As I sit down to write this a saucepan is simmering on the hob – full to the brim with rosehips and cooking apples.
After a night in a straining bag the concoction will transform into a jelly, which will lovingly see us through winter as a vital and delicious ingredient for stews, gravies and all manner of roasting pan suppers.
It’s the latest produce to come out of this year’s fervent foray into preserving.
With the struggles and unknowns this year has brought with it (and continues to bring with it) I’ve set about fiercely preserving, pickling, infusing and brewing anything I can get my hands on.
The isolation I’ve experienced this year seems to have brought out the preserver in me – I’m keen to hold on to the taste of summer and to enjoy our home-grown and foraged foods throughout the winter months to come.
As the nights draw in and the temperatures plummet, I take a certain comfort from the jars and bottles of preserved goods dotted throughout the house.
In the past I’ve turned to foraged goods for my preserving fix – damsons, rosehips, haws, sloes and the like – but this year I’ve turned to fruits, leaves and nuts from the garden too – using them in new ways and ultimately ensuring that nothing (or very little) goes to waste.
The time this year has given me has made me appreciate everything that surrounds me and has urged me to put it all to good use.
Seeing a preserving pan on the cooker, or regularly turning a bottle of infused vinegar settles me – it’s inexplicably satisfying to know you’ve grown something from seed, nurtured it, harvested it and slung it together with a handful of ingredients to preserve it.
We all know that gardening does wonders for our mental health (this year more than ever) but I find that preserving my efforts too really does boost it considerably.
Preserving is easy, often inexpensive and for anyone who loves food as much as me, it’s an utterly irresistible activity.
All you need is enthusiasm, a large pan and some bottles and jars.
This year’s preserving journey started in June with green walnuts and since then there’s been a myriad of jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, cordials, liqueurs, sauces, preserves, vinegars, ketchups, drinks and chutneys – all whisked up in the kitchen.
While preserving prolongs the lifespan of food, I always feel that each bite, taste or sip of my lovingly prepared goods takes me right back to seasons past and the gardening adventures and achievements I have experienced along the way.
There’s nothing better than opening a jar of pickled walnuts at Christmas and being thrown straight back to the moment I picked them (a sparkling warm Saturday in June), or the joy I was filled with when I realised they were ripe for picking (gently pushing a skewer through the bulbous green nut), or the care I took at every stage to ensure they were pickled to perfection (it took weeks) or checks I kept making on them as they matured (I cared for them like a school of children)!
Of course preserving takes time, but food that has been subjected to time always seems to taste better.
And, while preserving is generally linked with jams, jellies and chutneys, I’ve been relishing the array of vinegars, spirits and oils that have joined the pantry this year – preserving not only fruits and vegetables but scents and flavours.
Often, what I’ve preserved makes me nostalgic – the green figs remind me of a holiday in South Africa, the pickled walnuts of the first ones I tentatively tried with my parents many years ago now, the damson jelly of a friend who gifted me a gigantic jar of the stuff years ago – the same one that flavours our gravy to this day, and so it goes on…
Since the pickled walnuts in June there has been a list of preserves that have appeared out of the kitchen as long as my arm.
Some were experiments, most have worked. The key is to have fun and produce goods you’ll relish consuming.
- rhubarb vodka – strangely bitter and refreshing
- elderflower cordial – every sip takes me straight back to the start of summer
- elderflower champagne – making this always feels dangerous, the bottles have a tendency to explode
- elderflower gin – tart, sweet and moreish – all at the same time
- blackcurrant cordial – liquid sunshine
- blackcurrant leaf syrup – perfect with prosecco
- blackcurrant vinegar – perfect for salad dressings
- creme de cassis – thick, sticky and sweet – a pick me up in winter
- fig leaf syrup – fig leaves tastes of coconut, I kid you not. This year has been all about the fig leaf, I’ve baked salmon in them, made ice cream, panna cotta and cocktails. It’s a wonder…
- lavender vinegar – delicately fragranced for drizzling over puddings
- burnt fig jam – dark, oozy, bitter and fruity
- fig and chilli jam – the partner to any cheese board
- fig vinegar – pink, subtle and essential for salads
- pickled cucumbers – perfect with seafood, particularly crab
- pickled garlic – for when the bulbs run out, oily and perfect for aioli
- sloe vodka – the essential ingredient for all winter hip flasks
- sea buckthorn vodka – citrussy flavours straight from the coast
- wine – made with grapes from the greenhouse
- cider – always a delicate balance to get right, but if it all goes wrong we’ll have another 70 litres of cider vinegar to add to the collection
- damson ketchup – tangy and sweet, a must for cold meats and fried breakfasts
- raspberry vinegar – sweet and moreish, drizzle on ice cream
- raspberry vodka – drink with soda for a long last look at summer
- garlic oil – drizzle on pizza
- chilli oil – drizzle on bruschetta, sourdough and poached eggs
- nasturtium seed capers – perfect for any fish pie
- piccalilli – a spicy nod to the produce of summer
- fig leaf olive oil – fresh, coconutty and vibrant
- blackberry vodka – deep, fruity and sharp
- preserved green figs – a syrupy accompaniment for cheese boards and a great way to use unripe figs
- quince cheese – for cheese and cheese alone
- rosehip and apple jelly – pop a spoonful in stews, gravies and pots for deep, earthy flavours
- pickled horseradish – a revelation, dig it up, grate it, pickle it and enjoy for months with beef and salmon
- horseradish vinegar – perfect for pickling cucumbers and onions
- liqueur de noix – dark, wintery fuel made with walnuts
- quince jelly – for pepping up winter casseroles
In all honesty, this year’s preserving journey has been a love affair.
Will we ever get through it all – maybe not. But, if we don’t enjoy it all I’d like to think many other people will – our families, our friends, our postman and our neighbours.
If you fancy giving preserving a go, I urge you to. Start with something you know you’ll enjoy eating, it’s the best way.
In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing many of the recipes developed through my journey but, for now, if you have any small green figs left on your fig tree try this recipe and indulge in cheese with preserved green figs for months to come.
(And, if you have a glut of cucumbers, try this recipe for cucumber ice cream – trust me it’s a revelation!)
Preserved green figs
Best eaten with cheese
- 50 green figs about the size of a large walnut
- 1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
- sugar the amount is variable, please see point six below
- 1 lemon
Wash and lightly scrub the figs. Trim off any remaining stalk and cut a cross at their base like you would a Brussel sprout.
Mix the bicarbonate of soda with enough water to cover the figs in a large pan or bowl, add the figs and leave to soak overnight.
The next day, drain the figs, rinse them in cold water and weigh them. Make a note of their weight.
Place the figs in fresh, boiling water and simmer until just soft.
Drain the figs and dry them well on a tea towel.
Now make a sugar syrup using the same weight of water and sugar as the weight of figs you have - if you have 500g of figs, mix 500ml of water with 500g sugar and boil the syrup (without the figs) until it starts to thicken.
Add the figs and boil until the syrup is thick - this may take some time.
Now add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice per 250g figs and bring the mixture to the boil again before letting cool.
Bottle the figs in sterilised jars and cover with the syrup. If you find you haven't enough syrup make more (50/50 water and sugar) and top up the bottles before sealing.