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Preserving the Homestead Harvest

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Here at the homestead we tend to be pretty conscious of our energy consumption.  We live “off the grid” free from any connection to commercial electricity suppliers.  We make and use electricity, but in pitiably small quantities compared to the hydroelectric installation at Niagara Falls or the nuclear behemoth up the Mohawk River from us at 9 Mile Point.  We heat our home with wood and with the sun and we struggle to avoid too much dependency on petroleum fueled machinery.  When we analyze projects at the homestead we try to look at them not only in terms of results but also in terms of the energy inputs required.  For this reason we were very excited when, with our seed order from Fedco Seeds, there arrived a new book, “Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes” (Chelsea Green Publishers).  Many readers of the newsletter may already be familiar with this book which has been available in English for several years.  It was originally published in France complied by the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante.

The editors of the French organic gardening magazine, Les Quatre Saisons du Jardinage, had solicited their readership to submit their favorite traditional preservation methods for the book which consists of “recipes” (I call them that for want of a better term) under different headings, each recipe with a person’s name and area of origin.  I like the idea of real people putting their names to what they do and as I read this book I found myself imagining the people who populate it.  I find it is evocative to read names like Lise-Marie Ratier, La Ferriere or Eric and Sylvie Courtille, Lacapelle-Morival.  The methods described in the book are likewise evocative.  The categories vary from root cellaring, drying and lactic fermentation to preserving with salt, sugar, oil and alcohol.  There is a handy chart for quick reference at the back that lists a variety of foods and their preferred preservation methods.  An extensive index makes it easy to find detailed instructions for individual foodstuffs.  There are fascinating descriptions which are a delight to read.  For example, in the Vendée region of France people set up 40 foot tall greased poles (called a vgniou) and, using a block and tackle, hoist prepared fish to the top where sun and wind can do the work of drying them.  Emmanuelle Bompois of St. Enimié describes an exquisitely complicated method of preparing Marinated Rose Hip Jam.  (I must admit that since I’m currently studying French I enjoy every opportunity to pull out maps and encyclopedia and explore the areas referred to in the text).

What makes this book a particular treasure for the homesteader is that it’s not about energy but about techniques.  It’s not about fancy equipment but about simple homespun.  Even more complicated pieces like the vgniou are easily fashioned on-site based on the descriptions in the book.

Modern food preservation at home has become restricted to canning and freezing.  Horror stories from official sources of food poisoning have driven many people away from home preservation entirely.  Meanwhile the only “safe” methods of preservation require large energy inputs and in the case of freezing, constant energy input to maintain the food in its frozen state.  I should state here that I do not wish to minimize the dangers of food poisoning.  Botulism is a real and potent danger.  Everyone who wishes to extend the useful shelf life of their harvest should thoroughly understand the dangers of contaminated food, the conditions that create and foster the development of contamination and the current recommendations for its prevention.  Only through a thorough understanding can you safely expect to move beyond the restrictive norms of sterilized food.  And generally speaking sterilized, “dead” food is what it is.  At the industrial level we see that sterilizing is not always about safety.  In past issues of the newsletter we have seen wonderful articles illuminating the history of pasteurization of milk and the unintended consequences of this practice.  Another example of this is in the brewery industry.  Pasteurizing beer does not make it safer to drink and there are many fine beers sold in an unpasteurized state.  However there is a species of Chlamydia, a bacterium, that frequently infects brewery operations.  Chlamydia feed on the complex polysaccharides that give beer its “mouth-feel,” that creamy “full-bodied” texture that is prized in good beer.  The bacterium is a slow feeder and its effects only become apparent with beer kept a long time on the shelf.  The other problem with Chlamydia is its creates “champagne beer” in its wake.  When opened the beer will tend to slowly foam up over the top of the vessel creating a messy uncontrollable head.  Pasteurization kills Chlamydia as well as the Saccharomyces yeast which is essential to the fermentation process.  It is easier to pasteurize the beer at the end of the process than it is to put in practices at the brewery that eliminate the problem of Chlamydia contamination.  We see the same mentality among those who promote food irradiation as a substitute for practicing basic cleanliness in the processing of food.

