Today I’m singing a dirge for the Home Orchard Society, yet another victim of the coronavirus—although, like so many volunteer-run nonprofits, this one was barely staying on its feet when the virus delivered its final blow.
Until recently, HOS appeared to be in glowing good health. Established in 1975 to serve the entire Pacific Northwest, the organization was an invaluable resource for Oregon and Washington fruit growers. In the fall the old hall at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds would fill with crowds of people sampling hundreds of varieties of apples and pears, eating them as fast as HOS volunteers could cut up the fruit. You could choose your favorite cultivars and order grafted trees to pick up in spring, at the Fruit Propagation Fair. Or you could come to the spring fair and join the crowds at the tables again, this time grabbing not for fruit but for free scionwood cuttings. An HOS volunteer would graft each of your scions onto rootstock as you watched, or you could take home the scions to graft yourself. At other tables you could pick up “fruit sox” to protect your apples organically, mason bee supplies to improve pollination, and books about fruit growing to read when the rain kept you indoors. The organization published its own quarterly journal, The Pome News, which was mailed to every member. HOS also maintained a nearly two-acre demonstration orchard at Clackamas Community College and held workshops and cider pressings there. If you lived close by you could join the arboretum’s CSA and pick up a boxload of fruit every week—apples, pears, grapes, figs, persimmons, kiwis, plums, pawpaws, and quinces.
All this was a tremendous amount of work for the board and other lead volunteers, especially when the membership grew to more than seven hundred. The old-timers who had been growing, pruning, and grafting fruit trees all their lives, who knew how to foil the Northwest’s formidable confederacy of microbial and insect pests, were dying off, and younger members lacked time, experience, or both. The membership director resigned, and no one else wanted the job. Joanie Cooper, the organization’s longtime president, was now running the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, a living collection of five thousand apple varieties, and couldn’t take on more responsibilities. So when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of first the spring Fruit Propagation Fair and then the fall All About Fruit Show, as well as all the summer workshops at the arboretum, things fell apart. A few days ago the board sent members a short note asking for their assent in terminating the association.
Those who are dissatisfied with the selection at the local garden center or who, like me, need scions for trees whose grafts have failed, must now figure out where to turn. The Agrarian Sharing Network, a Eugene-area organization with a similar but more limited mission, managed, last spring, to provide grafted fruit trees in dozens of unusual varieties to gardeners in Sweet Home as well as Eugene; anyone could order trees online and pick them up at curbside. This was far from the vision of the ASG organizers, who for the preceding few years had held a series of small, neighborhood propagation fairs around the area. When the virus lets us resume holding social gatherings, perhaps the ASN can return to its vision, and perhaps that vision will prove sustainable. For now, I’m finding out what fruit varieties my neighbors are growing, because I just might want to ask them for some scions.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, home fruit culture will be harder without the Home Orchard Society. We’ll need to find new ways to cooperate if we want to continue preserving heirloom fruit varieties and furthering the art and science of growing good fruit at home.
My friend Betty surprised me when she arrived on my porch holding what appeared to be a large white, gently ribbed pumpkin. “It’s your watermelon!” she told me, smiling broadly. And the thin stem, twisted like a pig’s tail, proved that it was indeed a watermelon.
I hadn’t seen Betty since before the coronavirus outbreak. But she had agreed that I might leave my start of ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon on her doorstep and that she would plant it in her garden. I’d gotten the seed from Andrew Still, who knew that I was interested in fermented whole watermelons and that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was a variety favored for the purpose by Germans from Russia.
In case you’ve never heard of Germans from Russia (GFR), they are probably the U.S. ethnic group most devoted to preserving their history, even though they have long and thoroughly blended into the general white population. Their ancestors left Germany for Russia in the late eighteenth century, after Catherine the Great invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. A century later, the ethnic Germans lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to rural parts of North and South America.
Most GFRs have either stopped preparing their old family recipes or transformed them. In the Midwest, for example, many GFRs pickle cut watermelon flesh in a vinegar solution. But some, such as the Hutterites of South Dakota, still brine whole melons. And the variety they most like to brine is ‘Winter King and Queen.’
I tried two years in a row to grow ‘Winter King and Queen’ in my little city garden, but it produced no fruit. When nurseries say a plant requires full sun, they generally mean it needs six hours of sun per day. But some plants truly need all-day sun, which is hard to get in a little garden surrounded by buildings and trees. I suspected that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was greedy for sunlight. It wanted to grow in an open field.
So this year I started a few seeds in a pot in the greenhouse and left the pot for Betty, who has a small farm a few miles from town. Betty set out the start as promised, and eventually the plant produced several good-sized melons. Mine weighed more than seventeen pounds.
My main GFR contact, Gwen Schock Cowherd, maintains that GFRs never eat ‘Winter King and Queen’ fresh—they grow other melons for fresh eating—but only brine it or pickle it in vinegar. Some old seed catalogs say that the melon is delicious fresh but should be stored for a while to mellow. I had no intention of brining such a big melon, and I lacked the patience to wait for weeks before eating it. So after only a few days I cut it open. And the very cutting produced another surprise: The skin was quite hard. It wasn’t rubbery-tough, like the skin of a citron melon;it was hard like the skin of a pumpkin.
Most of the Germans in Russia lived along the Volga River, around Sarotov, where watermelons thrive. Because transportation was poor, the melons served largely for the community’s own subsistence. They were boiled down for molasses, they were brined to eat in late winter and spring, and they were stored until Christmas, or longer. At least some local watermelons were bred for these purposes. A hard skin would have made a melon keep longer and perhaps stay firmer when brined. But were these melons somehow unpleasant when fresh?
My watermelon, once cut, showed a rather thin white rind (this cultivar certainly wasn’t intended for making sweet watermelon-rind pickles!) The fruit released a fragrance that my husband compared to cucumbers and flowers. The flesh was the usual pinkish red with the plentiful black seeds of an old-fashioned watermelon.
