Archives for category: Canning

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

Also known as Russian Olive, the Autumn Olive is considered a pest species. In the want ads of our local newspaper, guys advertise that they’ll pull it up by its roots, for a fee. Apparently it arrived as a domestic landscaping plant—but escaped into the larger wilds. I don’t know why nobody likes it.

In the spring is has tiny, extremely fragrant, delicate yellow, trumpet–like blooms. Though you have to inspect to see how lovely they are, just walking by smells terrific—like you’d walked into a tropical bouquet. The plant itself is just a shrub, with foliage looking a lot like olive leaves—and so, the name. I suppose some object to the thorns. I haven’t had too much trouble with thorns—even pruning. You just need to be mindful of them to avoid being scratched.

The real surprise is the fruit. It’s ripe in the fall. The plant book describes it as tart, but edible, mostly for migrating birds. I guess I’ll have to leave some for them—I love it. It is a sweet/tart combo that I love. Rick just turns up his nose, thinks I’m crazy. Next year I’ll try making jelly out of it. I think that tartness would be lovely captured in a clear jar of scarlet. I haven’t seen any recipes. Could it be I’m the only one that likes them? (Other than the cedar waxwings.)

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

A.V. Walters

I know I said I was finished canning for the season. And then, there was the threat of frost, so we decided to do one last harvest before the more delicate items perished. We brought in peppers, the last eggplant, basil (but unfortunately, not enough of it), a bunch of late-maturing winter squash (spaghetti, moschata, butternut and one lone delicata that was hiding in the foliage) and then we took a hard look at the tomatoes. Sure enough, many had split and rotted after the rains. But looking closer, there were still a lot of really lovely tomatoes in there, so we harvested.

And harvested, and harvested. We made an ample last harvest delivery to everyone on the farm and still there were over three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. Eighty-eight pounds of tomatoes—in November, no less. So we pulled out the canning equipment, from its brief rest in storage and set up for one last (no, really) run. Twenty-three quarts later, we are finished. We did extra thick sauce infused with basil (for pizza or spaghetti); we did tomato pieces, most sorted by color—red, orange or yellow, which will be lovely for stews or soups; and we did some fancies—mixed colors in patterns—which are almost too pretty to eat and will probably be gift items. (So if you’re family and you’re reading this, close your eyes on this part.) Then we washed up and put all the gear away again.

It was a welcome reprieve from regular life, which has had some twists of late. Anyone who is the parent of a teenager can relate—a runaway with issues and attitude. As much as you ache for their safety and mental state, you also wish you could can them, too, safely into tidy jars, tucked into the pantry until they’re ready for real life. Once we’d done all that we could do, a little tomato therapy of peeling and dicing and canning was just the ticket. And by the end of the weekend, she was home, safe, and probably already gearing up for her next snit. You wonder, was I ever that young and clueless?

By last evening, the kitchen was clean, the jars in neat rows, cooling, and we relaxed in front of the fire. Winter is coming and the early mornings are decked out in frost. Stupidly, I left a lot of the basil in the garden and the cold burned it to a blackened, limp mess. A day earlier and I could have dried it for winter. Oh well. In the daytime it’s too warm for a fire, but by night the chill is in the air and it’s time for some heat. This morning, I noticed that more tomatoes are ripe. No way. I’m not canning them. I’ve already put the canning stuff away twice. But, I may take some and dehydrate them. I heard from an old Italian friend that the secret of great cooking with canned tomatoes was to dry some too, and then snip bits of the dried tomatoes into the pot twenty minutes before the meal is ready. Supposedly the dried ones bring back the aroma of summer.

Last night, friends called. Their neighbor has an excess of apples—did we want any? Plenty for applesauce or the emus. Applesauce is always a lovely treat in the winter. Oh, on second thought don’t go too far with all that canning equipment; we still have some empty jars. And, more emu news, next time.

A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.