Preserving the Harvest
Enjoying––and canning––the bounty of the season
Photos by Gregory Cherin
Every fall, writer Janet Reich Elsbach invites a group of girlfriends over to her farmhouse in Sheffield for a series of canning sessions. “We have this little mafia that gets together. We’ve got it down pretty much to a science,” she says. Each woman brings her own cutting board, knife, and apron. They gather around a rustic pine worktable and dive right into the day’s projects, such as making ginger-maple applesauce, Indian apple chutney, or blackberry-Malbec jam. By the end of the afternoon, the kitchen is a fruit-splattered mess and the table is covered with dozens of gleaming jars. The women leave the preserves to cool overnight and return the next morning to divvy up the bounty.
“We are all incredibly busy and we don’t have time and yet everybody makes time to do it,” says Elsbach. “It’s community building. Every problem in the world gets solved. People come and are like: ‘My daughter is having this problem at school’ or ‘We don’t know where to get a plumber.’ Everything just gets solved.”
Monterey resident Kevin West, author of Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving (2013, Knopf), notes that fall is his favorite time of year. “It’s the end-of-the-harvest season and everything is coming in, which brings on a sense of urgency. I feel this strong impulse to get busy and to preserve as much of what’s out there as I can,” he says. “I think of fall preserves as being more about combining elements than preserves from other seasons. When raspberries come in, I just want pure raspberries—maybe a little note of rose to highlight it—but for fall, I think about things like conserves, where you’ve got nuts and maybe some dried fruit and maybe some booze. On the savory side, I think about chow-chow [pickled relish] made with cabbage, peppers, and onions, and I like to use apples instead of sugar to sweeten it up.”
The New England tradition of putting food up for the winter stretches back to Colonial times when pickles were a dinner staple. To preserve the harvest—by canning, pickling, fermenting, freezing, smoking, drying, infusing, or keeping vegetables in a root cellar—is to storehouse calories, vitamins, minerals, color, and flavor for the long, cold, quiet, dark months, when those things are not so readily available.
“Fall is this period between fullness and want, and that’s exactly what saving the season is about—putting something up in that moment of fullness and knowing that you have it in your cupboard for that day ahead when there may be want,” says West.
Canned foods don’t need to be perfect to be delicious. Avid canner and museum administrator Danielle Steinmann of Pittsfield says, “Any mistake can be fixed, Julia Child style. If a jam doesn’t set properly, call it a sauce!”
“My favorite taste in winter is peach. I make this thing called peach glop,” says Elsbach. “We just chop them up, sweeten them, acidify them, and put them in a jar. It’s this floral, nectar-y, sunny-tasting stuff. There’s no commercial equivalent for it.”
Many people fear botulism when canning. West clarifies the risk, “One of my favorite things is that the only way you can hurt someone with a jar of jam is if you hit them in the head with it. The silver bullet against botulism is acidity; acidity prevents the growth of the pathogenic bacteria that cause botulism. High-acid foods, which include most of the fruits that we use to make jams—strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, rhubarb, all the citrus, apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, mango—have sufficient natural acidity, plus we put a little lemon juice over the top just to bounce the flavor.”
With savory pickling, though, one needs to be more careful because typical pickled crops like cucumber, green beans, and okra are low-acid foods. “You have to follow recipes to make sure that the brine is sufficiently acidic, but any well-made pickle has sufficient natural acid that you are not going to hurt your friends or family,” says West.
While canning is generally a safe activity, mishaps do occasionally happen. “The worst thing that happened to my larder was that an alcoholic raccoon came through the cat door into my basement and popped the corks on my elderberry and dandelion wine,” says pastry chef Jane Kasten of Stockbridge. “He or she left footprints all across the basement in purple! Every one of my bottles was opened and spilled on the floor.”
Preserving the harvest is a way to connect to tradition and history. “It’s one of those skills that is endangered, so I love the idea of keeping it alive and making it my own,” says Steinmann. “My mother told me that my great-grandmother used to enlist her help canning tomato sauce in the basement of her house in Brooklyn. My mother’s job was to put a basil leaf in the bottom of each jar. I love that story and think about my great-grandmother every time I can sauce.”
As a child, marketing consultant Angela Cardinali of New Marlborough participated in her family’s annual tomato-canning fest. She carries on the tradition with her extended family. “We purchase a few hundred pounds of tomatoes to can about 80 to 100 quarts—this feeds three families for the year,” she says. “It’s work. Hard work is best shared with friends—or children.” Kids love to make a mess of the kitchen, she says, and the steps of canning are messy.
“The intoxicating aroma of fresh tomatoes when you open a jar in February makes it all worthwhile,” says Cardinali. “It really tastes like summer, and we could all use a burst of sunshine during our seven-month winter here in the Berkshires!”
(Click for an Indian Apple Chutney recipe)
Saturday, October 1, 2016 Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market (at the Common on First Street) will host an old-fashioned preserves swap. Participants are invited to bring their homemade canned goods to the market to trade. The organizers will start setting the table at 11 a.m. to give participants a chance to survey the bounty and come up with a strategy. “Some people pre-arrange trades, while others prefer to wait and see what options arrive,” says market manager Jess Vecchia. “We announce trading at 12 noon. You work out the trade with others—whether it is a one-to-one value or different amount depending on what is traded.”