The sliced melon tasted as good as it looked. The flesh was rather firm and not the sweetest, but it was definitely sweeter than that of any seedless watermelon, the only kind I can find in stores these days. My husband and I were both a bit put off by the coarse, whitish flesh that surrounded the seeds in a few places, but we still judged ‘Winter King and Queen’ to be a very good eating melon.
I set out to learn more about the variety. To my surprise, the venerable food historian William Woys Weaverdescribed ‘King and Queen’ as a ten-pound melon with “white-green” skin striped with dark green. That didn’t sound like my melon. But Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, described an unstriped, greenish white, twelve-pound round ‘Wintermelon’ or ‘King and Queen Winter Melon’; this one sounded more like mine. I checked the catalogs of the few companies that sell ‘Winter King and Queen’ seed today. Some showed photos of a uniformly greenish white melon; others showed a pale melon with green stripes. Who was right and who was wrong here? Were the melons different strains of the same cultivar? The many alternative names—“Winter Melon,” “Winter Watermelon,” “Winter Queen,” “Winter King,” and more—only added to my confusion.
I attempted to trace the melon’s history. The USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1394, from 1934, got me off to a start, in a discussion of “a small round melon grown in Colorado and California and sold under the names Winter Queen, Winter King, Alaska, Klondike, and others. Varieties of this type were introduced from the Volga River section of Russian probably by Russians who settled in the Rocky Ford district of Colorado. . . . The Russian growers in Colorado follow the practice of placing these melons in salt brine and keeping them in a cold place until midwinter for their own use.”
The little town of Rocky Ford, about sixty miles east of Pueblo, Colorado, was established in 1870 by George Washington Swink, who led the construction of a communal irrigation system and soon began planting cantaloupes and watermelons. By the late 1800s the town was calling itself the Melon Capital of the World. Even today the local melon business thrives, and the Watermelon Day festival that Swink founded in 1878 is still an annual tradition.
Did the GFRs have something to do with the Rocky Ford melon business? Plenty of them settled in Colorado, mostly in the northern counties of Larimer and Weld, where they worked in the sugar-beet fields. But Rocky Ford also had its GFR contingent; thirty-nine GFR families arrived there in 1910 to work for the American Crystal Sugar Company—again, in sugar-beet fields. Whether the GFRs grew watermelons in their own fields I don’t know, but their tastes may have influenced the local watermelon trade. The Ebbert Seed Company of Rocky Ford began selling ‘Winter Watermelon’ seed in 1912 and ‘King and Queen’ in 1915.
The two varieties seem to have gotten confused early on. In 1911, the Grand Junction Seed Company advertised ‘King and Queen’ as having an an “ivory shell.” In 1912 Ebbert described ‘Winter Watermelon’ similarly:
Very prolific bearer. Flesh red of extreme firmness, almost hard as a citron—very brittle and deliciously sweet. Color very light green, almost white. Placed in a cool place will keep long into the winter and still retain its delicious sweetness and flavor.
In 1920, Ebbert left ‘Winter Watermelon’ out of the catalog and applied its former ‘Winter Watermelon’ description to ‘King and Queen.’ Perhaps this was an error?
In 1929 ‘King and Queen’ was still in Ebbert’s catalog, but this time with a different description:
Very light in color with a slightly dark stripe, size about 10 inches in diameter, average about 20 pounds, seed small, shiny black. The flavor, sweet and surprisingly delicious, is entirely distinct from a watermelon. . . . It should not be eaten right off the vine but should be allowed time to become mellow; can be kept in perfect condition until holiday time.
Presumably, Ebbert replaced ‘Winter Watermelon’ in its catalog with ‘King and Queen.’ But it isn’t clear whether ‘King and Queen’ arrived uniformly pale at Rocky Ford, and acquired its stripes through crossing or selection, or whether it had always been striped. Other seed companies, meanwhile, continued to sell a whitish-skinned, unstriped melon called ‘Winter Watermelon.’ The typical description of ‘King and Queen’ as the best winter watermelon–or simply the winter watermelon—may have contributed to the confusion of two different cultivars.
The name ‘King and Queen’ apparently originated with John F. Brown, who farmed winter melons in Elgin, Utah, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elgin is now a ghost town, but the little settlement on the Green River was then the home of Brown’s ‘Eden’ cantaloupe, which seldom matured on the vine but months later would grow sweet and delicious. In 1898, Brown secured seeds of more winter melon varieties from Niels Hansen, a plant explorer and breeder employed by the USDA in South Dakota. Hansen had recently journeyed through various regions of Russia in search of fruits that might thrive on the northern U.S. plains. He sent Brown and other farmers an assortment of Russian seeds. Some of them came with names.
But none was called ‘King and Queen.’ Brown, then, must have named the melon himself. After growing it for four or five seasons, he described it this way:
The King and Queen watermelon is yet king and queen of the melon world; my offer of $100 for a pound of seed that will grow as handsome, as lucious [sic] and as valuable a melon has never been taken up. Its weight is about 25 pounds. The Salt Lake hotels and restaurants have been using this melon for about three years. They are also shipped to all parts of the East, and the demand has always exceeded the supply. Its keeping qualities are wonderful, and we have them on hand up to Christmas and they are as fine as when gathered from the vines on September first.
To my frustration, Brown failed to describe the melon’s shape, flesh color, or skin color or pattern. He probably would have mentioned the color if it was nearly white, but not necessarily; melons varied more in those days than they do now. Hansen had brought back seeds of watermelons with white, yellow, and green flesh; spots instead of stripes; bright yellow skin; and, in one case, “skin adorned with pretty designs.”
But only one of Hansen’s cultivars came close to matching William Woys Weaver’s description of ‘King and Queen.’ Originally from Chimkent, Turkestan, this melon was “round, quite large, light green with dark stripes, flesh red; late and of good keeping quality.” Although the fruit didn’t ripen in the South Dakota trials, the plant may have produced well in Elgin, Utah. If it did, Brown would have had to give it a name, because Hansen had not. And what would he call “the king and queen of the melon world” but ‘King and Queen’?
