Monday, January 08, 2007

Preserving year round.

People sometimes ask how I got into making preserves and I don't have a very good answer. I can't remember the first time I made homemade preserves. It was probably strawberry freezer jam with mom when I was a kid. My mom didn't really cook. She would sometimes bake, and there was a little bit of canning going on, but for the most part my dad was the cook in my family. I don't have memories of my grandmothers making preserves either. When I started canning on my own, I made that same strawberry freezer jam and the family recipe for bread and butter pickles. For several years, that's all I did.
Then one day, I was out running after a big storm and I noticed that a huge tree branch a neighbor had dragged to the curb was covered in plums. I couldn't believe someone would throw out that bounty! I ran back home and got a bag, picked all the fruit and took it to the neighborhood store to get it weighed. I knew if I was going to make jam, I'd have to know how much fruit I had. A clerk at the store asked where I'd gotten the fruit and upon hearing the story asked if his friend could interview me for a newspaper article about urban gleaning. (If you have never seen the movie The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda, go right now and rent it. It is one of my all time favorites.)
Those plums were a turning point, I think, or maybe just one of several factors that led to a deeper interest in preserves. At the time I was working at a stand at the Saturday Farmer's market and delivering produce for a collective of organic farms to Chicago restaurants. I only worked 3 days a week which left ample time to play in the kitchen and I had access to the best that Wisconsin had to offer. I had a cute little pantry off my kitchen that had built in wooden shelves. The shelves didn't quite reach the ceiling so I began stacking my jars of jewel toned preserves on top. Just looking at them made me happy.

The real turning point was the summer I lived on the farm. I was in charge of making lunch and dinner for the farm crew but I took it upon myself to preserve the farm bounty. I made everything from pickled broccoli (there's a reason you can't buy this at the store!) to triple currant jam to a hundred quarts of canned tomatoes in one day (that's the last time I'll ever do that unless I borrow someone's Italian family). I went a little crazy. Traditionally, the point of preserving was to make enough to get you through the winter until fresh produce became available again. I kind of lost sight of that goal. That was 3 years ago and I bet they still have shelves full of my preserves at the farm because I made more than a neighborhood of families could eat in a year.
I remember one night after dinner, sitting out back enjoying the cool evening air before heading back into the steamy kitchen for another round of jamming, musing that maybe I should make preserves for a living. If I loved it enough to be doing it on my own time after being in the kitchen all day, maybe I could make it a business.
When I left the farm, I already had tentative plans to buy the food cart. I thought I could do both. Ha! I convinced several people to sign up for my fledgling value-added CSA. Instead of produce, they would get canned goods. I scrapped this plan pretty quickly when I realized that I would essentially be canning the same amount as I always had but at the end of the summer, I'd have none left for me. The little bit of money I'd asked for didn't seem worth it. I gave the money back and concentrated on the food cart instead.

But all the while, I've been squirreling preserves away in my basement. I used to bring friends down to show them the beautiful rows of jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys. I was still making them faster than I could eat them.
Around this time I heard about Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber. This book changed my preserving life. I have collected preserving books for years but this was something new and amazing. The old-fashioned books were full of boring combinations and WAY to much sugar. Christine Ferber doesn't use commercial pectin to set her preserves. This allows them to have a softer, more pleasing jell and it allows the true flavor of the fruit to shine. I rarely use pectin anymore. She also has exciting flavor combinations and figured out how to make chocolate preserves. She makes preserves for Pierre Herme for pete's sake!

Around the same time that I found out that I was losing the kitchen space that I used for the food cart, I had a lead on another kitchen that I could use for preserves. It felt awful at the time but now when I look back, I think that the timing was perfect. Maybe everything does happen for a reason, you just can't see it at the time. And that, my friends, is how Pamplemousse Preserves came to be.

I've been having so much fun in the kitchen lately. Usually, by the end of the summer I am burnt out on making preserves and I take the winter off. Not this year. For the first time I have my own commercial kitchen to use so I have been trying many new things. Orange Passionfruit Marmelade, Dolgo Crabapple Jelly, Key Lime Marmelade, Chocolate, Orange Banana Preserves...


At 7:00 AM, Blogger Crystal said...

My mouth is watering!

Where exactly do you sell your preserves?

At 7:30 AM, Anonymous Julie said...

Just found you via your comment on Toast.

Great story, and I've just taken a look at the Amazon listing for Mes Confitures and it looks like a fascinating book. (This is one of the downsides to food blogging -- you constantly get book recommendations, the books turn out to be wonderful, and your cookbook collection grows completely out of control.)

I'm intrigued by the idea of broccoli pickles. Have you posted a recipe on your site?

At 10:10 AM, Blogger lee said...

crystal- So far, they are available at Two Degrees Coffeeshop in Madison. I am currently working on all the details I like less than actually making the preserves like label design, setting up a website, etc. I will certainly let you know as things develop but in the meantime, my email is in my profile if you want to know what's available and how to get some.

julie- Thanks for stopping by. I read someone else's review of the book that said it is not for beginners. She doesn't really give good canning instructions or tell you how many jars the recipes will make. I don't know what your skill set is but bear that in mind.

As for the broccoli pickles, they were not a favorite so i don't remember where I got the recipe. At some pont I will do a round-up of favorite canning books.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Crystal said...

Sounds good! I will have to check out that coffee shop while I'm at it. :)

At 1:03 PM, Blogger allisonmariecat said...

I'm so glad you're doing this! It sounds like a calling for you :)

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Tea said...

I loved reading about the path that brought you here, Lee. Perhaps these things do happen for a reason. Seems you were meant to be here, happily canning away.

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Vanessa said...

Good morning Lee. I found your blog via David Lebovitz's generous blog roll. I'm a food blogger out of Middleton. I love this story about how you came to where you are now. We share so many interests (Be Good Tanyas, Time Traveler's Wife, Kite Runner, Alford & Duguid cookbooks)and I've been known to can and preserve too. I'm adding you to my blog roll and I can't wait to taste your preserves, I'll pick up some tomorrow.


Post a Comment

<< Home