We have had an amazing harvest this autumn and have been non-stop with our noses in our preserving books and our hands in the kitchen! Dehydrating, juicing, freezing, canning, and baking are all methods of preserving food and we’ve had fun experimenting with all of them.
Oh and I should say gorging too! Yes, we’ve been gorging ourselves on all the delicious fruits, nuts, and veggies from in and around our garden. The walnuts started dropping from the trees in early April and continued through the month. Every few days we’d go out with a bucket and collect them. They must be totally dry in order to store them, so we’d lay them out on sheets and haul them in and out onto the deck to dry in the sunshine.
Ol’ man pear blessed us this year and we shared plenty of pears with the possums and birds. Ready by mid-February and going through March, our tree produced, oh, maybe 1000 little to medium sized pears, half of which we had to chuck into the compost (because of bird and possum damage). The rest we mainly juiced or dehydrated. We also made a lot of fruit crisps/crumbles. We scored many boxes of pears from a Christchurch friend who had two gorgeous old trees that produced large succulent pears. And there are several ‘wild’ trees around Wainui from which we foraged.
We’ve got three old apple trees on the property of unknown variety and three young Peasgood Nonsuch trees. The old trees did well and we yielded approximately four big boxes of fruit. A decent amount of it was riddled with coddling moth damage, but it was still edible/usable – you just have to cut each one to inspect the insides and cut out the inedible bits. Mainly this fruit was used for juicing, dehydrating, or baking. The Peasgood Nonsuch, which are only about six years old produced all of five or six apples – they’ve got a long way to go. To store apples, you individually wrap each apple in a piece of newspaper, layer them in a box, and store in a cool place. We’re giving this a go and have two full boxes in the storeroom.
The grapevine at the Clyde house had its best year in the four years we’ve been there, yielding beautiful succulent grapes from mid-March through the end of April. These grapes are mainly eating grapes, which our friends and we have enjoyed. Our crab apple trees produced 4 kilos (9 lbs.) of apples, which we’ve made into jelly and lemonade. Our two blackboy peach trees yielded less than last year but still did well, probably giving us two boxes of peaches. These, while they’re okay for eating, are mainly used for baking and jamming.
Our young orchard consists of six quince, three apricot, five fig, two lemon, three goji berry, three apple, and twenty olive trees. I’m not sure when they’re supposed to start producing but we got very little from them this year. In spring, the apricots were in full bloom but unfortunately we witnessed several big wood pigeons sucking on their sweet nectar – we only got ten apricots off the three trees. The six quince only produced one fruit. The apples as I mentioned gave us five. No figs. No lemons. Two little goji berries from one plant. And only one of the olive trees had any olives on them which Bruce was getting excited about harvesting (usually in June before the first frost). However, I went up to look at the tree a few days ago and they’re all gone. Not a single one left. I don’t know if the wind whipped them off the tree or whether some creature got to them first. A mystery. Next year we will net some of the trees to keep the birds out and we probably need to keep them better watered during summer.
And even though the young lemons did not do well, our bigger lemon tree did. Bruce has cared for this lemon tree like a newborn babe – watering it, feeding it, and keeping it well groomed. Last year it suffered from scale and sooty mold which we got rid of and this year the tree is just laden with gorgeous fruit. We are now experimenting with making a ginger/lemon juice to have as a daily health tonic.
Oh, and we have one little Chilean Guava which did excellently and yielded us two small bowls of fruit. Sweet, like nectar, you don’t need much of these to bring a smile to your face. These are good border plants and I envision one day creating a row of edible shrubs outside my bedroom door from which I can roll out and have sweet fruit right at my fingertips!
On the vegetable and herb front, we had a good garlic crop which hopefully gave us enough garlic for the year; our potatoes were not so good – yielding only 15 kilos; the tomatoes were great and gave plenty of fruit from February through May. The Austrian Hull-less seed pumpkins that we love so much did not do well. We only got eight pumpkins compared to over twenty from last year. The plants we had in Wainui did not produce any fruit – only lots and lots of leaf. Some type of mineral deficiency I suspect. We let some of the zucchinis grow into marrows which store well and can be used throughout the winter. And we had an abundant production of herbs: parsley, rosemary, St. Johns Wort, lemon verbena, chamomile, borage, lemon balm, peppermint, and sage.