In the fall of 1889 Brown shipped to the USDA “187 pounds of seeds and a carload of melons from a planting of 3 ½ pounds of seeds given me.” The seeds were distributed to melon-growing regions around the country, and Brown began talking up the ‘King and Queen.’
I like to imagine GFRs on their long journeys by ship, rail, and wagon with seeds sown into the hems of their skirts or tucked into corners of their valises. And maybe the white-skinned ‘Winter Watermelon’ did come to America in such a way. Hansen, after all, tested seeds of six watermelon varieties that he gathered from a Mennonite GFR community in Windom, Minnesota, and another “American” watermelon variety that went by the name ‘Volga.’ Those seeds, too, may have been distributed around the country. And seeds of other winter varieties may have spread from GFR communities anywhere from the Pacific Coast to New York.
If I can get Betty to grow Andrew Still’s ‘Winter King and Queen’ again, and to give me two fruits instead on one, I will try keeping one until Christmas and brining the other. And I will also try to order seeds of a striped ‘King and Queen.’ I am eager to learn if the two are strains of the same cultivar or if the differences are more than skin-deep.
I’ve been curious about mulberries ever since I visited Dave Holderread’s waterfowl farm, about 25 years ago, and saw them planted in his duck pens. Dave explained that the trees would not only provide shade for the birds but would feed them without his intervention.
I wondered at this. Blackberries that grew on trees! Why didn’t more people plant mulberries? Why didn’t I plant a mulberry tree?
But I never identified a good place on the farm for a mulberry tree, and I certainly couldn’t make room for one when we moved to town. So I was delighted when my sister told me that my father’s mulberry tree. only a few years old, was producing heavily. That was in early July. A month later she told me that the tree was still producing loads of ripe fruit.
The other day I paid my father a visit. He, like Dave Holderread, had planted his mulberry tree to feed birds. But my father doesn’t keep ducks, or even chickens; he wanted to feed wild birds. He remembered a mulberry tree in the yard of a childhood home that had attracted all kinds of birds, whole flocks of birds. He had loved watching the birds eat the mulberries, and in his old age he wanted to repeat the experience.
The birds must have already had their fill for the day, because I didn’t notice any as I picked a pound and a half of mulberries for myself. I drove home with fingers stained deep purple.
The stains weren’t only on my fingers. Carrying the bag of mulberries into the house without removing my shoes, I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor, which now bore purple stains. The soles, I saw, were covered with mulberry gunk. I tried to rinse them in the kitchen sink, rubbing off the gunk with my fingers, but the water kept running purple. I scrubbed the soles with a sturdy brush to get the gunk out of the crevices. But immediately my shirt became covered with tiny purple-black dots. I felt like the Cat in the Hat with his pink bathtub ring. The water in which I was rinsing my shoes simply would not run clear, so I wrapped the shoes in a rag and set them outdoors to dry. Then I dropped my shirt in the sink and poured three kettlefuls of boiling water through the cloth. Sadly, the dots were much more stubborn than wine or blackberry stains. I gave up on the shirt, defeated by anthocyanins.
Black fruits from the species Morus nigra are considered the tastiest mulberries, but not all mulberries are black. M. rubra, native to the eastern states, is named for its red or purple fruit. M. alba, named not for its fruit but for its pale buds, can produce white or lavender as well as black berries. M. alba is the mulberry of East Asia, the original silkworm food (the caterpillars can also eat the leaves of other mulberry species). Although the West has long given up sericulture in favor of nylon and other synthetics, Europe and North America both had silk industries once, and for this reason the white mulberry is now a weed tree in Europe, much of Canada, and every U.S. state except Nevada (although, strangely, I have never seen one). M. alba is a promiscuous thing, crossing so often with the native M. rubra that some fear the red mulberry will soon no longer exist in its pure form. The heat-loving M. nigra, meanwhile, keeps to itself, not hybridizing with the other two at all. It will bear temperatures no lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are other mulberry species, and many interesting cultivars within the species. One Green World Nursery sells a contorted mulberry, a weeping mulberry, a dwarf mulberry, and a mulberry from Pakistan with fruits as long as six inches. Jim Gilbert, the nursery’s founder, has said he particularly likes ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which although black-fruited is an alba-rubra cross. I suspect this is the cultivar my father has. It performs well not only in the Willamette Valley but throughout much of the country, to USDA zone 4. And the fruit is intensely tasty. Some compare the taste to blackberry and blueberry combined.
I stored my berries in the fridge overnight and, in the morning, clipped off their stems with kitchen shears. This is the only tedious part of processing mulberries, whose fine but tough stems are hard to pull out, easier to cut. Then I made the berries into jam in the usual way, by mashing the fruit and adding sugar and a little lemon juice. They need no added pectin.
First, put on an apron or, better yet, your painting clothes. Then put the mulberries into a preserving pan. Cook them over medium-low heat, crushing them with a potato masher, until they are tender. Remove the pan from the heat.
Add the sugar and lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, and cook the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the jam to 218 degrees F, until a drop mounds in a chilled dish. This will take about 5 minutes.
Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.
Makes 1 ½ pints
This jam turns out distinct from blackberry jam, although the color and flavor are similar. The big difference is the seeds. Mulberries have more. Thankfully, mulberry seeds are small—too small to stick between the teeth—and they are pleasantly crunchy, like sesame seeds.
Mulberries are good for more than jam. The fresh ones are a treat. The fruit can be dried and—no surprise—used to make a dye. Both the leaves and the root bark are used medicinally.
Judging from the red and white immature fruits on my father’s tree, it will probably keep producing fruits for another two weeks or more. Who can resist a tree that produces huge quantities of fruit over such a long period, that brings birds to the garden, that grows to maturity quickly, that usually stays fairly small (‘Illinois Everbearing’ grows no taller than 20 feet), and that can take the form of a shrub, an espalier, and a contorted or weeping ornamental as well as an ordinary tree?
