There are plans in the works for the world's largest telescope--one that can see back in time to the first stars and their formation. I know, right? Blows your mind. But while you wait for this magnificent (and seemingly impossible) invention, you can turn back the clocks of time in your own home. Starting in the kitchen. And by the way, you don't even need to have a garden! Try something new: turn your produce into preserves, without nutrient loss. You'll be eating fresh veggies even in the coldest of months, and as for your hors d'oerves platter?it'll be the talk of the town.
The Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante, an ecological research and education center located in southeastern France, are masters in the art of preserving food. But their technique is not as simple as stuffing food in your freezer, or storing them away in mason jars. They implement more traditional and old-fashioned methods using salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, drying, cold storage, and lactic fermentation. In their book, Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation, they give tips and recipes on how to preserve food, the traditional ways.
The History of Canning and Freezing
According to the folks at Terre Vivante:
"These days, frozen foods tend to replace canned and bottled goods, since foods lose fewer nutrients through cold than through heat. But freezing is not very satisfactory either: it is expensive, consumes a lot of energy, and destroys many of the vitamins. In the home kitchen, we observe the same development as we have seen in industry: Canning, which was very popular in the 1960s (country folks each with their own sterilizers, putting up their own green beans, shell peas, and tomatoes), has given way to freezing. Emerging relatively recently (sterilization in the nineteenth century, freezing in the twentieth century), these two processes have relegated traditional food-preservation methods to obscurity, if not complete oblivion, as their scope of application has dwindled away. By far, the best example of displacement is lactic fermentation. Formerly used to preserve all sorts of vegetables, it has survived solely for making sauerkraut, and at that, more for gastronomic reasons than as a preservation process in its own right.
Fortunately, the traditional methods of preservation still live on in the French countryside, although they are rapidly disappearing. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gathered here before it falls into anonymity."
Choosing a Method of Preservation
So what to choose in lieu of freezing and canning? According to these gardeners and farmers:
"Three methods overwhelmingly dominate the history of food preservation before the industrial age: cellar storage under cool, dark conditions, for certain fruits and winter vegetables (such as root vegetables, tubers, apples, and pears); drying, for fruit; and lactic fermentation for most other vegetables. Natural-state preservation in a cellar is the most basic way to preserve foods that take well to this method. Although it is possible to dry apples and to lacto-ferment carrots, winter provisions have traditionally relied on apples stored in a cellar in their natural state, and carrots preserved likewise in a root cellar, or in the ground."
For this method, you'll need the temperature and humidity to be pretty cool and dry?not to mention a place where pests can't get to your goods. Think root cellars either dug into the earth, or makeshift rooms in your basement. This form of natural storage is great for those with gardens because you can pop harvested goods?ones leftover from summer?away for colder months. This ensures you aren't racing around co-ops or markets looking for carrots, apples, onions, beets and potatoes in snowstorms! Other vegetables that can be kept in the ground include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Curly Kale
This is the most ancient form of food preservation. Most common dried items are fruits, but vegetables can be dehydrated as well. However, dried vegetables tend to retain less flavor than fruits, and can deplete their vitamin content. For this reason, lactic fermentation is a better route for veggies. More on that later.
Drying fruit: how do you do it? You'll need a flat surface, a tray or a screen, and a natural (or artificial, if need be) heat source. Solar drying is a great method, especially since it relies only on the sun's energy! But if you're lacking in natural sunshine, consider other alternatives like a woodstove, oven, radiator, or low wattage food dehydrator.
You can also dry herbs and flowers. Pick your plants in the morning and only wash when absolutely necessary. Dry in a shady place, away from the sun and in a dark place, by hanging your herbs or flowers upside down or on trays. They're ready when dry and brittle.
This method allows you to preserve your vegetables for months using no heat, no cold, and no preservatives?and it retains the original freshness and nutritional value of the fresh vegetable. How is this possible? Despite the fact that the words generate images of a science lab and a doctor in a white coat, lactic fermentation is quite easy! Just grate up your vegetables (or cut them up), season with a bit of salt, and herbs, and leave them to soak in their own juice. Salt is the key ingredient here?about 2 or 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of veggies.
Lactic microbial organisms will develop, convert the natural sugars of the vegetable into lactic acid, and voila! Keep 'em in your cellar or basement (or other cool place) and they'll keep for months. Foods with which you can implement lactic fermentation:
- Stuffed cabbage
- Cucumbers (in jars)
- Green Beans
- Tomato Balls (think Italian sauce!)
For more techniques, check out: Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante
Find more on preserving in Preserving the Harvest
Makenna Goodman is the Community Outreach Coordinator for Chelsea Green Publishing, who has been a leader in books and conversation on the politics and practice of sustainable living since 1984.