the true richness must begin with the quality of materials. Those plums were just something else. There has been other plum sauce, but it has never been, nor will be quite the same.

As I walked into her kitchen the other day, the smell of vinegar wafted through the air as the apple cucumbers were pickling on my grandmother’s stove. There were bowls overflowing with tomatoes on the counter, the stove, and in the fridge. And there was a bottle of plum sauce on the island bench.

Now let’s talk: Is this a domestic art you grew up with, still practise and cultivate? Why? Where do you source your fruit and vegetables? Do you think of it as a creative process? If you’ve never preserved food in this way before, have you ever considered doing so?

Images: Author

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56 Comments

  • Chloe Reddaway says:

    For me the making of jams, jellies, chutnies and so forth goes hand in hand with the making of cakes, curries, ratatouille, soups, baked apples, pears in red wine, tomato sauce and many other things which can be frozen and kept for months. It is the process of dealing with abundance. The glory of an orchard or a vegetable garden is the sheer quantities of produce that pour out of it. At certain times it seems to be raining fruit and veg. But keeping up with the profusion can be difficult. Having spent much of my childhood and teenage years in a kitchen with my grandmother or mother, both of whom abhore wastefulness as the worst of kitchen sins and an insult to the earth and its fruits, I have experienced both the joy of abundance, and the terror of wasting food because there is suddenly so much. Preserving or freezing is the solution to that problem and the sudden rush of work to make use of everything one has is motivating and exhausting in equal measure. Jars are prettier than tupperware, but the result is much the same. The row of jars in the larder, or the filled boxes in the freezer represent the calm after the flurry and fill me with the peace which comes from knowing that one has made good use of the blessings heaped upon one, that one has taken the superfluity of gifts given at one moment, and stored them up for future use.

    • Anna says:

      Chloe, i like the phrase – “joy of abundance”; that’s definitely the feeling. When it’s a pletiful harvest, there’s nothing worse than watching things go to waste. I learnt how to make lemon butter simply because we had a massive crop of lemons one year! it was delicious! and between it and homemade lemonade those lemons were very much enjoyed. Thanks for reminding us that freezing is another form of preserving, as is dehydrating. Thanks for sharing the way the jars and boxes filled with the goodness of the harvest make you feel. Thanks once again for offering such an insightful comment! It’s always great to have you here.

  • The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife says:

    I’ve never thought of it as an art! At least it’s making a comeback 🙂

    • Anna says:

      thanks for dropping by ! I just went over and visited your blog too! Great photos! Do you preserve or can?

  • Mikalee Byerman says:

    Beautiful post — you’ve reminded us all of an important and almost-lost art form!

  • Luyi says:

    This is an art indeed! Thanks for your beautiful and graceful writing. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Anna says:

      Thanks Luyi! It came as a lovely suprise this morning! I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of Domestic Arts Week! We’ve got some great things in store.

  • jaredblakedicroce says:

    God how you make me wish i didn’t live in NYC, but instead on a farm out in the country, where i could grow to abundance, and not pay a dollar fifty per squash.
    This was a wonderful post, and with a nice sense of nostalgia, but I’m ready for granny’s recipe now, so feel free to post it up whenever you have the time 🙂
    K-thx
    ~J

    • Anna says:

      Actually, i have a copy of the recipe right here! I thought about including it in the post – why don’t i post it over on my personal blog and i’ll include a link here when i’ve done that! Thanks for your comment. I’ve found it hard not having my own garden in Scotland too. It’s made me very aware of how much I value knowing where my food comes from!

  • linzfrentrop says:

    I’ve never done it, although I want to! One of these summers I’ll grow a garden and do some canning. I agree its definitely an art. I don’t have anyone to teach it to me in my family so I’ll either search the web or ask a friend.
    Great post!

    • Anna says:

      There are some homesteading organisations that offer courses for canning, preserving and jam making – so if you’re really interested, that might help with the hands on approach to learning! Let us know how you get on!

  • Calogero Mira says:

    Nice photos.

    http://calogeromira.wordpress.com

    http://calogeromirafoodand.wordpress.com

  • 4myskin says:

    My Mom mostly froze vegetables while I was growing up, though more recently she’s started canning things. We use the vegetables and fruit from our own garden and orchard. Hopefully the crops will be better this year…last year was very disappointing. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Anna says:

      It is one of those things where you become very aware of the seasons and the wealth or otherwise of the crops. I hope this year the crop is plentiful! What are your favourites ways of preparing the fruits and vegetables from your garden. Thanks the Freshly Pressed deal was a nice suprise!