One warning, though: You should not plant a black-fruited mulberry near a walkway or in an area where children play, unless they are better trained than I to remove and clean their shoes before coming into the house.
Today I cleaned gobs of mulberry gunk off my car mat. Somehow, even the driver’s seat had acquired a few deep purple stains. They will probably be there forever.
What exactly is Chinese plum sauce, anyway? I’ve often pondered this while making the stuff according to my own recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which produces a delicious chutney, thick and chewy with mustard seeds. But there is nothing Chinese about my beloved Chinese plum sauce besides the inclusion of rice wine, which I’m sure was one of my own additions to the recipe as it was passed down to me, by whom I don’t remember. My Chinese plum sauce, I’m afraid, is basically English, with a strong, nostalgic whiff of India.
Plum sauce is supposed to be Cantonese. It has long been served in Cantonese-American restaurants, where it accompanies duck or deep-fried foods. It usually takes the form of a gloppy, pink sweet-and-sour sauce that may or may not include plums or any fruit at all. But what exactly was plum sauce in China, if it even had a life in China before appearing in the United States?
Some plum sauce recipes, including Kikkoman’s, include apricots. That’s a clue: Apricots are closely related to China’s most common plum, Prunus mume, the very tart, golden fruit that’s salted and dried or used to make plum wine. The Chinese call the plant mei, the fruit meizi. The Japanese call the fruit ume, the name I know it by, too. With its high acid content and beautiful golden color, ume would make a fine sauce for meat or fried foods with no added vinegar at all.
Most plum sauce manufacturers are in the United States. At least one is in Malaysia. Kikkoman is Japanese but operates two plants in the United States and sells its products all over the world. I’ve located just one plum-sauce maker in China—in Hong Kong, actually: Lee Kum Kee. Lee Kum Kee’s founding legend goes like this: Lee Kum Sheung, the company’s founder, accidentally invented oyster sauce in 1888, when he simmered some oysters for too long. He liked the result so much that he introduced the sauce to the world. Today Lee Kum Kee makes not only oyster sauce but plum sauce from salted ume, which are spiced only with ginger and chile.
Sadly, I have no ume tree. Not yet, anyway—the grafts from a friend’s tree, with the rare virtue of producing fruit in our climate, have failed to take. But last week my friend Renata brought me two grocery bags full of Methley Japanese plums, and Robert and I couldn’t eat them all fresh. It was time to make plum sauce.
I didn’t want to use my old recipe. I wanted something more like real plum sauce, if I could figure out what that might be. I scanned recipes on the Web. Some contained soy sauce, but that would darken the plum sauce. Some included a slough of muddying spices. Some called for starch—cornstarch or potato starch or yams.
I didn’t want my sauce to be gluey, overspiced, oversweetened, or any darker than it needed to be (Methley plums are purple). But I did want it to be smooth, so I would leave out any vegetables or seeds, and I would put the mixture through the food mill. I would keep the sugar content moderate and the spicing typically Chinese. Here is the recipe I developed.
Methley Plum Sauce
3 whole star anise 2 teaspoons chile flakes 1 3-inch cinnamon stick 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers 1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger 1 tablespoon minced garlic 3 pounds pitted Methley or other Japanese plums 1 tablespoon pickling salt 1½ cups rice vinegar 1½ cups sugar
Put the star anise, chile flakes, cinnamon stick, and Sichuan peppers into a spice bag. Put the spice bag along with the remaining ingredients into a large nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour, until it has thickened substantially but is still thinner than hot jam or chutney.
Press the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and remove the bag. Press the plum mixture through the medium screen of a food mill. Return the sauce to the pan, heat the sauce just to a boil, and then ladle it into pint or half-pint mason jars. Process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
Makes 2 to 2½ pints
With no duck on hand, we tried the sauce on ham. The sauce is tart, mildly tannic, and aromatic, and not too sweet. I like it very much, though I think I would like it even more with lighter-colored plums.
Feel free to vary this recipe according to your tastes. You might leave out the chile flakes, the Sichuan peppers, or both if you dislike them. The ginger and star anise should be the dominant flavors—though you might leave out even the star anise if you prefer; after all, star anise probably isn’t traditional in Cantonese plum sauce.
I look forward to re-inventing plum sauce once more when I have some fresh ume plums to work with. In the meantime, I may try making a small batch in the Lee Kum Kee style, from ume plums that I salted myself last year.
Now, tell me: What is Chinese plum sauce to you? Do you have your own unique way of making it?
While we are all avoiding trips to the grocery store, it’s good to remember that the garden may offer much more interesting things to eat, anyway. Here I’ve combined the last of the arugula with shaved fennel and johnny jump-ups, which have jumped up everywhere in the gravel between my raised vegetable beds. These flowers are not only edible but truly tasty. Since their aroma is easily overwhelmed by vinaigrette, they are best eaten straight from the plant, but how they prettify a salad! I’ve added handfuls of tart, juicy haskaps, the first fruit of the year, always beating out strawberries by at least a week. And finally I’ve sprinkled over big green seeds of sweet cicely, a ferny plant of the carrot family whose roots, leaves, and seeds all taste sweetly of anise and are said to be helpful to the digestion. Safeway may have some fennel bulbs in stock, but otherwise none of these plants can be found there. Together they taste of springtime.
After many years of wanting to visit Joe Brocard and his famous apple press, I finally made it to his annual public pressing last weekend. Joe and his wife, Catherine, brought the press to Oregon from the East Coast, where his father and grandfather had pressed apples for farmers from miles around, beginning in 1913. Now that Catherine is long gone and Joe has passed ninety years, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren do the work of pressing the apples and selling the juice and vinegar.
For more about Joe and his press, see this six-year-old article in the Sweet Home New Era.
