By Marian Silvester
Growing food for your own consumption is great fun, incredibly rewarding and has many benefits. The act of growing, and all that entails is a healthy activity in itself. The wonderful food that you produce will be bursting with health and vitality, especially when grown vegan-organically. The freshness of peas from the garden, earthy new potatoes, plump juicy raspberries, vibrant French beans and sweet delicious carrots are pleasures that are amongst the best in life. If you’re anything like me, no matter how diligent you are with succession sowing and planning your garden or allotment you will have times when everything seems to ripen at once, or it is a particularly good season for this vegetable or that fruit. You won’t want to waste this wonderful food, so you will need to think about how you can store or preserve it. Also, if you are trying to become more self-sufficient then you will need to think about storage.
In this article I provide a brief overview of some of the techniques for the storage and preservation of home produce. This is a bit of a whistle-stop tour of some of the ways in which food can be stored or preserved. In future articles I will focus in more detail on some of these methods.
There is a wide range of options for the storage and preservation of home produce, and it is useful to consider these and experiment with them. Decisions on the preferred approach will be taken according to your personal needs, tastes and circumstances. Also certain techniques are suitable for some produce and not for others.
If you are geared up for the storage of fruit and vegetables you will amaze yourself at just how much food you can squirrel away for the non-growing months. It is also impressive to realize just how much food can be grown from a small area – a vegetable patch or an allotment. Your area will be much more productive than conventional farmland. In our garden we have nine raised beds, about 10 feet long by 3-4 feet wide; six raspberry canes, two gooseberry bushes, a redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant bush; a blueberry and a couple of rhubarb plants. We also have a small greenhouse and two apple trees. This is gardened in quite a low-key way due to time constraints, and what we grow varies enormously as we repeat old favourites and try out new things each year. Even so – we have a huge amount of home produce, and although friends are invited to ‘pick your own’ we still have more food than we can eat at any time during the Summer.
Different Types of Storage
There are two main types of storage for home produce – firstly the ‘fresh’ storage where the food is stored with little or no preparation, and the other is ‘processed’ where the food may be prepared or even cooked before storage.
For all storage, my experience suggests that the most important factor is the selection of the produce, ensuring that what is selected is sound, ripe and unblemished. This is a must, except in those situations where the food is well prepared before storage, for example when it is made into soup, jam, or something similar.
There are a number of foods that can be stored in this way and these are mostly the staples with which we are all familiar. Foods such as carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, and pumpkins.
Both carrots and potatoes may be stored in clamps, and the main consideration for this is whether you have available sufficient space and the necessary materials.
We have used a carrot clamp with great success, and this was tried out because we had a surprise bumper crop of late carrots. We used a base of reeds (straw is also used), and then layered the carrots, tops pointing inwards, to form a circle, and then piled the carrots onwards and upwards into a wigwam shape. This was then covered with reeds (or straw), leaving a chimney to allow the circulation of air. The whole was then covered with soil – leaving the chimney. Throughout the winter and into the spring the carrots can be accessed by pushing through the soil and reeds and pulling the carrots out; I used a piece of slate to cover the access area – like a door. A similar approach can be used for potatoes . . . although the finished shape of the clamp is more like an upturned boat, or a general heap, due to the shape of the potatoes.
When making a clamp the thickness of the straw layer is important, the colder your winters the thicker the layer, and this must protect the carrots or potatoes from frost.
Clamps are more useful where the quantity of the crop for storage is large. For more usual quantities, potatoes are easily stored in hessian sacks or similar – these exclude light and allow the circulation of air. The sacks should then be stored in a cool, dark, frost-free place. An alternative to the carrot clamp is to store carrots in a dustbin which has air holes drilled in it, in layers of dry sand, with the carrots not touching. Build up a layer of sand, then a layer of carrots, a layer of sand and so on. Again to be kept in a cool, dark, frost-free place. You must also make sure that the clamps, bins or sacks are not vulnerable to mice and rats, so keep a check on this.
Onions & Garlic
The easiest way to store these is to string them.Onions I usually string in groups of 10-20 and the garlic in groups of 5 or 6. Then they are stored in a cool frost-free place, being brought in to the house in their strings when required. As with all stored food they should be checked regularly to ensure that they remain sound. Any sign of ‘going off’ then the vegetable should be removed, and either used or composted.
