Fall may be short in Atlantic Canada, but preserving lets you stretch its bounty into the winter and beyond.
It is a very satisfying thing to open a jar of homemade preserves. There is the tension of the sealed lid as you try to pry it open, the contents of the jar ready and waiting. But once the seal breaks in a loud and familiar pop, the memory of the season waits to be enjoyed and devoured. If Proust had been born in Atlantic Canada, he would have eaten preserves—not madeleines.
With its short growing season, Atlantic Canada has always been a hot spot for preserves. Historically, people only had a few months of fresh produce available. The rest of the year, they subsisted on preserved, dried, salted and pickled foods. For generations, preserving foods was a way to save food and money. Now, it’s a way to keep family culinary traditions alive, season by season.
In its simplest form, preserving is a way of keeping food over an extended period of time. You can do this many ways: drying (think of dried apples and other fruits), smoking (smoked fish, meats and cheeses), salting or curing (salt pork), fermenting (sauerkraut and kimchi, a spicy Korean cabbage dish) are great examples, or by adding sugar or vinegar (jams, jellies, relishes and pickles) or even alcohol (fruit brandies). Using these processes alongside bottling and canning yields a greater shelf life for certain foods, over months and even years.
For Dale Cameron, preserving just makes sense. Owner of the George House Heritage Bed and Breakfast in Dildo, Newfoundland, Cameron and his partner Todd serve homemade preserves such as partridgeberry sauce to their guests. It’s an added touch that makes the meal a little more special. “I remember helping my mother in bottling preserves, sauces and pickles but I was always an assistant to her,” Cameron reminisces.
For him, it wasn’t just about the food itself. “I wanted to recapture some of those fond food memories, so I began doing it on my own and experimenting,” he says. “Not always did everything work out and I learned that you cannot skip a step in the process.”
Cameron and his friends bottle beans and soups for the winter, plus what may be a quintessentially Newfoundland preserve—bottled moose meat. “The best benefit of bottled moose is that it provides a long shelf life,” Cameron says. “In days of old, bottling/canning was done as there was no other way to store the meat properly. In modern days, it provides quite a convenience.”
Bottling and canning is truly a way of life in rural Newfoundland.
That convenience comes in the form of re-sealable and reusable jars. “In essence, the Mason jar is one of the original recycled items in a Newfoundlander’s pantry,” says Cameron. “You fill it one year with bottled moose or seal, consume it, and then clean and sterilize the jar for the following season.”
Those jars get plenty of use in his kitchen and among his friends. “We have friends who bottle and can,” he says. “[That way we] can swap some of your bottled moose for a friend’s pickles. Bottling and canning is truly a way of life in rural Newfoundland.”
That way of life is having a renaissance in urban areas, too. This year, Cheryl Cook and her partner Greg planted their own gardens in Halifax with everything from heirloom beans to onions. This home chef plans to preserve as much as her garden gives her. “Greg and I decided to use our resources wisely and planned our gardens together so we could can and preserve stuff,” she says. “Our gardens are small urban plots but you can get a good amount if you push it.”
The work that goes into making preserves can help people understand the value of food. A bottle of random pickled beets picked up at the grocery store is devoid of personality and character, with no backstory about how it arrived on your table.
Cook enjoys not only the food itself, but the people who make it with her. “I enjoy the social aspect of cooking with friends—it’s very pleasing,” she says. She and Greg often partner up with others to make batches of goodies, including her favourite, passata (a concentrated tomato sauce), dried foodstuffs such as kale and toasted pumpkin seeds. “And we drink while we cook, so that’s appealing,” she adds.
Making her own preserves lets Cook personalize the food to her own tastes. “The appeal for me is about being able to make the things that I like or I think I will like,” she points out. “I like to try and make things from scratch. It seems natural.” She sums up her philosophy around food in five words: “grow it then make it.”
For Pat Belval, making it has become a livelihood. A former cook in the army, he started making preserves in 2005 as a side project after retiring from the Forces. But the response that he got from his company, Pat’s Preserves, ensured that his post-retirement life would also take place in the kitchen. He sells his preserves at various farmers’ markets, including at the Seaport Market in Halifax. For him, it’s the connection he creates with his customers that pleases him the most. “When a lady comes to you and says, ‘My 93-year-old mother will not eat anything without your chow on it’ it is quite a compliment to me,” he says.
Belval’s chow and his sweet and tangy pepper jelly are his best sellers. It’s that connection to the palates and the memories of the past that drives Belval. “I find it sad that a lot of family recipes are lost due to the fact that no one has time to make homemade preserves,” he says. For his part, Belval makes everything in small batches, tasting it often to find the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
As home chefs begin anticipating the approach of winter, the humble preserve is finding new flavours and new traditions in Atlantic Canada. As more people learn about where food comes from, they are inspired to make their own food and to eat what is in season. Preserving lets them cheat a little bit and prolong the fall harvest, keeping the best of the bounty inside tidy sealed bottles.