  • I Made You A Mixtape says:

    Hmm… I grew up with a mother who basically did not cook…like ever…lol… let alone make her own jams jellies or preserves. So I have to say, I don’t have any “food memories” but I do think it could be considered an art. Any creation is art.

    • Anna says:

      Are you making your own food memories?
      thanks for dropping by to comment – hopefully you’ll find something interesting in the rest of this week’s posts!

  • notesfromrumbleycottage says:

    My mother did some canning. These days my husband makes a spaghetti starter and chili starter. We froze bags of fruit, only to have that freezer die on us and forcing us to use those bags up. Atleast I put my persimmon bags in the other freezer and pudding is on the horizon.

    • Anna says:

      ooooo, a spaghetti starter and chili starter. Are these like pastes to start the sauces? do you freeze these, put them in jars? what a great idea! Not fun when a freezer comes to the end of its lifespan full of food!

      Thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll join us for the rest of the week – i’m pretty sure Jim has some cooking related stuff coming up!

  • melissasmeanderings says:

    My mother’s version of cooking was opening a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese…suffice it to say that I’ve never taught myself to do much more than that. Now that I’m moving into a house with a normal size kitchen and a small yard I plan to try to teach myself to cook and also to start a small garden. Baby Steps!

    • Anna says:

      I love it! Make your own food memories! If any of your friends are handy in the kitchen they might be interested in cooking alongside you in the beginning. It’s a great way to spend time with one another and to bounce off each other. My friend Katharina (http://teacakeandsandwiches.blogspot.com/) lets me help her cook, and taste test her marvellous creations! (and occassionally take photos of them) It’s awesome, especially because i’m mostly too far away from Ma’s famous Apple Pie these days!

  • vintagejenta says:

    Canning is one of the last frontiers in cooking for me. That and deep frying. Since I might actually have a job with regular hours come this summer, I think I’m going to try my hand at canning and buy myself a chest freezer (since we don’t eat much jam in our house).

    Gardening is the last, last frontier, I guess. But since I live in the Hudson Valley, I can always mooch off of other peoples’ gardens and peruse the local farm stands.

    • Anna says:

      Sounds like fun! it was always an activity we did together – all the women, with my grandfather helping with the harvesting, boiling, and peeling! A chest freezer was been an institution in my house, but that was also because we farmed our own meat and only visited the supermarket irregularly. It’s what you get living in rural Australia – it was all by necessity. If there’s a glut of fruit and vegetables around grown by experienced gardeners, it definitely makes sense to use those! What about pickles, chutney’s, salsa’s, chilli’s, infused oils and vinegars? it doesn’t have to be about jam!

  • acleansurface says:

    I’ve been reading one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in which she writes of her mother inventing a pie made from green pumpkin, but tasting like an apple pie.

    • Anna says:

      I don’t remember that scene. Sounds fascinating though. I’ve eaten alot of pumpkin in my time – we eat it mashed and baked in Australia (and rarely, if ever, sweet) but i can’t say i’ve ever eaten it green. Do you think it’s really possible? or is it just a great fictional scene?

  • Anya says:

    I have as of late been mezmerized by the whole concept of setting food aside, of being less dependent and more seasonal, and of canning for the artistic beauty of having that abundance of color and good food at home. I wrote about my first attempt to can here , where I tried to can persimmon preserves that I made from pick-yourself persimmons we picked up at a farm.

    One strange thing happened: while cooking the preserves, the mixture seemed extremely sweet, so much so that I ended up adding no sugar and instead grated some lemon rind to offset the sweetness. But upon opening the preserves some time later, all of the sweetness had gone, and only the lemony taste remained. Do you know why this might be? Should I have added sugar anyways?

    • Anna says:

      i would need to confirm this with my grandmother who is my doyen of all things preserved, but i suspect yes sugar was needed. Even with preserved fruits and vegetables you wish to stay savoury sugar is often added – tomatoes (which can be quite sweet on their own) and sometimes even when you pickle. I’ve never dealt with persimmons, but my sense is that the sugar would have helped preserve their natural sweetness.

      Thanks so much for your comment! and for giving me a great reason to go hang out with grandmother this week (not that i need one)!

