It is autumn, October 1st 2013. There has been no rain for several months and temperatures are still high 80s in the shade. There has been a lot to learn in the garden. For example, English asters have thrived in semi-desert conditions whilst high Andes Amaranthus failed on campus, but took over a small raised bed kept well-watered.
A nursery corner on my roof terrace contains succulent cuttings and lettuce seedlings. The first lot of lettuce simply dried up in the heat, but later batches are benefiting from cooler evenings and lots of water. I have rigged up a hose to the roof and led it under the base of my rooftop naya, a netted, fly-proof, outdoor area where I can sleep in summer and protect my cuttings and citrus plants in winter. It is also the only place where cucumbers survived this year. On my finca, tomatoes and peppers were picked ready dried, although, surprisingly, celery, parsley, and leeks are thriving in a dense cover of weeds.Irrigation is a major problem which I am currently tackling in holistic fashion with a combination of shaped channels, gravity feed, inundation, and drip. Hopefully I shall be able to plant winter crops before too long, chicory, radish, pack choi, land cress, and Chinese leaves which will get enough moisture from morning dews off the river as temperatures fall, even if the long threatened rain never arrives.
Every week we are promised rainstorms next week. One day the forecast is for continuous showers and storms. A day later, wall to wall sunshine is predicted for the next month. Whatever the prognosis, the weather circles our little river meander and swings around the outside of the circle of hills that protects us. We have had lowering black clouds, ominous rumbles of thunder, a single flash of lightening, and then the lot evaporates and the sun reappears in a clear, azure sky. Apparently there has been torrential rain all around, but not a drop for my poor plants to drink. I have been learning about food preservation, campo style. With roasting temperatures and riverside humidity, nothing keeps more than a few hours without refrigeration. Although I bring ice in a cold box every day to preserve the day’s fresh food, without a reliable, cheap source of electricity, it is necessary to manage long-term storage in a more primitive manner. Solar and wind electricity complement each other, but are weather dependent and only to be used sparingly for light and low voltage applications. Gas fridges are expensive options and petrol or diesel generators are for pumping water and emergency use only.
Most fruit and many vegetables can be sun dried. I have successfully done this with figs, plums, tomatoes, peppers and olives. A lot can be preserved in alcohol, such as peaches, cherries, and apricots. More can be bottled in their own juice, like grapes and tomatoes, and many more used to make wines and vinegars, such as grapes and pomegranates.
Of course, salt and sugar and even wood-ash lye can also be used, with or without vinegar, for jams, jellies, pickles, relishes and chutneys, but there are dietary consequences to too much salt, potash or sugar, just as there are to storing meat in oil or fat as our ancestors did.
Storing tomatoes, thick skinned, slow ripening varieties used to spread on bread with salt and olive oil, need little water until they actually wilt. Cut when beginning to turn from green to gold, the fruit will keep a year or more, becoming deep orange and soft: a tasty puree in a bag.
Fruit vinegars are the healthy, refreshing cordials of our great-grandmothers. Fruits, steeped with sugar and wine, or juices with added yeast and bacteria, ferment for only a few days to make tart, richly coloured liquids that can be watered down to drink.
Similar cultures of kefir grains, yoghourts, and wild yeasts can be kept as everlasting starters, used for probiotic fruit or milk-based drinks as well as sourdough breads and cakes. Every few days, most of the batch is used for drinking or baking, keeping back a little to add to more liquid or flour base where it continues to grow until next time.
The surprising thing is the realisation that all these “germs”, yeasts and bacteria are actually far better for us than the sterilised, pasteurised, disinfected and irradiated produce that looks so pretty in the supermarket. They have not “gone off”. They supply us with micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They stimulate our immune systems as well as helping to combat disease by keeping our internal flora and fauna strong and healthy.
Perhaps our future survival as a race really does depend on going back to the sustainable practices of the past.
My store cupboard no longer contains packs of freeze-dried, chemically preserved, powdered, tinned, or sterilised commercial products. When I open my cupboard doors these days I am faced with home-made salsas, sauces, purees, relishes, chutneys, pickles, and fruit leathers. Bottles of dried figs, apricots, plums, mushrooms, and apples are good just as they are or cooked. There are all kinds of tasty sweets and savouries, bottled, dried, and made into jams, jellies, marmalades, conserves, and preserves.
It is as time-consuming as most other aspects of self-sufficiency. But it is infinitely satisfying, piquant, and individual. No-one else in the whole world is likely to be sitting down this evening to mixed salad with fresh cheese curds and pomegranate rubies, lamb with home-made mint and apple jelly, roast squash with caramelised tomato ketchup, home-made strawberry and yoghourt icecream, fermented milk drinks and home-made wine, white peaches preserved in vermouth and olive leaf tea, all processed within minutes of gathering.
No, I am neither losing nor gaining weight, nor am I dancing till dawn, but as a gentle drift into second childhood, I can recommend the good life, Spanish peasant style.