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The Truth About Canning

Tonight I made apple sauce from 16lbs of Cortland apples that I bought nearly a month ago.  I had planned to can them in slices, but they were a bit too soft for that.  Thanks to my friend Chris, who kept me so well  entertained on the phone that I didn’t notice the time fly, I managed to peel and chop them all and get them into a pot at long last.  I still have another bag of fresh apples that I hope to can in slices, perhaps tomorrow when my friend Renata comes over for a visit.  This type of work is much more enjoyable with company to help pass the time!    

My winter pantry now contains canned peaches, pears, two kinds of pickles, pickled beets and apple sauce.  I still have a variety of jams, jellies and sauces left over from last season, and a freezer full of blueberries, strawberries and rhubarb.  As we make our own bread and have this fabulous influx of fresh produce from the CSA, the only thing I need to buy anymore is dairy products, and occasionally some meat.  Even then, I have a freezer full of venison and organic beef, not all of which will be fed to the dogs!

As I’ve mentioned, last year I spent a lot of time chopping and blanching veggies for my freezer, very little of which I actually used.  This year I decided to can fruit, and pickle things instead, as that is what I ended up eating last winter.  I thought canning would also reduce my freezer – and thus electricity needs – and be more environmentally friendly.  I’m happy to have all this fruit, but I’m having second thoughts on the eco-friendliness of it all.

The amount of electricity I have used to produce each batch of canning is considerable.  First I have to boil the syrup, then I have to boil the fruit in the syrup.  The lids are heated prior to use, and the jars baked in the oven for at least 20 minutes. Once assembled, everything is submerged in a huge vat of water that takes 20-30 minutes to get to the boiling point to begin with, and then must be boiled for another 20+ minutes.  I suppose this would have all been done over a fire in the good ‘ol days, but perhaps also they weren’t so fussed about sterilization.

The other thing I have been struggling with around canning is trying to avoid non-local inputs, such as sugar, pectin and spices. Surely, I thought when first learning to can, the pioneers didn’t use all this sugar.  So what did they use instead?  Honey?  Maple syrup?  I searched and searched and, to this day, have not found recipes for making jams and such that don’t involve the addition of sugar and pectin (which comes from the seeds of citrus fruit).  How can you be a locavore if you need to use sugar and citrus fruit to preserve your food?  This bothered me for my entire first year as a locavore, as I tentatively ate my ‘fruit-only’ or fruit-and-honey, boiled into oblivion to thicken, not-quite-right tasting jams.  

I recently found the answer to this question in a fascinating book I am reading called Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back.  Reading this book, and other sources as well, made it clear to me that strictly ‘locavore’ eating has not existed in British culinary heritage for nearly one thousand years!  No wonder I’ve been having trouble finding local-only recipes, even in books from the 1800s.  Certainly the peasants ate locally, but our food heritage comes from the upper classes, and they have used imported spices since the 1100’s, and sugar played such an integral role to the British empire for so long that it is all but impossible to divorce it from our cuisine.  Canning, it seems, evolved around the availability of sugar and spices, both imported for centuries.  There’s nothing local about it.

I find this all quite fascinating for a number of reasons, and particularly around attempts at building local, sustainable food systems.  Our food system has been globalized for so long that I don’t know if we can ever reverse it, if indeed that is what is desirable.  But that is another discussion.

Si it seems that my attempt at being more ecologically friendly through canning local foods is mediocre at best (not that this will stop me from eating it all!).  To really be both local and environmental, I would need to learn traditional ways of the first nations tribes of the region.  I believe fermenting food (i.e. sauerkraut etc.) would fit this goal as well.  I have a book explaining some of these options, and perhaps I’ll give some of them a try next year.


8 Responses

  1. We don’t need to reverse it completely. So sugar and spices and citrus and coffee are trade goods — there’s nothing wrong with using trade goods. As that excellent book points out, our ancestors have been trading for thousands of years. The point of trying to eat local is to buy local apples when they’re in season, and so on. It’s to put those apples up for the winter instead of switching immediately to New Zealand (or wherever) apples when the English ones are gone.