The learning curve for figuring out how to cure, preserve, and store all this food has been steep. We’ve spent a lot of our autumn in the kitchen and we’ve gotten quite adept at experimenting with all sorts of new recipes. Here’s the lowdown on our various preservation techniques:
I purchased a used Ezi-Dry FD-1000 dehydrator which came with four trays, two mesh liners, and two solid liners. We’ve had it going on and off for the last three months and a least 24 hours a day for a solid month during the high crop season. We’ve dried various fruits – mainly pears and apples but had a go with persimmons, grapes, and peaches. We yielded two big jars of dried fruit which should last most of the year. For herbs, which we dry for tea, I’ve done trays and trays of lemon verbena as well as chamomile and St John’s Wort. Below are photos of the Lemon Verbena (center) and St. John’s Wort shrubs and a sunburst tray of chamomile flowers. My other successful experiment, courtesy of Maggie, was to make my own crackers using the pulp from juicing (mainly carrots) and mixing it with a mix of sunflower, linseed, and sesame seeds and a bit of soy sauce to bind it together. Hmmmm….. delicious.
Juicing: I scored a second-hand Sunbeam Café Series 1000-watt juicer which has been a godsend. We’ve enjoyed fresh juice almost daily for several months now. Our favorite blend is apple, ginger, and carrot. Most of the pears ended up through the juicer and we produced several litres of fresh pear juice, which we’ve frozen. Carrots are in season and we can score a 25 kilo (50 lb.) bag of ‘seconds’ from the farmers market for $10. Excellent for juicing and for soup making.
Bottling: I did a few rounds of jams and jellies as well as trying out some marmalades and chutneys. Some of the notable ones: peach, raisin, and wine jam (15 jars); pear apple ginger marmalade (9 jars); pear cinnamon jam (3 jars); crabapple jelly (9 jars); beetroot and zucchini chutney (3 jars); and a persimmon jam (3 jars). Next year I need to be more prepared as I ran out of jars several times and had to put a few experiments on hold until I could source more jars.
Freezing: Due to my lack of jars, most of the blackboy peaches ended up in the freezer. The peaches, while making for a good jam, make for an even better cobbler and we will be enjoying Bruce’s peach cobbler throughout the winter season. We made a variety of carrot soups for freezing too.
Alcohol fermentation: Probably the most fun we’ve had is having a go at producing our own alcohol from fruit. Brewmaster Bruce is at the helm here with figuring out the proper blends and recipes. We’re in the midst of trying to make a pear cider (one of my favorites) or pear perry as they call it here. As I mentioned, we juiced hundreds of pears. Bruce has about six 1-litre bottles in various states of fermentation. We will either get a nice alcoholic beverage from this or else some passable cider vinegar. Time will tell. We’ve got a big bottle of apple cider brewing too. And Bruce has been experimenting with infusing his vodka distillation with ginger to produce a faux ‘Ginger Wine’ which is also a favorite of ours. The first bottle he made we drank within a week – the sign of a successful experiment. He’s now having a go with four bottles in the queue. And lastly, we’ve just whipped up an alcoholic crabapple lemonade which is currently ‘curing’.
Our kitchen looks like a science lab with bottles of all sorts of things, in all stages of production, sitting everywhere! The kitchen is just not big enough nor does it have enough storage capacity. Hopefully by this time next year, all this will be remedied when our remodel is complete and we have a big brand new kitchen to play in!
Most of the recipes we used came out of two books, the first which can be found in the Christchurch library (I definitely recommend the Small Batch Preserving book over the other one). And the inspiration for our alcohol fermentation experiments come from the third:
The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard
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
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz
With all this ‘free’ food, one would think that we’ve cut down on our grocery bill. I actually keep track of all our expenses in Quicken and so I decided to see. And it turns out that we have not really saved that much money. I’ve been perplexed about this because it doesn’t seem like we’re buying as much. But as Bruce carefully noted the other day, it’s due to price inflation. Yes, food costs have risen exorbitantly in the past year. Just as an example, organic mustard powder rose from $10.13 to to $15.33 a kilo (51% increase); organic raisins went from $8.80 to $9.50 a kilo (8% increase); and organic currants rose from $5.88 to $11.08 per ½ kilo (a whopping 88% increase). Milk products went through the roof earlier in the year and have only come down recently but are still above last year’s levels.
So the moral of this story? Keep growing our own food. And more of it. It is by far the cheapest way to eat. For those of you reading who live in New Zealand, an excellent and free way to get into vegetable gardening is to subscribe to New Zealand Gardener magazine’s Get Growing e-newsletter which comes out every Friday. It is filled with tips on what to do every week, offers recipe ideas, information on seed vendors, and there’s always a competition or drawing for some gardening related item (and I’ve won several hundred dollars worth of goods this year, most notably a year subscription to NZ House & Garden, Cuisine, and NZ Life & Leisure magazines). Community gardens are another good way to go and Christchurch has over a dozen in which one can participate. Join a local gardening club, find your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, barter with friends.
Food. It’s delicious. It’s even better when it’s locally produced. And it doesn’t get mo’ better than coming from your own back yard. So get growing!