It was absolutely freezing when we headed to the Wanaka A&P Show. I wondered if anyone would turn up, but country folk are a staunch lot and even with the prospect of snow they weren’t going to miss out on a couple of days of fun. The show circuit does the rounds of small town New Zealand through the spring and summer each year, and brings all the local farmers to town to show off their livestock, and their farming and home craft skills.
Over in the Home Cooking Pavilion the competition was on to see who had produced the best baking, the biggest pumpkins and the best preserves. I got the job of judging the preserves section, and at about 7.30am found myself facing a line-up of around 30 different savoury preserves, with not so much as a sausage to dunk. It felt a bit like speed dating - a split second of like or don’t like, in order to get through them all.
If you haven’t ever done any of your own home preserving you could easily imagine that it’s a specialist skill requiring all manner of expertise and fancy equipment. In fact it’s dead easy and wonderfully satisfying. You don’t need to go out and get vast amounts of produce, you can just make small batches of a few jars at a time.
I just love filling up jars and seeing them all lined up gleaming on the bench. When I am heading out the door to a friend’s house for dinner, I’ll often slip a jar into my bag as a little thank you present for my hosts. It’s a simple personal gift that’s always really appreciated.
I also love the way that homemade preserves personalise my food. I can assemble some cold meats, cheeses and bread for a simple lunch platter and then add a jar of my peach chutney or chilli jam and just like that it becomes something that has my stamp on it. Somehow, too, in the act of preserving there’s a sense of old-fashioned pride and resourcefulness. After all, preserves were originally developed so that the flavours and harvests of a season could be enjoyed at a later date. Here are a few pointers for homemade preserves:
Jars and lids: Before you start, get jars and lids together. I always save all the jars that have pop-top lids as they are reusable and guarantee a proper seal.
I find it better to seal jars but you can also cover with a layer of melted beeswax or paraffin wax, just ensure you tilt the jar once you have poured the wax over so that it seals the sides. If you just use cellophane jam covers, you run the risk of the preserves drying out and shrinking, as well as the chance for them to get damaged. In my Wanaka cabin the mice are also sure to get in!
Sterilising jars: It’s really important that jars are clean and sterilised so there aren’t any bacteria lurking that might contaminate your preserves. You can either wash the jars and the put them into a 100ºC oven for 10-15 minutes, or wash them and put them one at a time wet into a microwave and heat on 100% power for a minute. Or you can boil them. Be sure to thoroughly wash the lids and then pour boiling water over them to cover. Make sure your hands are clean too.
Filling the jars: When you fill the jars be sure to clean any overflow that may be on the rim. You need a clean edge for the jars to seal properly. Fill jars to within ½cm of the top or overflow with a little boiling water. I always overflow fruits preserved in a syrup so there is no air in the jar. But for pickles, chutneys and jams it is fine to leave an air gap.
Screw the lids on tightly and leave on the bench to cool. You’ll find they will ‘ pop’ as they cool and the vacuum seals. Just check the lids to ensure all have gone down. If any have not sealed, then you will need to keep them in the fridge.
Storage: Store preserves in a cool dark place and, as long as the seal holds, they will keep for at least a year, and even longer without any loss of flavour or quality. I have kept tomato kasundi and peach chutney for over two years with no ill effect! If the seal goes, however, you know that bacteria may be at work and these jars should be discarded.