  2. Valeree – I agree with you, at least in part. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with trade goods in principle, the problem is the practice. The environmental and social destruction that large-scale trade of food has caused is astronomical, and it is this that I believe needs reversing. If food is grown sustainably and in a manner that supports local cultures and economies, then traded over distances, fine. Otherwise I think it is problematic. As such, I do my best to only purchase trade goods that are marked both ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade.’ I know this is not foolproof, but it’s the best way I’ve found so far to feel comfortable with purchasing food produced by people I cannot meet and in conditions I cannot see for myself.

    By the way, your blog looks really interesting! I had not seen it before. I look forward to browsing through it. Congrats on all the canning you’ve done! My efforts pale in comparison. Do you have your recipes posted on your blog? I had really hoped to make chili sauce but only got around to making some basics. Hopefully I’ll do more next year!

  3. I have also been thinking along the same lines regarding the sustainability of canning. I have been thinking of fermenting as well, but what about the salt? I am living in Eastern Ontario, and as far as I know, neither of us are anywhere near a source of salt. Maybe dehydrating?…

  4. Hi Amanda – Windsor salt actually comes from…. Windsor! Or perhaps Goderich or somewhere around there. Eastern Lake Huron is actually one huge salt deposit so, depending on how close you want to count your ‘local,’ salt is indeed available locally (albeit industrially).

    Regarding salt, however, I’ve had it pointed out to me that local salt does not contain iodine, and even with iodine supplementation, we don’t get enough. As such we really need to eat sea salt. I had my mother bring me home some sea salt from her last trip to the Mediterranean, so as long as that holds out, I’m good. Not sure what I’m going to do after that – it may be one of those ingredients that I allow myself to buy imported, as long as it is fair trade and sustainably produced. I have noticed a long-standing pain in my thumb joint – possibly linked to gout which I understand can be linked to low iodine – is gone since switching to sea salt.

    But the amount of salt required for food storage would likely make sustainably harvested sea salt far too expensive to use. I have a book, which I have yet to start to really explore (next fall’s project) entitled “Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning” – it offers options like using oils and lactic fermentation which I hope to try.

    If you come up with any good ideas, please let me know!

  5. Thanks for the tip about the Windsor salt. I had previously been in Nova Scotia and there is a salt mine in Pugwash NS which is owned and operated by Canadian Salt Mine Co. Ltd., the same company that runs the salt mine in Windsor Ontario. In my naivety I didn’t think about the company having salt mines all over Canada and thought the Pugwash salt mine was THE salt mine for the company…oops!

    I have the same book and a similar project for next growing season!
    Good luck 🙂

  6. Hi Amanda – some thoughts on the Canadian Salt Mine co. – I don’t know that we can know for sure that the salt in the Windsor Salt boxes actually come from Windsor. It would be worth contacting them to find out. I suspect if you went to Goderich or Windsor and bought salt on-site you could get some that was definitely local.

    Cool that you have the same book! Please let me know how your experiments turn out. Also, did you see the Fermented Food workshop I posted? That looks quite interesting. I’m guessing it may be too far for you to travel, but the person who is running it took her training through the Algonquin Tea Company – are you familiar with them? A very cool company, and I think they are located around Kingston – Ottawa area. I’ll be sure to post anything I learn!

  7. Home made pectin is made from small early apples- hard tart ripe apples
    Wash core quarter and slice thinly. For each pound add 2 cups of water. Cover and boil slowly for 15 minutes, Strain through a colander lined with cheesecloth and reserve juice.
    Return the pulp tp the pan and add the same amount of water. Cook again for 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes then re-strain through cheeschoth. Squeese well to extract all the juice.
    Combine the two juices you should have 1 quart of pectin. pour into hot sterilized jars and seal for later use.
    2 cups of pectan 2cups of fruit pulp and 2cups of sugar make jam or jelly.
    From 12 Month Harvest by Ortho Books

  8. Hi Kit – thanks so much for this info, and for the reference it came from! Looks like a book I should be trying to acquire.

    I’m guessing that because pectin comes from early apples (August – Sept?) you make pectin in the fall for jam the following year…?

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