If you’re proud of your home-preserved foods, why not show them off at your county or state fair? You probably won’t win big prizes—fair premiums are small these days, if they are available at all—but you’ll inspire your fellow preservers to aim higher, and you might even motivate some people to try preserving foods for the first time.
Of course, you’ll want your jars displayed with ribbons, preferably blue. To maximize your chances, check out these rules I’ve gleaned in judging preserves at county and state fairs:
Be sure you’ve used a conventional recipe. This takes much of the fun out of showing off your preserves, but most fairs specify that the recipe must come from the USDA, Extension, or Ball or Kerr. You might try citing a Ball or USDA recipe that’s almost the same as yours and noting what you’ve changed. This way the judge will know that you haven’t done anything to jeopardize the safety of the product.
But don’t be too conventional! Your chances of winning for one of a dozen nearly identical jars of blackberry jam are pretty low. You might do better with a less common fruit, such as quince or red or black currant, or with preserves, jelly, or chutney instead of jam. “Fermented foods, dried foods, and meat and seafood are always underfilled classes,” says Carol Newton, an Oregon State Fair judge (at the Oregon State Fair, fermented foods don’t have to be pasteurized, if they’re submitted on ice or in a cooler). At my own county fair, I’d like to see more pickles, especially whole-cucumber pickles and properly packed dilly beans.
Make sure you’ve used fresh produce, picked at the right time, and fresh spices. Even without tasting your entry, the judge may be able to spot inferior produce. Green beans bulging with their seeds were obviously picked too late. A cucumber held too long may look a bit shriveled, and cutting into it may expose a hollow center. Corn that looks brownish may be a supersweet variety—a type unsuitable for pressure canning because the sugars can caramelize.
Show off your knife skills. Canned bean and carrot pieces should be identical in size. Beets should be sliced as evenly as possible (while slicing, you might save ends and other small pieces for a salad).
In case you’re not so handy with a knife, using a mandoline probably won’t hurt your chances for a ribbon. Crinkle-cut carrots may well catch the judge’s eye.
Avoid floaters. Floating fruit is often inevitable, but choosing slightly underripe pears or peaches, for example, certainly helps, as does careful, tight packing. Choose your best-filled jar for submission to the fair.
Check for appropriate headspace. A good judge knows that the proper headspace of ¼ or ½ inch may change after processing. But a jar with too much headspace appears only partially filled. Never enter a jar that has lost liquid in processing; sauerkraut, for example, should be completely covered with brine. (In boiling-water as well as pressure canning, you can usually keep liquid from leaking from jars by avoiding rapid changes in pressure. After processing canned fruits, tomatoes, or pickles, let the jars sit in their hot water bath for five minutes after you turn off the burner.)
Use standard packaging. Submit a jar with a conventional size and shape, so the judges can tell that the processing time was appropriate. The jar should be sealed with a two-piece lid, because many judges are nervous about one-piece lids, and even more so about glass lids. Note that less common jar shapes may be accepted and even favored if they bear the Ball label; I watched one judge choose a “pretty” Ball jar for first place without tasting any of the entries. Tatler lids are also usually accepted.
Avoid rust. Many judges hate the sight of rust; some will remove a metal jar band just to check for any rust on the inside. So use a brand-new band, or at least one that looks brand-new.
Make sure the jar is clean. You washed the jar well before filling it, of course, but did you remove any residue from an old label? Take off the band and check for stickiness around the rim, because many judges will do exactly this.
Label the jar completely and neatly. Check the fair guidelines carefully to be sure you’re including all the information asked for and writing it in the right place. Usually you need to provide at least the name of the product, how it was processed (by a boiling-water bath or pressure canner), and for how long. You may have to add where you got the recipe and, for jam or jelly with added pectin, which brand and type of pectin you used. (Regardless of whether the fair requires it, I suggest noting if you made your jam or jelly without added pectin. Judges who always use commercial pectin themselves don’t seem to understand that strawberry or peach jam naturally turns out soft.) A decorative paper label, on the top or side of the jar, may win you points over entries labeled with black marker on the lid. You might even tie a handsome label around the jar rim, if the fair rules allow this.
No doubt you’ll feel let down if you don’t win a ribbon, especially if the judge didn’t even taste your entry. Be aware that most fairs forbid judges to taste low-acid canned goods, because of the risk of botulism, and some forbid any tasting at all. Also, since tasting is time-consuming, and ultimately can be sickening, the judges may prefer to rank entries by looks alone. “Unless I deem then unsafe,” says Carol Newton, “I taste jams and soft spreads, most specialty foods, and pickles.” But not all judges do.
If you don’t win, hopefully you’ll at least get an encouraging comment from the judge. Carol Newton always provides comments, she says, to allay disappointment and encourage entrants to come back. Other judges simply don’t have time to write comments. If there is something wrong with your entry, though, the judge will probably let you know, so you can do better next time.
If you garner neither ribbon nor comment, your entry may have been perfect and yet not outstanding. If the fair uses the “American system” of judging, which allows for only single first-, second-, and third-place ribbons in each class, the judge’s decision may have been arbitrary. Don’t let this upset you. Look around; see what your fellow preservers are failing to bring to the fair. Next year, bring that. And make sure it’s beautiful as well as delicious.
Last month I had the luck to spend two weeks in Austria, a little country of cheerful, modest people and outsized natural and cultural wealth, from the ancient salt mines to the soaring Alps, from Baroque palaces filled with with art to the operas of Mozart, from the gold and jewels of the royal treasury to the lushest cow pastures I’ve ever seen.
As the pastures might suggest, the Austrian food world is rich as well. The butter tastes like butter, the egg yolks are as orange as oranges, restaurants pride themselves on their local and bio ingredients, and farmers all over the country produce their own excellent cured meats and schnaps (brandies from assorted fruits). Here are a few gastronomic highlights of the trip.
