Friday, 3 December 2010

Doing it for yourself

There is an ad campaign on the London Underground that says "can't cook, won't cook" and then something about a hair product that won't fry your hair. It is a sad sign of our times that a statement flaunting the inability to perform the most basic of survival activities - preparing food - is considered a clever way to sell a product. I know, I know, it's a witty reference to a tv show, and ironic, and anti-establishment, and all those other brilliant things advertising likes to think it is, but I am not amused. I think we've gone just a little too far in the direction of letting other people do things for us, and then letting insidious advertisers sell us all those unneccessary products and services.

Fortunately I know lots of people who do things for themselves - including but not limited to all my fellow allotment holders and my fellow knitters. As you would expect, crafters are often gardeners and cooks. It's all part of the same do-it-yourself mentality.

When it comes to food, America seems to be taking doing-it-for-yourself slightly farther than the UK. Possibly because the economic crisis is greater there. Or possibly the American pioneer spirit lives on, while the British have their long experience with industrialisation to overcome. Whatever it is, even though my British friends are busily sewing and knitting and gardening and cooking away, they have not yet started canning.

Canning really is on a higher plane of doing-it-for-yourself. And I'm not just talking about making chutneys and jam, which seem relatively straightforward. I'm talking CANNING. Tomatoes, salsa, pickles, peppers, sauerkraut, etc., etc., etc. Food that will sustain you, not just condiments and spreads. As far as I'm concerned, it was my mother who started this newfound craze for canning. My sister started an organic farm about 10 years ago, and they've been struggling to keep up with the tomatoes ever since.

I decided to start out with pickling, because there seemed less danger of scalding myself or contracting botulism. Also I just love pickles and dilly beans (which are basically beans processed the same way as pickles, but tasting even better, if that is even possible).

I had to order my canning jars online because the only ones I could find in Oxford were outrageously expensive. Pickling salt was unavailable, but according to my internet research it was absolutely essential or completely unnecessary, so going on the theory you can't believe everything you read on the internet, I went ahead and used sea salt instead. I only ended up canning two jars of gherkins and two jars of dilly-beans, because I had not planted enough plants to get enough ripe vegetables all at once, and I kept running out of vinegar (it is not really feasible to carry a sufficient quantity home from my local shops, which I travel to on foot). I was hoping to branch out into tomatoes, but my crop got blight.

The gherkins and dilly beans were delicious, though some of the beans were a bit too tough because I threw in some large ones to fill out the jar, and I learned that runner beans are best avoided (they taste fine, but feel like cat's tongue). Also one jar of gherkins did not turn out crunchy enough, probably because I didn't can them right after picking (freshness is the key to successful canning).  

Next year I'm going to grow and can lots more gherkins and beans. Some kinds of canning is not particularly necessary from a budgetary perspective (leaving out the important issue of taste and variety), but canning gherkins and beans makes a lot of economic sense in the UK. The British like their pickles sweet, which I find utterly disgusting, and as the scrumptious French kind are outrageously expensive (£4.50 for a little jar!), I'm forced to make my own. And dilly beans are unheard of. I'm going to try more recipes next year (wasabi dilly beans, anyone?). I'll ask my mother for her recipes.

Summer harvest (seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?)