  • enjoibeing says:

    very cool post. enjoyed reading it.now i must learn how to make some preserves.

    http://enjoibeing.wordpress.com/

  • scatteration says:

    I will never forget watching my grandmother and great aunt jar up tomatoes and tomatoes and more tomatoes during the summer. And, my mother’s old south lime pickles made from the over-abundance of my memaw’s cucumber harvest.
    A few years ago, I learned to make pickles and jams myself, getting my cucumbers from the farmer’s market (a rather expensive way to go), and the strawberries from a U-pick place up the road. As miserable as it is to stand over a boiling pot in the middle of summer, there is something undeniably satisfying in seeing rows and rows of jars at the end of it all, then being able to pluck one from the shelf at any time to share with a friend.
    Thanks for your post!

    • Anna says:

      south lime pickles? i can only imagine these, but, wow, what a picture you paint!

      Yes, unfortunately buying from markets or even supermarkets to pickle can be very expensive, because of the sheer weight of fruit needed. It is definitely best to have a source that doesn’t require a retail middle-man!

      The heat produced can make a kitchen quite stifling can’t it? I think this is why it’s an activity to lends itself to community, where groups can use it as an opportunity to socialise while they suffer a little through the process — maybe that’s why it’s more than a little satisfying!

      Thanks for your comment and i’m glad the post prompted you to drop by!

  • dearexgirlfriend says:

    its posts like this that make me wish my mom knew how to use the internet, she’d love it!

    • Anna says:

      Maybe you could see if a local organization offers classes if she’s interested. Nonetheless, thanks for the comment – maybe you could print it out and send a copy to her!

  • theserestlesshands says:

    Good fotos!

  • Artswebshow says:

    I can appreciate this.
    I am a chef so we make some of these chutneys and preserves ourselves.
    Sometimes we make jam for deserts and often chutneys like plum, pineapple, even tomato.
    And we always have a stock of onion marmalade made.
    These things really do spice up the food we serve

    • Anna says:

      that sounds lovely! I love the creativity and variety of your use of jams and chutneys. I’m trying to imagine the taste of Onion marmalade….
      thanks for your comment and for whetting my tastebuds!

  • patridew says:

    My mother and my grandmothers all made preserves. Rows and rows stocked in the pantry. Where have all the pantries gone? Sometimes there were jars that didn’t have that tell-tale pop when opened, but not often. Mason jars are still very nostalgic for me.
    Great post and thanks for the reminder that this is definitely an art!

    • Anna says:

      I’ve been looking at houses over the last couple of weeks and the same thought struck me….where have all the pantries gone – I guess as our fridges and the big box stores have gotten bigger our pantries have gotten smaller….
      I know exactly what you mean about the pop! thanks for reminding me – I learned to love Mason jars while i was living in Texas (Vacola Jars are the Australian equivalent).
      Thanks for your comment and i hope you’ll take a look at the rest of the week’s posts!

  • Ash Tree says:

    This is more than art to me. Memories of Rosedale, though I’ve never been, invaded my senses as sure as I’m breathing right now. I’ve always wanted to have an orchard of fruit bearing trees, so I pick the fruits come picking time and preserve and pickle them for family and friends, and maybe for some profit, too. The only orchard I’m tending now is my farmville and sadly I couldn’t preserve any of my fruits. When I have the money, I’ll buy a big lot and plant rows and rows of mangoes and peaches and avocados. Maybe some strawberries and cherries, too. Till then, I’ll cherish Rosedale 🙂

    • Anna says:

      you can start with just one tomato plant in a pot – it doesn’t have to be a full plot…my mother and grandmother both grow strawberries in old bathtubs and pots….which is something i’ll be planting for the Spring! I’m glad the post infused your senses…but don’t wait till you can do it on a massive scale!

  • Steve S. says:

    We had a vegetable garden and a large apple tree when I was growing up, but my mother canned only sporadically, so I never learned much about the process beyond learning the names of a few simple tools (stock pot, jar lifter, etc.). Now that I have my own family and have found a nearby blueberry farm, I have begun making my own jam once or twice a year. I’ve had to teach myself from books and websites, but so far I have had good success both freezing the berries and canning blueberry jam. Now, an afternoon or two picking berries followed by a morning of canning has become a summer tradition for us. I don’t think we’ve yet raised it to an art form, though the whole food preparation process is certainly an art in its higher forms. I have other crafts that are approaching the status of an art, but we’re not there with food yet.

  • rtcrita says:

    I have always wanted to learn how to preserve, but am so afraid I will do something wrong and poison us all that I still have not tried! I have even bought books on the subject. I do gardening and cook all the time, but won’t try preserving in jars. I think if I could learn how from someone who is already doing it and has been doing it for years, I would feel safer and more confident in doing it myself. I may just bite the bullet and try for real this summer after I harvest my garden. I have just been blanching my green beans and freezing them previously. But you can’t do that with tomatoes, and I give too many away. Then, I’m going to have to figure out a place to store them. Guess I better get to planning this all out before too long. Once spring hits, I’m racing to the back door to get outside and work!

