Gardening: Harvest festival

Make the most of your produce and discover the time-honoured techniques of preserving fruit and vegetables

There is almost nothing like spreading homemade strawberry jam on fresh bread on a winter’s afternoon to rekindle memories of warm summer days. Eating a spoonful of chutney made from a glut of courgettes, apples or tomatoes with a slice of strong cheddar is, perhaps, the only thing that comes close.

With our current economic woes and a growing concern about the quality of food, more and more people are reverting to growing their own vegetables and adopting the age-old practice of preserving this produce in order to save money and gain some control over what they eat. Whether you have a few pots on your balcony, an allotment or a two-acre forest garden, two new books aim to guide you through the best ways of harvesting, storing and cooking home-grown foods.

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In her book Abundance, Alys Fowler takes the reader through the different ways of perserving those foods commonly grown in a garden, from potatoes, carrots and radishes to rhubarb and plums.

And Food From Your Forest Garden, by Martin Crawford and Caroline Aitken, looks at the harvesting, preservation and cooking of some more unusual crops, ranging from bamboo shoots and beech leaves to medlars and mashua.

Describing itself as a cookbook for gardeners, the first half explains different ways to preserve food, from making jams and chutneys to drying and fermenting, while the second is filled with recipes for every season using produce from a forest garden in its fresh form.

As its name suggests, a forest garden has a more woodland-like structure and utilises longer-lived plants – such as trees and shrubs – than the normal annuals that are grown for food.

“People are often surprised at what you can do with foods such as tree leaves and plants not normally thought of as food sources,” says Crawford, who founded the non-profit-making charity Agroforestry Research Trust and has a two-acre forest garden in Devon.

“Many folk don’t realise to start with that you can eat plants commonly found in gardens – Solomon’s Seal is one example – but it is another step to discover there are great recipes available. Most people only eat annual vegetables raw in moderation and the same is true of perennial ones – there is much more versatility when cooked with other ingredients.”

The book came about after he was contacted by Aitken, who works as a permaculture teacher explaining the principles of forest gardening.

“I am often asked how various crops are eaten, how they are cooked and what they taste like,” she says. “As a cook I was keen to discover the answers to these questions myself, and it seemed clear there was a need for a practical cookbook for forest gardeners. I hope that it will make new crops seem less daunting and allow people to make the most of their gardens.”

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Some of her favourite recipes include the springtime snack Fiddlehead Fritters made from the new curled shoots of the ostrich fern and the easy summertime meal of cardoon (closely related to the globe artichoke) and lamb tagine.

After a chapter giving advice on harvesting different types of forest garden produce, from shoots and leaves to fruit and nuts, Crawford and Aitken go on to explain different methods of preservation, starting with traditional preserves such as hawthorn jelly, quince cheese and flowering quince and hawthorn chutney.

In her book Abundance, Fowler, a TV presenter and writer, also has a section dedicated to jams, jellies and cheeses.

For people just starting out on the food preservation road, she says jam is a good place to start. “Making jam is really easy,” she says. “It’s basically fruit and a lot of sugar. You also need some pectin for it to set. You can buy sugar with pectin in it or otherwise just add lemon juice. If you overboil it, it won’t win a prize but it will taste OK.” She adds that making jam is not as time consuming as people think and also does not require specialist equipment.

“You can spend a whole afternoon doing it but making jam does not need to be time consuming or expensive. You can make jam with any old big pot. You don’t need a special jam pan. You can start it one evening and finish it after breakfast. Add sugar and strawberries together and the next morning it’s a half-an-hour process to get it bottled. If you’re just doing three or four jars, the whole thing can be over in the hour.”

And once you’ve made your own jam, she says, you’ll never want to buy it again. “I find supermarket jam an extraordinarily odd experience. Why did they take the fun out of jam? I can’t remember the last time I bought jam. I have shelves upon shelves of jam.”

Fermenting, one of the earliest methods of food preservation, is also examined by both books, and like jam-making it is relatively easy to pick up.

“It’s an endless process to what you can do with it,” says Fowler. She includes recipes for everything from sauerkraut (white cabbage and salt) to kimchi, an ancient pickle which preserves different winter vegetables using salt, while Crawford and Aitken provide recipes for brined elephant garlic and snowbell pickles made from snowbell 
tree fruits.

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While a third method of food preservation – drying – is more suited to a country with a hot climate, it can be done in artificial conditions using a radiator, woodburning stove, oven or electric dehydrator. Best suited to fruits, nuts and seeds, drying allows garden produce such as pears, apples and plums to be kept for up to a year.

So gardeners with a glut of one particular fruit or vegetable need no longer despair about it going to waste. Fowler says: “There’s nothing you can’t preserve. It’s just finding the right technique that suits you and your lifestyle.

“It’s a really playful thing, making food that way. It’s totally unique to you, that’s quite something.”

Abundance, How to Store and Preserve your Garden Produce, by Alys Fowler, is published by Kyle Books, £16.99.Food From Your Forest Garden, How to Harvest, Cook and Preserve Your Forest Garden Produce, by Martin Crawford and Caroline Aitken, is published by Green Books, £20.