Fleeting moments of time, taste and terroir, Britain’s seasons and our seasonal produce are, I think, the aspect of our food culture most deserving of celebration. From the heady hedgerow aroma of springtime elderflower, to the sprouting squashes of an autumnal vegetable patch and with every blackberry, bilberry and blewit in between, each change of season offers tempting delights for the adventurous cook and eager forager.
This shifting ebb and flow of the countryside’s calendar is the reason why Britain has such a proud tradition of preserving, of us trying to bottle each season and outwit Mother Nature. Not just jars of glossy jam cooked up for the local produce fair but also products like Shetland’s reestit mutton (one of Slow Food UK’s Forgotten Foods), a brined and smoked delicacy akin to the traditional foods of our Northern Europe neighbours.
You might therefore think that preserving is old-fashioned and outdated, the preserve (sorry!) of the WI and chutney-stirring ladies. However, the truth is bottling the seasons has never been as popular. Cured and smoked British fish feature on the menus of top restaurants like Lyles and The Shed in London, River Cottage’s smoking and curing courses are staggeringly popular and from hedgerow to inner-city marshes, you’ll likely to happen upon a keen forager looking to eke out the delicacies on their doorsteps.
If you fancy giving it a go, here is a little more information about a couple of ways that you can preserve your produce at home.
Easy and accessible, freezing means simply dropping the temperature of the food down, or as close to, to 0°C to prohibit the growth of bacteria that causes food to degrade. While certainly not suitable for all food types, freezing works well with soft summer fruits or autumnal blackberries, where the frozen fruit can later be tossed into a smoothie or quickly blitzed for a tangy sauce.
Again, remarkably simple, drying – much like freezing – preserves by slowly driving away the food’s moisture that accelerates microbe development. While fancy pieces of kit are available, to dry home-grown herbs and chillies, or perhaps a few foraged fungi, a low oven or even a sunny windowsill will more than suffice.
On trend and in vogue, pickling has never been so popular. Essentially, pickling means soaking food in either an acidic, saline or alcoholic solution, and despite needing a little care is again easily accessible to the home cook. Despite the perennially popular pickled onions or the slightly strange chip shop pickled eggs, pickling works as well with sweet as it does savoury foods. A spiced, sweet pickled pear needs little more to make a pudding than a scoop of ice cream or drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Again, currently very popular, fermenting is one of the preservation methods where you encourage ‘good’ bacteria to inhibit the ‘bad’ (think of the bloom of white mould on a salami), essentially allowing the food to begin to decompose but in a controlled environment. Perhaps slightly more continental in tradition than other preservation methods – sauerkraut and wine are both fermented products – there is still no reason not to give it a go here. Homemade yoghurt and sourdough bread, are both fermented products attainable to the curious cook.
Words by Hugh Collins