Rows of gleaming jars lining pantry shelves, a batch of jam simmering on the stovetop, or the tingling smell of freshly made pickles are possibly the very essence of home cooking. There is something satisfying about turning surplus fruits and vegetables into jams and preserves that can be gifted to friends and family or stored for later use. No less satisfying is serving up a delicious meal or entrée, knowing the condiments are homemade and healthy. The techniques in preserving and pickling food were born of homegrown produce, hard times and the need to store up fruits and vegetables for the winter months. Although we don’t have any recipes yet for salt pork, we have learnt from our grandmothers some tricks of ‘putting up’ or preserving food.
The art of preserving food has been around for centuries, and we don’t think it will be leaving the cuisine scene anytime soon. We have smoked white meats such as ham or chicken from the butchery, or in some countries salted pork or fish. However, it is fresh produce that really offers endless varieties, combinations and methods of preserves. Think sundried tomatoes, pickled cucumbers or gherkins, sauerkraut, jams and marmalade, dried cranberries or currants.
In its very raw form, pickling is merely immersing fresh vegetables into an acidic brine such as vinegar that preserves their flavour and freshness for many months. The numerous variations of flavour and regional specialities have been brought to us over the years by migrants, bringing the Old World tastes into our Western diets. In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities turned pickling into an art, with large, crunchy pickles flavoured with fresh dill, garlic and plenty of salt. These Kosher pickles that were once sold by the thousands from rickety pushcarts in New York’s Lower East Side can still be found in every authentic Kosher delicatessen to this day.
The German tradition of fermenting salted cabbage in large earthen crocks came to America in the 1700s and became a Pennsylvania speciality. Today, the practice remains very much alive and well in the Amish communities of North America, where enormous crocks of sauerkraut are a family staple.
Through the centuries, pickled and preserved food rations were a life-saving necessity for lengthy ocean voyages, restless immigrants, and myriads of armies on the march. In recent years, pickling and preserving produce has been through an astonishing revival, as new generations of cooks look to times past for inspiration. With a refreshed awareness for healthier and more organic foods, more and more people turn to old recipes and make from scratch, rather than relying on store-bought, mass-produced products.
From tangy pickles to tasty relishes and jams, these fresh ideas inspired by old traditions would do our ancestors proud!