Found in the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s double row of permanent produce and restaurant stalls, stretching from one metro stop to the next:
a barrel full of fermented cucumbers;
flavored hummuses (among the merchants are numerous Turks and other immigrants from the Near East);
Kletzen, whole dried pears, upper left; and Weingartenpfirsich, vineyard peaches, lower right. The peaches grow from seed in the vineyards of western Austria, where they ripen at about the same time as the grapes and so provide a handy snack for the harvesters (in case the workers have tired of eating grapes). Although these peaches are small and rather dry, they are preferred over big, juicy peaches for cooking, especially for jam. The dried pears are traditionally used at Christmastime to make Kletzenbrot, a yeast bread containing nuts, spices, and rye flour as well as dried fruit.
Pears are a particularly important food in mountainous areas where grapes don’t grow. The favorite seems to be Williams, or, as we call it in the United States, Bartlett.
In the Zillertal, a valley in the Tyrol, we saw many standard pear trees, like this one.
In the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg, we saw several pear trees espaliered against the walls of buildings.
Austrians love all kinds of fruits. At the Nashmarkt in Vienna, these women were selling an assortment of fruit juices.
High on a mountain over the Zillertal, a man stopped his car, pulled out a ladder, and propped it against a mountain-ash (or rowan) tree heavy with fruit. Can you see him in the tree? He is probably gathering the berries—Vogelbeeren—for schnaps. The birds must share!
We were fortunate to be in Austria when the Preiselbeeren—lingonberries—were ripe. A mound of lingonberry sauce, served alongside meat-and-potato or meat-and-noodle dishes, tastes like cranberry sauce but a bit less sour and bitter. Lingonberries are smaller than cranberries, though, so they look more like red currants without the hairy bits.
Here are lingonberries in a market.
We found lingonberry plants covering the floor of spruce forests above the Zillertal. Often lingonberries and huckleberries—Heidelbeeren–grow together, so it’s difficult to harvest one without harvesting the other. A handful of the two together makes a fine snack for a hungry hiker, and a basketful makes a nice batch of mixed-wild-berry jam, which we tasted in our hotels.
In the Zillertal Regional Museum, we found an old berry basket and berry comb. We’d seen a woman using a comb like this as she foraged in the woods over the Zillertal, while her husband dozed in the car by the side of the road.
While in Vienna I felt I must visit one of the city’s venerable coffeehouses. I chose Café Landtmann. The outdoor tables looked tempting in the sunshine, but the traffic noise drove me into the staid interior.
Unable to work up an appetite for the fancy cakes, I ordered humble apple strudel in a pool of custard.
The strudel made a fine, though expensive, lunch, but when I afterward explored the nearby Kunsthistoriches Museum I wish I’d gone straight there, because smack in the middle of the museum is what must be one of the most beautiful cafés in the world.
Most Austrian breads are dark and dense, as you might guess from the dimensions of this bread-cutting tray at the Zillertal Regional Museum. I particularly liked the Dinkelbrot, which, I found out only after coming home, is made from spelt.
But Austrian bakers make white breads, too, like these in the shape of soccer balls.
My favorite snack in Austria was Mohnzelten, which are like fig Newtons but big and round and filled with poppyseeds instead of figs. This one, bought in Dürnstein and baked nearby, was made with a potato dough.
The cured meats of Austria are amazingly diverse and good. This man, in the Naschmarkt, gave us so many samples that we couldn’t eat lunch afterward (note that his Lederhosen straps don’t hold up his Hosen but are printed on his T-shirt).
Scattered throughout Vienna are Würstelstände, sausage stands. Long, thin sausages served in a bun are called by their English name, hot dog. The vendor cuts off one end of the bun, jams the bun cut-end down on a spike, inserts the sausage in the hollow thus formed, and squirts in some mustard. We enjoyed the Käsekrainer, a cheese-studded smoked pork sausage. Oh, to find such a hot dog at home!
We found this sausage vending machine along the street in the town of Aschau, in the Zillertal.
Meats, cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, and often fish are included in the lavish breakfast spreads at Austrian hotels—and when you reserve a room in Austria, you’re usually reserving a seat at a breakfast table as well. These two photos show just part of the spread at the Hotel Unter den Linden, in Krems.
This breakfast room, at the Hotel Hubertushof in Bad Ischl, is typical in its comfort and beautiful woodwork.
This was one of my breakfasts at the Hubertushof.
Austrian hotels have amazingly sophisticated coffee machines, like expert baristas in a box. Enzianhof, in the Zillertal, even has a machine for poaching your own eggs.
It’s too bad for us that so little Austrian wine is exported to the United States (though the amount is growing), because Wien ist Wein, as they say. Both the red and white wines made around Vienna are excellent. We were happy to be there during the harvest season, so we could taste Sturm, grape juice that has fermented no more than a few days or weeks.
The best place to taste Sturm is at a Heuriger, a wine garden on the outskirts of the city. The wine growers are allowed to sell their own wines along with an assortment of meats, salads, and so on, which you usually order by weight at a counter. This is Heuriger Kierlinger, in Nussdorf.
And here is Sturm for sale in the Naschmarkt.
In the Zillertal Regional Museum we found the biggest kraut board I’ve ever seen. It must be four feet long. We saw old kraut boards, big and small, displayed elsewhere, too, but I don’t remember seeing sauerkraut on a menu. Perhaps it was too early in the fall . . . or perhaps kraut has fallen out of style.
When someone asks what you want for Christmas and you can’t think of anything, you at least know you don’t want commercial preserves, right? Those store-bought jams and relishes are never as good as the ones you make yourself, even if they came from the cutest little shop in someone’s favorite vacation spot. To avoid collecting jars that will sit unopened in your pantry for months or years, try asking for empty jars instead. I mean fancy preserving jars, ones you might never buy for yourself because they cost more than Ball or Kerr jars.
