Fig jam-making was fun!
My latest obsession is experimenting with food preservation. Drying food, canning fruit and making jam brings back happy memories and family stories.
We had a well-stocked larder in a cool basement room at our Vancouver home. You could always find cucumber pickles, watermelon pickles, pears, cherries, and other fruits and vegetables in rows of Mason jars. My mother was capable in the kitchen, learning everything after being married. Kind women like Neta Giesbrecht, a neighbour in Abbotsford, B.C., shared recipes and methods.
If not for Henry and Neta, our family would not likely be in British Columbia. Henry told my father that he could get land here without a down payment. After completing their required year’s stay in Gem, Alberta, my father bought five acres of virgin forest near the Giesbrechts on Boundary Road, now Zero Avenue, across a ditch from Washington State. They cleared it and added another five acres of farmland before moving to Vancouver.
Henry used to live next door to my father in Neu-Schönsee, in the Zagradovka Mennonite settlement in the Soviet Union. His family helped my grandfather build their little house after they were forced to leave another Mennonite settlement. My uncle Jacob remembers the somewhat older Henry playing with him while the older family members were at work on the collective farm. My father remembers Jacob calling out to Henry, “I have Zwieback!” Their mother had baked the double yeast rolls, each with a smaller roll perched on the bottom roll. Literally, the word means “twice-baked.” Occasionally my mother baked Zwieback for our family.
In Vancouver, we had a golden apple tree from which we made applesauce using a special colander. Other than removing blemishes, we didn’t need to core or peel apples before cooking them. The sauce squeezed out as a wooden mallet rolled against the colander’s insides. I lost track of our family applesauce-maker, but found one on eBay.
Figs were not a childhood fruit, but we learned to appreciate whatever bounty we received. This year, a nearby fig tree had so much fruit, the raccoons feasted in the upper branches in the evenings. I picked enough for two batches of fig jam using a Food Network recipe. It took a long time to cook but was delicious.
Then it was berry jam. When a friend invited me to pick blackberries in her yard, I gathered over six cups of berries. I dropped the berries into a container attached to a cord around my neck, as my family had when picking blueberries directly from growers. The soft overripe berries that tasted like candy popped right into my mouth. For the jam, I added some tart blueberries, and fresh-made applesauce for pectin content. I recalled straining out half the seeds for raspberry jam years ago, and removed most of the blackberry seeds with the applesauce colander.
Unfortunately the berry jam was overcooked and stiff as gum when it cooled. It was tricky testing whether it had gelled. I didn't trust my candy thermometer, which took minutes to get a reading. Instead, I visually checked for “sheeting,” when the mixture falls from the spoon in a sheet rather than in separate drops. But apparently you need to cool the jam a bit before checking! My father said I could fix the batch by adding water. After checking online, I added water and sugar to a leftover jar. The jam was now spreadable but still a bit stiff when cooled. I noted on each jar to add the quantities needed. It tasted amazing, but wasn’t good for anywhere but home. With home cooking, you learn and make do!
I had dried berries in the sun after reading about this historical practice of local First Nations. This year I was excited to try a new food dehydrator. A batch of sliced figs dried in the machine seemed fine. I wondered about the plastic trays though, having heard that heated plastic can leach chemicals into food. In my second attempt, I dried slices on the trays in the direct sun over two very hot days, laying them on cheesecloth. Fig seeds stuck to the cheesecloth, so it didn’t seem like the best fabric. Blanching the figs beforehand softened the skins’ waxy coating and improved the texture from the first batch. I now had plenty of dried figs which took very little storage space.
Ozana, a neighbour from Croatia, encouraged me to dry tea and herbs like oregano, sage, lovage, lemon balm and mint. I cut the leafy branches and lay them on an unused surface where they can dry for a few days, or until I can get to de-leafing them. One day I laid some oregano in the sun, and it dried very quickly. English lavender flowers are more time-consuming to peel from their stems, but lovely with lemon balm tea or in fragrant sachets.
This weekend I canned peaches for the first time. A local produce store offered lovely fruit from B.C.’s Okanagan for just 99 cents a pound. It was lots of work preparing over nine pounds! I dipped the peaches in lemon juice and water to prevent browning, and then heated them in sugar syrup before stacking slices in jars. I mistakenly processed the first batches in boiling water for ten minutes as for jam, instead of the required twenty. "I’ll call these Zwieback! Twice-baked!" I thought, as I returned them to boil for another twenty minutes. The peaches look the same, but are labelled with an extra “Z”.
When peeling the peaches after blanching them, I recalled helping to peel hundreds of fresh peaches for a wedding breakfast a few years ago on Gabriola Island. The process took so long that with a busy ferry schedule, I had to say goodbye before the breakfast began!
I hope you, too, have many fond memories of food!
- Irene Plett
Topics: preserves, jam, canning, drying food, dehydrating, fruit, herbs, tea, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, sage, lovage, mint, peaches, figs, blackberries, blueberries, applesauce, Vancouver, Abbotsford, Henry Giesbrecht, Neta Giesbrecht, Ursula Plett, Peter Plett, Jacob Plett, Neu-Schönsee, Zagradovka, Soviet Union, Zwieback, Mennonites
Irene Plett is a writer, poet and animal lover living in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.