Summer's ending and I think I'm in a serious pickle
When the fruits of your GIY-ing get a little overwhelming, don't let the compost heap win, get those jars out and start preserving Let's be honest, peeling, dicing, and chopping is just hard work
I WAS about five hours into my monster eight-hour 'pickle-athon' and up to my neck in diced fruit, veg and vinegar syrups. I had just peeled, cored and chopped 2kg of pears (I didn't count how many pears that is, but it's a lot) and a pan of boiling, sugary stickiness had just overflowed on the stove.
The kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it. The kids were still in their school uniforms, homework was undone, and dinner was chronically late. I was tired, cranky, sweaty and hungry (ironic, given that I was surrounded by mounds of food).
It was at that moment that Mrs Kelly chose to arrive in from the garden with another enormous bucket of windfall pears and a big smile on her face.
"Look what else I found," she said, beaming at what was surely an entire winter's supply of overripe fruit. "That's great," I deadpanned, without much conviction, before turning away and muttering something unprintable.
I was focused on 'dealing' with three vegetables in particular – cucumbers, beetroot and pears – all three are in serious glut territory in our garden at the moment and suspended in that perilous no-man's land between abundance and waste. So you have to move fast – do something with them so you can eat them later in the year, or lose them forever to the compost heap.
That means making a conscious decision to dedicate the time required to make a jam, pickle or chutney, or whatever other preserving recipes you have in your arsenal. I just can't handle the guilt associated with leaving these things to waste, so it was a case of rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in.
With a large stack of oversized cucumbers I made a zingy cucumber and onion pickle – we printed the recipe in this column on September 9, and as mentioned then it's one of my favourite ways to make something really interesting of a rather bland vegetable (with mustard seeds giving it a great kick).
It really is one of the most coveted jars in our winter larder. I think if I was asked (and hopefully I never will be) my death row meal would be a good Waterford blaa, three of Jane Russell's sausages and my homemade cucumber pickle. If there's a finer culinary experience, I've yet to find it.
Five large beetroot became a sweet beetroot marmalade (with a recipe from Alys Fowler's wonderful new book 'Abundance'). Beetroot store really well in a box with sand, so it's not really necessary to use a pickle to preserve them for the winter. On the other hand, I just love beetroot, so am always looking for ways to do interesting things with it.
In addition larger beetroot tend to be a little 'woody' for eating raw or simple baking, so this is a good way to make something special of them.
I like the idea of a beetroot marmalade and was intrigued by the idea of baking large chunks of beetroot with thyme, marjoram, orange zest and balsamic vinegar before grating them and adding to a vinegar/sugar syrup.
I can't tell you whether it's tasty or not (unfortunately when pickling you don't get the benefit of instant gratification from tasting it – most pickles, need to be left for a month or so before eating to let the flavours develop), but it looks promising.
A big bucket of pears were prepared and then boiled in a spicey syrup of white wine vinegar and sugar before being popped in to warm kilner jars. We both agreed that these would be a very special treat later in the year, and a very fine gift to the food lover in your life (assuming you're happy to be parted from one).
So, here's what I was thinking last night as I went to bed in a vinegar-fume fug.
* When it comes to getting produce into 'storage' for the winter, we need to put aside any romantic notions about how the hours spent peeling, dicing and chopping will make you a better person. Let's be honest, it's just hard bloody work, particularly if it's a serious attempt at winter larder-filling.
* It is relentless at this time of the year – there are plenty more cucumbers, pickles and pears where the first batch came from, and when I'm finished with them, there are lots of other vegetables in the veg patch, e.g. tomatoes, apples etc that need urgent dealing with too. Will have to catch up with my favourite TV shows later in the year.
* Do I smell burning? Did I turn off the hob?
The morning after, the vinegar fumes having dissipated, I was feeling a little more balanced and reflective. Best of all, I had that wonderful, primordial smug/satisfied feeling that arises the day after a mammoth session of food storing. Gazing along the rows of different sized jam and kilner jars, I could congratulate myself on a job well done. I could also dream of a day in the near-distant future, perhaps in November or December when fresh produce is starting to wear thin, and I could pop open a jar and taste harvest 2013 all over again.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy" the bible tells us, but surely that was a typo and the line should have read: "DO store up for yourselves the treasures of the earth, use copious quantities of vinegar and store somewhere cool and dark."
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.