  • switchtorealfood says:

    Peaches in whiskey was my canning adventure. Sold them at the local grocery store when I was in college. What a mess of the kitchen I made!

  • Joy says:

    Preserving foods is a memory of mine that goes back as far as I can remember. I grew up on a farm, and my mom canned tomato juice and strawberry preserves every year. I have personally tried several other things – my favorites are pickles and a pickled tomato recipe I make with basil, grape tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar.

  • Bethany says:

    Thank you for the beautiful reflection, Anna! I have borrowed a friend’s pressure canning to preserve some homemade soups this weekend, so your post was not only moving but timely.

    Those who enjoyed reading this post might enjoy this segment from Victorian Farm, a documentary about life on an 1880s English farm. There is a portion in the middle of this video about 19th-century food preserves.

    • Bethany says:

      Oh dear, this is just silly: *here* is the link I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C4UJUKi73w&feature=related

      Moderator, feel free to remove that first link!

  • apocalypsecakes says:

    Indeed, sounds, tastes, and smells have the ability to transform a moment into a kind of transportation device into our memories. That’s why I spent so much time on my commemorative “Inexplicable” Blackbird Pies: http://apocalypsecakes.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/inexplicable-blackbird-pie/

  • ehliyet says:

    The Art of Preserves
    nice art

  • Buy and Sale Jewellery says:

    Very interesting post, the art of preserves.

  • elvalentino says:

    Wow that’s really cool I can see how many people would consider it artistic just by looking at your photos, nice post – http://difficultventure.wordpress.com

  • rebecca says:

    My husband and I have been preserving food for the past few summers – usually getting produce at the local farmers’ markets. This year, we had plenty of tomatoes growing in our own urban garden to can pasta sauce, raw packed tomatoes, and green tomato relish! I guess I never thought of it as a creative process – it actually plain ol’ feels like a lot of work, but I love thinking of it that way! Plus, there is nothing like opening up a jar of home canned sauce in the middle of February! Have you tried fermenting? Talk about a creative process: let something rot on your counter for a month and then eat it! craziness!

    Wonderful post!

  • Silke says:

    I LOVE preserving – I discovered it (again) 2 years ago; Yes I was fortunate that my grandmother preserved every fruit from her own garden… a huge garden in a village in Germany. Now that i live in England i started gardening 2 years ago, and it takes sooo little time if you plan it correctly – I’m still surprised.
    I really hope that lots and lots of people rediscover it again – THANKS for the really nice post, Anna.

    Happy preserving to you all!!!!
    Silke

  • J says:

    My mother in law has preserved fruit and veggies all over her home for decor so want to try this one day. Great post!

  • bandsmoke says:

    What a wonderfully tactile and evocative post – congrats on being FP 🙂

  • mohsingilani says:

    Quite mouth watering post 🙂
    i think people don’t have much time these days to practice traditional methods of preserving food, and that’s why the trend is evanescent
    But i have tried some traditional pickles, chutneys and jams; and they were simply awesome.

  • aloyslove says:

    I don’t know much about making preserves as we don’t plant anything where we live. We just have to buy vegetables and fruits from stores. But I do love your post. It was so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  • Roda says:

    Aah what a lovely article. I have been busy this last month too bottling any amount of orange marmalade and strawberry jam and gooseberry jam and freezing peas for the coming year. I always make use of seasonal fruits and store them for the rest of the year. I don’t have a very big back yard for growing….just a small one so I focus more on growing basil, thai and italian, some oregano, lots of lemon grass and mint as I love it in my morning cuppa. Then I have some spicy exotic peppers and a mango tree that thankfully fruits in may/june…so there’s so much of mango chutney, pickles and jam to make then. But like you wrote I too am an earth person and consider myself blessed to own my piece of earth and its natural abundance. My mango chutneys make a lovely gift for my friends as I always carry a bottle when I am invited over to anybody’s place for a meal. Then I donate a few bottles for a charity bazar and thankfully its all over for the next harvest.

  • touristjapan says:

    ขายเสื้อผ้าออนไลน์

    I don’t know much about making preserves as we don’t plant anything where we live. We just have to buy vegetables and fruits from stores. But I do love your post. It was so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

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