Preserving the bounty of your French vegetable garden
With La Rentrée all sewn up and relative calm returning to our households, we are probably all facing the same dilemma…Just what on earth are we going to do with all the produce from our gardens and fruit trees?
For some weeks now, the supermarkets and farmers’ suppliers have been selling all manner of equipment to help with this task.
Preserving jars in a myriad of shapes and sizes, dustbin -sized boiling urns , gas burners. ladles, skimmers and blocks of paraffin wax to name but a few of the gadgets on sale.
Here in France, particularly in the countryside, it is reassuring to see that the age-old tradition of furnishing the larder for the cooler months is a culinary art that is still very much respected.
Nothing is left to waste, as it is bottled, canned, frozen, dried, salted or preserved in oil.
Few of us will have had much experience of these methods from the UK, where preserves are limited to the odd jar of pickled onions and some jam. Some of us may venture into the unknown with a jar of Delia Smith’s mincemeat for Christmas, but that’s pretty much it.
So, the generous harvest that we ourselves have gathered, along with the bountiful gifts from our friends and neighbours leave us wondering whether to cram it all into our already groaning freezers, or seek some other solution to avoid wasting anything.
It would be impossible here for me to give a comprehensive guide to all the ways available to us to preserve garden produce, but instead I have highlighted a few ideas on how to preserve at least some items. I have also added some recipes here in another post.
It is important however to follow a few golden rules when preserving any foods: All equipment must be properly sterilised before use. Jars can be washed in the dishwasher, and then stood up with a spoon inside them and boiling water poured into them and over the sealing caps in a clean sink. They can be left for a few minutes and then inverted onto a clean tea towel and left to dry naturally.
Secondly, do not use any fruit or vegetables that are bruised, soft or damaged. Use only the best to ensure a satisfactory result.
The obvious choice here is to go for jam. It is relatively simple to make, with recipes aplenty on the internet, or in our collection of cookbooks at home. The main thing to remember is that the pectin content of fruit will affect how it sets. Strawberries will be more difficult to set than plums for example.
It is possible to buy preserving sugar with a pectin additive, or a pectin based powder called Vitpris, both of which will make light work of jam making.
Vitpris comes with an excellent booklet on a wide selection of jams and jellies that is easy to follow and will produce consistent results. If you own a bread maker, manufacturers often provide a few jam recipes, although they are generally a softer set, more liker a British conserve and should be kept in the fridge as they will gather mould very quickly otherwise. They are very easy to make.
I very often opt to preserve fruit in a more concentrated form, and the best way to do this is to make a fruit ‘cheese’ (Pâte de fruits or membrillo). Here the fruit is stewed and reduced to remove some of the extra water, and then weighed.
Sugar is then added in equal weight and the mixture is cooked until it produces a stiff paste, which is then poured into trays and left to set in a warm place for a few days. It is a wonderful accompaniment to cheese and has an almost indefinite keeping quality. I recently make a five kilo batch that fitted snugly into two good sized plastic containers.
In the UK, we have been reluctant to bottle vegetables due to health scares. Here in France, the tradition continues, using the preserving jars like those made by Le Parfait mentioned earlier.
Vegetables can be prepared as if for cooking (washed, trimmed, chopped,sliced or left whole) and then added to salt water in a preserving jar, which is then sealed with the characteristic orange seal which is very much in evidence on shop shelves for pâtés, foie gras, vegetables or cassoulets.
The jars are then lowered into cold water in a preserving urn and then boiled for a given time, producing the necessary air-tight seal. The jars are left to cool down in the water, dried and then stored in a cool, dark place.
This is an excellent way to store vegetable dishes such as tomato sauce or the very popular ratatouille. To serve the seal is broken and the contents warmed through before serving.
It is quite astonishing how fresh the flavours are when the jars have been kept even for months on end, and in my view, far superior to anything frozen down and stored in the deep freeze.
This method of preserving couldn’t be easier. Fruit and vegetables are prepared into even slices and dried over a gentle, even heat – above a wood burner or and Aga type cooker would be an excellent way to do this.
I use this method for apples, pears tomatoes and mushrooms. Mushrooms can be dried on cake cooling racks and fruit can be peeled, sliced and cored and then threaded with string to hang up.
Semi dried beans, known as Cocos and Mojettes are sold in sacks at this time of year. These too can be dried on trays until ready to store in airtight jars, and have at least a year’s shelf life.
Oven drying is an ideal method for sun-dried tomatoes, which can either then be vacuum sealed or stored in oil.
To use from dried, soak the fruit or vegetables in hot water for about 30 minutes. Strange as it may sound, the flavour is very intense, and the soaking water can be used to add to a sauce or stock to intensify the taste.
I always use dried mushrooms for a risotto and the result is much better than using fresh. For tomatoes, dry off the excess water and then pack in jars and cover with oil.
This method is of course the quickest and most convenient way to preserve food. Consideration should be given to space, as it is surprising how much can be used up with fruit and vegetables.
You may decide to condense the amount frozen by making bases for casseroles or curries from onions, celery, garlic and onions. Slowly fried in a good olive oil, the vegetables have time to amalgamate their flavours and condense down so that freezer space is optimized.
Soup bases too can be frozen and cooked up to the stage before the stock is added. This allows for compact storage, and the stock can be added to the defrosted mixture as a final cooking stage before serving.
Fruit purées for crumble, fools and other desserts will also serve to maximise storage.
Whatever method you decide to use, there is an abundance of information in cook books, blogs and elsewhere on the internet to guide you. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and neighbours too. They have a wealth of knowledge and will only be to happy to help out.
I started my preserving adventures by watching my neighbour boil haricots verts in a huge metal bowl over an open fire, the way she had been taught by her mother and her mother before.
The pleasure of preserving something you have grown yourself from scratch is unsurpassed. Knowing that nothing has gone to waste from your efforts will make the food you prepare taste twice as nice.