When Laurie and I first got interested in the issues of food preservation we came at it from the direction of energy consumption.  Human impact on the environment can easily be expressed in terms of energy consumption.  As a general rule, the greater the energy inputs, the broader the scope of human influence.  Since Laurie and I were looking to minimize our impact while allowing ourselves to develop fully our human potential we were constantly looking for ways to reduce our energy consumption and especially our dependence on “nonrenewable” energy sources.  I described in detail in an earlier article the design and construction of our solar food dehydrator.  Our experiments with food drying using the sun were very successful and inspired us to look further.   At that time we were still connected to the electrical grid and we were using a freezer extensively for keeping food.  That was something we knew we had to get away from and so we started reading about the seemingly forgotten techniques of root cellaring. Here was another neglected method of keeping the harvest fresh for remarkably long periods of time.  Once people began to install furnaces and water heaters in their basements that environment was ruined as a convenient place for food storage.  Here, near the end or our first full winter living in our new house with the (as yet unfinished) root cellar we are amazed at the quality of vegetable we can bring up from there on a daily basis.  Turnips, daikon radish, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, beets are all nearly as fresh and crispy as the day they were taken from the ground.  I hope to do a future article detailing the design and construction of our root cellar as well as the various treatments we are using for different vegetables.  For now, I’ll just say that, even in its unfinished state, the root cellar works better than our most optimistic expectations.  In the “Keeping Food Fresh” book many alternative root cellaring methods are described including “heeling in”, trenching and siloing which involve more or less direct burial of produce in the ground or in some cases the burial of a receptacle into which vegetables are placed.  These are the kinds of techniques that can easily be adapted to practically any circumstances.
I also became interested in preservation through lactic fermentation first in the making of sauerkraut.  Lactic fermentation is fermentation carried out primarily by bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus.  The bacteria consume the sugars in the vegetable matter and produce acids (lactic and acetic primarily) which act to preserve the food.  Other byproducts of microbial digestion serve to enhance the flavor, character, digestibility and nutritional value of the food.  These bacteria are found abundantly in the environment and inoculation is not necessary to start the process.  They are ready to go to work as soon as conditions are right.  As a child I helped my father make sauerkraut but there was little discussion of theory at the time.  When I came to making it for myself my reference work of choice was The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.  I don’t want to say that she held sauerkraut making in low esteem but it is the very last recipe in the book (page 849 in my edition).  It is also accompanied by warnings that the only safe method of preserving the finished product is by heating to 180°F (i.e. pasteurizing) and then canning in a boiling water bath and finally boiling again for 20 minutes before eating.  When for the first time last summer I went to a NOFA summer conference I discovered that many people don’t agree with this treatment.  I went to a workshop on sauerkraut making given by Sarah Flack.  When I brought up the issue of canning sauerkraut I was told that sauerkraut is preserved already and, if kept cool and free from contact with the air, will keep indefinitely.  Sarah told the story of Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe during which he carried huge barrels of sauerkraut in the hold of the ship.  He reached the Pacific Islands after 3 years of sailing and in a special ceremony awarded one of the barrels of sauerkraut to some local dignitaries.  Upon opening the barrel he declared it some of the finest kraut he had ever tasted.  Lactic fermented vegetable like fine wines improve with careful aging.  Sarah also pointed out that for many people much of the nutritional benefit of lactic fermented foods is in the fact that they are live foods full of beneficial organisms that aid digestion and provide important micro-nutrients.  I learned in that workshop and in a subsequent one with Dan Rosenberg (“The Pickle Man” realpickles.com) that practically any vegetable can be fermented with Lactobacillus.  Cucumbers top the list but carrots, turnips, radish, garlic, onion, jerusalem artichokes, green beans, squash, eggplant, etc. all can be successfully fermented using this method.  This information opened up a whole new world for me and I went home with a new attitude about lactic fermentation.  It’s not just sauerkraut anymore!  Within days I was filling crocks with kimchi (Korean style sauerkraut), mixed vegetables and good old-fashioned “real pickles.”  The arrival of the book, “Keeping Food Fresh,” has only added fuel to the fire and I’m looking forward to the coming growing season to expand my horizons.  In my next article I will go into more detail concerning our experiments with both preserving the harvest and extending it.

(As of the writing of this article in late March, Jim Strickland and his partner, Laurie Freeman had already enjoyed their first green salad from their greenhouse in the snow-covered hills of Meco, NY.)

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