Among the possibilities are jars produced by the French company Le Parfait. You probably know Le Parfait’s old-fashioned glass-lidded jars—now called, on Le Parfait’s website, Super Jars—with their rubber rings and metal clamps. I have used big jars of this type for decades for storing dry foods, and the French still use them for home canning. After the jars are pasteurized, the jars are stored with their clamps unfastened. So long as the lids stay sealed, you know your preserves are good.
I tested another Le Parfait product, the jam jars, faceted on the lower half and bearing a screw-on metal top. These jars come in various sizes—324, 385, and 645 milliliters. I used the 324-milliliter jars, which hold about 1 1/3 cups and so, I figured, might be small enough for jelly (for a good set, jelly must cool rapidly). A standard American wide-mouth funnel just fits into the top of one of these jars. The metal top screws on with short threads, as on most commercial food jars, rather than with long threads, as on a Ball jar. I like the lids displayed on the Le Parfait website—they are decorated with little green leaves and red berries—more than the ones that came with my set, which are printed with “HOME MADE” in almost psychedelic blue lettering.
Instead of boiling-water or steam processing for these jars, Le Parfait recommends “self-pasteurization,” which means turning the jam jars upside-down immediately after screwing on the lids. This practice is the norm in Europe, but the USDA frowns on it. So I processed my filled jars for ten minutes in a steam canner.
After the processed or “self-pasteurized” jam jars have cooled, it’s hard to tell whether they have sealed. But I have found that if I hold both a sealed and an unsealed jar with the edges of the lids at eye level, I am able to see the difference. The sealed lids are just slightly concave. When you remove one you hear a little popping sound.
I also tested some of Le Parfait’s Familia Wiss terrines. Also called bocals, these jars have straight sides and wide mouths, to make it easy for you to turn out your terrine (pâté without pastry) from the terrine. Available in sizes to hold 200, 350, 500, 750, 1,000, and 1,500 millimeters, these jars are different from any I’ve seen before in that each comes with both a flat lid (capsole) and a full cap (couvercle). The flat lid is much like that of a Ball or Kerr jar, but heavier and bearing a big pimple in the center. The cap, which like a Ball or Kerr band serves to keep the flat lid in place during processing, sports an inverted pimple in its center. The cap could be used on its own for refrigerator storage, but because it lacks a protective coating, as well as a sealing ring, it shouldn’t be used on its own with acid foods.
The Familia Wiss terrines identified as 500 millimeters in size on Le Parfait’s website actually come embossed as “500-539 ml,”and a fill line is marked at 1 1/8 inches from the top, as if the jars were intended for pressure canning. To my delight, I found that each of these jars hold a pint with ½ inch headspace. They are shorter and wider than Ball or Kerr pint jars; in fact, they are perfect for accommodating quartered large pears in horizontal layers.
I processed three Familia Wiss jars in a steam canner. On one lid the pimple flattened completely; on the others the pimples flattened only a bit. But all three jars sealed firmly.
Le Parfait makes a tool called a tire-rondelle for opening both Super Jars and Familia Wiss terrines. You can use the tool sideways to tug on the tongue of a Super Jar’s rubber ring, or you can poke the pointed end into the pimple on the flat lid of a Familia Wiss jar to release the vacuum. An ice pick should work as well on a Familia Wiss lid, or you can pry up the lid with an ordinary bottle opener or a table knife.
For the French, apparently, Familia Wiss jars are used primarily for terrines, and Le Parfait’s website includes terrine recipes that make my mouth water. Unfortunately, the recipes omit instructions for pressure canning; instead, you are told to process the jars in a boiling-water bath for three hours. The USDA lacks any comparable recipes from which you might derive pressure-canning times, so if you decide to try one of these recipes you’ll probably want to store your terrines in the fridge.
Here is how I canned my pears in 500-milliliter Familia Wiss jars. You might substitute any pint mason jars in this recipe.
Pears in Light Syrup with Vanilla
I used Bosc bears, but any variety should do.
If heating the pear slices in syrup seems like too much bother, you might put them cold into the jars. Heating them should soften them just enough to help them pack well in the jars, but if you’re not careful with this method you can end up with burnt fingers, mushy pears, or both.
3 inches of a vanilla bean 2 2/3 cups water 1 cup sugar 1 large or 2 small lemons About 4 pounds (7 to 8) just-ripe pears
Wash three 500-milliliter Familia Wiss terrines (or wide-mouth pint mason jars) and the flat lids in hot, soapy water, and rinse.
Score the vanilla bean segment lengthwise, so that the seeds will escape into the syrup, and cut the segment crosswise into thirds. Put these pieces into a saucepan with the water and the sugar. Slowly heat the mixture, stirring to dissolve the sugar, while you prepare the pears.
Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl. Peel, core, and quarter one-third of the pears. As you do so, drop the slices into the bowl and turn them gently in the lemon juice; this will keep them from browning.
When the syrup has begun to simmer, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pear slices to the syrup. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, turning the pear slices gently.
Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Pack the pear slices neatly into one of the jars along with a piece of vanilla bean, and pour syrup through a strainer to cover the pears.
Reheat the syrup as you prepare another third of the pears. Heat and pack them and cover them with syrup as before. Do the same with the last of the pears.
Cover the jars with flat lids and full caps (or mason jar bands). Process the jars in a boiling-water bath or steam canner for 20 minutes.
Makes 3 pints
Le Parfait jars are available at stores listed here, on the Amazon website, and, as I happen to know, at Down to Earth in Eugene, Oregon.
When a box of big, flawless, fragrant, just-ripe nectarines from the Washington State Fruit Commission landed on my porch, I had to decide quickly how to preserve them. Most years I’ve made my nectarines and peaches into pickles, chutneys, and fancified jams. Now nothing appealed to me more than the thought of simple canned nectarines in light syrup.
Thinking of the young 4H food preservers whose work I’d recently judged at the Benton County fair, I decided to walk in their shoes by following USDA instructions. I referred to a recipe that’s in Oregon State Extension literature, in the Complete Guide to Home Canning, and, with only slightly different wording, on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.
