One cool, misty, November morning, I found myself in a field surrounded by trees. The crisp air was laced with the fresh scent of fall. I could faintly hear a stream gurgling its way down the nearby mountain. The sun slowly rose in the sky and gently soothed my goosebumps away. As I made my way across the field, my rubber boots scattered the pale silver dew leaving a trail through the grass. As I took in my peaceful surroundings I realized I was perfectly happy.
This perfect moment took place on a small farm in Aude, Southern France. I was there on a Work Away and was soon joined by fellow farmstay volunteer, Cicely. We set off to harvest the last of the year’s wild apples. These stunted, untended trees produced an abundance of small, but incredibly juicy and flavourful apples. In fact, we harvested upwards of 36 pounds of apples from just a few trees. As these were untreated trees, they had provided healthy habitat for birds, animals and insects all year, and produced apples that were 100% organic!
As with many fruit trees, these apples ripened all at once and in abundance. We suddenly had more apples than a family, even one extended by visiting volunteers, could possibly eat. While excess produce is often shared in the community, there is still an important role for traditional preservation techniques that allow your homegrown produce last throughout the winter. I was about to learn those techniques as they apply to preserving apples.
J’adore la France! If you do too, read these!
One of the reasons I chose to work at this particular farm in Puivert was the owner’s online profile mentioned her canning skills and I was excited to learn from someone firsthand. However, as I learned by the second day of my three week stay, this wasn’t the type of work stay that involved much instruction. It was a learn by doing kind of environment. When I was handed one of the farmhouse’s ancient cookbooks and pointed in the direction of the kitchen, I was understandably nervous. I had always thought preserving was complicated, difficult and potentially even dangerous. While that might be true for other types of canning, it turns out that making jams and jellies from apples is surprisingly easy!
A Locavore’s How To: Preserving Wild Apples
The steps for making Old Fashioned Apple Jam, my first project, is fairly straightforward and even the measurements aren’t really specified. A lot of the ingredient ratios depend on your preference for sweetness and type of apple. In my version it was ratio of 2:1 apples to sugar and the cook time said “until done”.
Step 1: Choose a tart species of apple. Most wild apples will fall in this category. Peel, core and chopped the apples., while reserving the skin and core. Take a square piece of cheese cloth and lay it flat so you can gather the edges and tie up the bundle. Meanwhile put a small plate in the fridge.
Step 2: Add apples to a large pot, cover with water. Add sugar, stir and then bring to a boil. Add your pouch of apple cores into the pot. You can also include some lemon juice and a pinch salt for balance. Add cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg (or whatever flavours you enjoy) to taste.
Step 3: Set to a rolling boil and keep a close eye on it. Stir frequently for 5 to 8 minutes until it starts to thicken. Test your jam by pouring a small amount on the plate from the fridge and pushing your finger through the jam. If it leaves a clean line, you jam is done. If not, keep boiling. The high natural pectin content of apple seeds means no additives are required to achieve a well set jam.
Step 4: Put it in jars. This step is controversial Based on the advice of the homeowner who would be consuming the jam after all, I employed the potentially ill-advised oven processing technique. The homeowner felt comfortable with the safety of the product and I was happy to be using the much more straightforward method. I simply ladled the hot jam into the jars fresh from the oven, added a layer of parchment (to create a seal), allowed the jam to cool and screwed on the lids. *I’m not saying it is a good idea, but it did work well in this case* Using canning jars with a quality sealing lid and stove top method is the more widely accepted canning practice.
I followed the step-by-step instructions as best I could and prayed for success. At breakfast the next day, my fellow farmhands gave it rave reviews and declared that it taste like a 19th century Christmas (or cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg for the less theatrically-inclined). With my first batch a success, I moved on to a apple-raisin chutney which we ate at lunch with freshly baked crusty bread and strong, locally-made cheese. Is it any wonder I love the French? Later when we discovered that the pear tree had produced a small harvest, I made a delicious apple-pear jelly. Over the course of a couple of days, I made enough jars of preserves that last an entire year!
This experience was an important lesson for me and not just in preserving wild apples. I had always been told that making jam as a difficult, messy, hot and time-consuming task, but in my experience the result was well worth the effort. I realized that hard work isn’t to be avoided, it should be embraced. Producing something with my own hands gave me a strong sense of satisfaction. The knowledge that a perfect morning spent in the field harvesting organic apples could lead to a year’s supply of homemade preserves, just made it that much sweeter.
Have you ever made preserves from locally sourced products? I’d love to hear what you made (and what techniques you used)!
Now It’s Your Turn! Embrace the seasonality of food by purchasing and consuming foods when they are in season. Not only will they be more delicious and less expensive, they will also be more nutritious! Once you’ve eaten your fill, think about using preservation technique to store the deliciousness. Some ideas include drying, freezing, canning, syrup making or even baking (then freezing). Subscribe here to follow along as I share more Locavore Skills!
Disclaimer: I’m not a canning expert (obviously!) so please consult other sources for safety precautions and additional canning techniques.