These can be stored quite happily in nets in a space where the temperature is around 10-16 0C. For example a utility room, pantry, top of the cellar steps or a cool room in the house. Store individually in nets, and check regularly. We have stored them on the bookshelves, and they have been quite happy for a couple of months – provided the room is not too warm.
Many foods can be frozen without any processing and also without blanching. Fruits in particular can be frozen quickly and easily – simply ensure that the fruits are sound and ripe. More on fresh freezing in a future article. One thing to remember is that you may not want to put all your produce in the freezer – a power cut (as I experienced during the weekend of writing this article) can lead to your produce being spoiled.
Processing and Freezing
Some foods will almost always be processed or cooked when you eventually come to use them. One way to save space in the freezer is to part cook the produce before storing the food.
Fruit such as cooking apples, rhubarb and sometimes gooseberries, will almost always be cooked and find themselves in pies and crumbles. Cooked fruit will take up less space in the freezer, and if you have time you can part-cook fruit before freezing it in tubs or freezer bags. This also means that you can freeze in pie size batches. The fruit then needs only to be defrosted before being used at a later date. I usually pre-cook rhubarb with ginger or vanilla before freezing and it makes a great dessert when needed.
Again cooked vegetables will take up less space than fresh, and while it is often preferable to freeze some vegetables unprocessed, experience has shown me that with some vegetables precooking makes sense. The humble and bountiful courgette is the main vegetable I cook first when freezing … these can be lightly cooked (or simply blanched) then frozen for use in recipes. Or, as I prefer to do, I make up batches of tomato sauce, or ratatouille, with courgettes and freeze this. This helps to use up tomatoes and courgettes … and provides a useful store of food for the freezer.
There are many different ways of preserving food, and the availability of certain foods will determine which jams, pickles, chutneys and other preserves you decide to make. Also, personal taste is vital here – there is little point in making marvellous jams, for example, if you and your family and friends don’t eat them. The making of preserves also requires the use of sugar and vinegar and other bought in ingredients, and this may affect your decision about whether or not you want to make them.
The advantages of making home preserves, if you do like them, is that you can adjust the quantities to suit personal taste. It is also fun to experiment.
If you have a glut then jams made from strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries are marvellous. It is also possible to make vegan fruit ‘butters’ and ‘cheeses’ which have a wonderful taste and texture and are almost impossible to buy.
The glut foods of courgette and tomatoes do make excellent chutneys, and if you like this type of food then this is another good way to make the most of your produce.
Herbs can be dried, and this is a process that requires care and attention, to ensure that the herbs dry rather than go mouldy. Once dry, herbs can be crumbled and then stored in jars for later use. Dark glass rather than clear is better. In small quantities herbs can be frozen fresh in water in ice cubes, and then these can be popped out when needed and added to soups and sauces. I feel that this is okay with small quantities only. Herbs can also be processed, for example we grow large quantities of basil so that we can make pesto, which is then frozen in batches. Homemade pesto with fresh from the garden basil is so delicious. Also most commercial pesto is not vegan.
Juices & Syrups
Fruit can be pressed and the juice stored in old juice cartons (washed), in the freezer, and then used throughout the winter. Alternatively syrups can be made, which can be stored in a cool place. Blackcurrant syrup, for example, is wonderful for adding to smoothies for an extra burst of vitamin C.
A number of fruit and vegetables do make very good homemade wine and if you have time and like a challenge then you might like to consider turning your excess production into alcoholic beverages. Fruits such as rhubarb, gooseberries and currants; and vegetables such as parsnip are good bases for wine.
Linked to this, is preserving fruit in alcohol – such as damson gin, bramble whisky, and cherries in brandy. While not providing wonderfully healthy food, they do make marvellous winter treats and gifts. Boozy cherries being a particular favourite, whenever we find a supply of these.
This is out of fashion. But bottling fruits in syrup is a satisfactory way of preserving them in syrup for use in desserts.
This short article has pointed out the wide range of options there are for preserving fruit and vegetables. I will look at various of these in more detail in future articles. If readers have particular queries, or would like me to look at specific techniques in more detail in the next article, please let the editors know and I can tailor this to suit demand.
This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 19 (Summer 2007), p7.