Right away, I began to see how novice preservers can get confused. First I wondered if I should peel the fruit. The recipe says that “nectarines are not dipped in hot water or peeled like peaches” but gives no reason. Nectarine skins aren’t fuzzy, though they are sometimes a little bitter. But once the fruits are cut into pieces and heated in hot syrup, their skins begin to peel off. Floating skins are not pretty. Try to remove the skins completely at this point, and you burn your fingers. Wouldn’t it be easier to slip off the skins before cutting the fruits? (To defy the recipe in this way, you must turn to the canned-peach recipe for peeling instructions: “Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins.”) So I didn’t peel my nectarines at the start. Instead, I pulled off the hanging skins while the pieces sat in hot syrup—ouch, ouch, ouch!—and left the skins that were still more or less in place semi-attached.
Before that, though, I had to decide whether to cut the fruits into halves or smaller pieces. Like peaches, nectarines come as freestone or clingstone. The recipe doesn’t mention that clingstone nectarines, like clingstone peaches, are very difficult to halve. My nectarines turned out to be clingstone, but they were so big that halves wouldn’t have fit in the jars, anyway. Still, it was difficult even to quarter the nectarines without squishing the fruit. I ended up leaving a lot of flesh on the pits.
Before putting nectarine pieces in syrup, the recipe advises, you should prevent them from browning by dropping them into an ascorbic-water bath. Citric acid is sold in many ethnic groceries, but ascorbic acid is harder to find. No matter—you can use 500-milligram vitamin C tablets, according to the recipe: “Crush and dissolve six tablets per gallon of water as a treatment solution.” I had only 1000-milligram tablets. Any 4-Her can figure out that three 1000-milligram tablets should work as well as six 500-milligram ones, but how to crush and dissolve hard tablets is less obvious. I used my electric spice grinder (a small coffee grinder that I dedicate to spices) and whisked the powder into the water.
The fruit seemed to swell a bit in the water. Was it absorbing water while giving up sugar and flavor? I hurried to finish cutting the nectarines and move them into the syrup. As I did so I considered: If I’d cut the fruit directly into the syrup, the fruit wouldn’t have absorbed water, and the syrup would have protected the fruit from browning.
The recipe gives options for both hot-packing (cooking the fruit before putting it in jars) and raw-packing (putting the fruit raw into jars) but also asserts, without explanation, that “raw packs make poor quality nectarines.” In other words, choose the hot-pack option or waste your time and ruin your fruit. The question nagged: Why is there a raw-pack option at all? But I chose hot-pack—and, innocently—burnt fingers.
The recipe provides options for canning the fruits in heavy, medium, light, or very light syrup—or in water, apple juice, or white grape juice. The instructions don’t say, however, that canning in water makes for mushy, “poor quality nectarines.” That I already knew. But how does apple juice or grape juice affect the taste of the nectarines? You will have to find out for yourself; the recipe does not tell you, and I haven’t tried this option.
I chose to make the light syrup, using the specified 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar for 9 pints. But this didn’t seem enough to cover 11 pounds of nectarines, the weight of whole fruits called for in the recipe, and 11 pounds of nectarines wouldn’t fit in the 5-liter pan I’d chosen. So I poured the syrup into my biggest pan and added half again as much water and sugar. I had forgotten something missing from the recipe that I know well from past experience: The nectarines should be heated in batches. I would end up with a lot of leftover syrup. And if I’d planned to heat the fruit in batches I wouldn’t have cut all the nectarines at once and so wouldn’t have worried about the long exposure to air that causes browning.
The recipe also fails to say that hot-packed fruit needs less syrup than raw-packed fruit. After brief cooking, fruit softens, so that it packs tighter in the jar. Less room is left for syrup. Although the recipe writer frowns on raw-packing, the quantities of water and sugar called for seem intended for raw-packed, not hot-packed, fruit. Even if I hadn’t increased the quantity of syrup, I would have had too much.
Once the nectarine pieces were heated, according to the recipe, I should layer them cut-side down. This is sensible; the pieces pack tighter if they are all curved in the same direction. But imagine how much harder it is to place them this way after they have been heated in syrup. Ouch, ouch, ouch! The recipe should call for gloves.
The recipe didn’t tell me to check the filled jars for trapped bubbles. Instead of poking a knife or chopstick or plastic “bubbler” into the jars and disturbing the arrangement of fruit slices, I simply turned the jars back and forth gently before adding any more needed syrup.
Before finishing up I raw-packed two jars and marked the lids with an R. After processing (I used a steam canner, for 20 minutes), the fruit in these jars was a little yellower, less orange, in color. The fruit also floated a bit more in these jars; that is, the jars held a little more syrup in relation to fruit. I think this is what the recipe meant by “poor quality,” but I’ll wait until winter to open the jars and find out what else may be poor about my raw-packed nectarines. I suspect I’ll find them more than palatable.
Hopeless rule-breaker that I am, I deviated from recipe just a bit in the end: Before putting the nectarine pieces in jars I dashed out to the garden and gathered some herb sprigs—mint, basil, shiso, lavender, and anise hyssop. Slipping one into each jar, I hoped the flavorings would be subtle; I didn’t intend to make anything fancy. But the herbs had been waiting to be used, and they now look so pretty in the jars. The USDA writer, of course, fails to mention the possibility of adding flavorings of any sort.
And what to do with leftover syrup? I dropped in the nectarine pits, still bearing a lot of flesh, cooked them a bit, and then strained the syrup. It sits in a jar in the fridge now, waiting to be mixed into soda water or cocktails.
As a reward for all this work, I sucked the flesh off the cooling pits.
The lesson I take from this project is this: USDA recipes are handy for reference, especially for processing times, but in their aloof brevity these recipes can trip up even an experienced home preserver. They certainly can’t take the place of good writers and teachers in guiding us through the tricky business of home food preservation. The lovely preserves that dozens of children presented to the Benton County Fair are a tribute to their 4H leaders’ skill.