An Urge to Preserve, Blog
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An Urge to Preserve

It is hard to imagine that a mere two generations ago most (if not all) households up and down the European continent were busy bottling and preserving the summer and early autumn glut of fruit and vegetables for winter consumption. In the dark, cold days of winter nothing much grows in Europe – how else were populations supposed to survive? Self sufficiency was not a fashionable past-time for the middle-classes seeking the good-life. Earlier generations needed to preserve food, not because they had an overwhelming nostalgia to do so, but because they had to. It was less a case of “An Urge to Preserve” and more “A Need to Feed”.

How old-fashioned food preservation seems in today’s world of fossil fuel possibilities. Easy access to cheap energy has transformed our age-old understanding of food. What are five or six decades in the history of food? A mere speck. Yet, it was only fifty years ago that my German grandfather grew enough food in the garden to feed his family and my German grandmother spent the summer months snipping, chopping, piping and prepping the garden’s fruit and vegetables for winter consumption. Today, the notion that any household should spend their summer and autumn busy with the glut of seasonal vegetables seems like a tale from yester-year – from far, far away and long, long ago.

Two generations on and my Grandmother’s granddaughter, me, hasn’t got a clue how to grow and bottle fresh produce. The large pans she used to steam heat the bottles have been given away, the endless Weck bottles that filled row upon row of shelves in the cellar thrown in a bottle bank, the shelving sold off. The recipes I’ve written down here I’ve had to learn from scratch through books, You Tube videos and spending a considerable amount of money going over to London to hear and watch a stranger from the States give a work-shop on fermentation and traditional methods of food preservation. How I would have preferred my grandmother to tell me what was safe to do and what was not but she passed away when I was just three years old.

My mother remembers the whole bottling process and the time spent on preserving food but exact practice and quantities she can’t remember. She was just a child and as she grew into adulthood there was no longer a need to preserve food. So, what our grandparents learned from their parents our generation have to rediscover from scratch by trawling through endless books, videos and blogs!

My grandparents were not hippies wishing to escape a consumerist society and reconnect with nature. Nor, were they exceptional loners living on the fringes of mainstream society with a mission to prove to their neighbours how food should be eaten. The entire village beat to the rhythm of traditional food preservation driven by a practical desire to eat. Circumstance and history dictated their choices not principles.

After the war, across Europe, owning a patch of land on which to grow food made the difference between being fed or not fed. Nourished or under-nourished. In the cities whole populations suffered from famine and starvation. In 1945 there was no “food industry” to fill the gap. The fragile glass structures of the commercial green houses built in the inter-war years and designed to shelter delicate summer fruit from winter frosts were the first to shatter when the bombs began to fall in 1939.  Factories that processed sugar from sugar beets lay in ruins. The huge city mills responsible for milling grain on an industrial scale for the urban populations were out of action. Urban abattoirs no longer functioned. Europe’s agriculture was on it’s knees.

Consider this statement by the writer Harry Leslie Smith who was stationed in Hamburg at the end of the second world war:

Because of allied air raids against Hamburg during the war, the city was like Gomorrah the day after God’s wrath. It was an alien landscape. Even though it was now peace time, the city was feral with the dispossessed, the hungry, and the children orphaned by war and cruel circumstances.

Indeed, Harry Smith met his future wife bartering “heirlooms for bread and meat and the chance to survive another day.”

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A picture of American tanks driving through Muenster, Wesphalia 1945.

This scenario was being replicated across continental Europe – The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland. Those who could grow food grew food.

In May 1945 my mother turned two years old. She and her sisters were the lucky ones. They lived in a small village in Westphalia close to the Dutch border. Her parents had a garden on which they could grow food. At the end of the war the village ate – bar one or two changes – what it had done for hundreds of years previously. Cooking was not a skill reserved for a celebrity chef. Food knowledge was not just the preserve of those who ran a fancy, pricy restaurant. Cooking and food knowledge was as familiar and as unremarkable as knowing the local roads and by-ways.

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Angelika Garnett née Krabbe around May 1945

Happily for my mother and her sisters, between 1945 and the mid-1960’s her father’s garden provided the family of six with enough food to keep them fed not just in the summer when the weather was warm and benign but through the long, cold winter months when the land, like Germany’s economy, was frozen and inactive.

People worked with what grew best in their climate. In an area of Germany bordering The Netherlands but far enough away from the sea for the winters to be harsh and the summer warm the climate did not lend itself to the growing of fruit and vegetables we take for granted today. Aubergines, courgettes, artichokes, basil even celery and tomatoes were all foods that were unheard of in post-war Westphalia. Water melons, cantaloupes and honey melons had never been tasted. Exotic Mediterranean foods were only introduced into northern European cuisines at a much later stage when the European market, for the very first time in European history, began to export produce across its borders. Olive oil was an unheard of luxury. The only vegetable oil used would be from the beech nuts that the children collected in the autumn and which were milled by the village miller. Most of the fat consumed in the village would derive from animals – lard, beef drippings, butter.

Instead the small garden provided the young family with cherries (sweet and sour), apples (cooking and sweet), plums, gooseberries, red currants, white currants and strawberries. It provided them with potatoes, carrots, peas, onions, runner beans and long beans, cauliflower, cabbages, lettuce, salad cucumbers and gherkins. The last vegetable to be dug up was the curly green which needed to be harvested after the first frosts at the end of October or beginning of November.

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A sketch of my Grandparents plot of land indicating what fruit and vegetables they grew and preserved up until the late 1960’s, courtesey of Roger Garnett.

The favoured way to preserve the summer and autumn glut was to bottle the food in Kilner jars (or Weck jars as they are sold in Germany). Bottling, however, is a relatively modern invention arriving from France in the nineteenth century following Nicolas Appert’s invention designed to feed the Napoleonic army. Earlier, pre-industrial generations would have either pickled the summer produce in vinegar and alcohol or fermented the winter root vegetables making sauerkraut. Meat was typically sprinkled with salt and smoked.

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A french stamp issued in 2001 commemorating Nicolas Appert’s invention of safely preserving cooked foods in bottles.

The vast majority of food my grandmother preserved was bottled in Weck jars. Bottling (or canning food as it is sometimes referred to) takes a long time simply in terms of the need to first sterilise all the jars and then put the food through a water bath to create an air-tight, oxygen free environment. Bottling is energy intensive requiring, as it does, a continuous stream of heat. A further downside to bottling, in the case of low acid foods such as beans and/or meat, is the potential to harbour the lethal pathogen botulism.

Happily for my family my Grandmother understood exact practice and how to prevent the food from becoming contaminated. Until early adulthood my mother ate nothing but home canned food and the family never succumbed to some dreadful food borne disease. To ensure that the food had been correctly prepared they were guided by a thermometer that stuck out of the top of the water pan. Once the food had been heat steamed for long enough the jars were taken out and left to cool before being stored in the cellar. My mother recounts having to go into the cellar to pull on the orange rubber bands that sealed the jars. Food contained in a jar where the rubber band had become loose was either eaten straight after cooking or discarded.

Weck Pot circa 1930 Deutsches Museum

A Weck pan circa 1930 and similar tothe one my Grandmother would have used

The carrots were kept in sand in the cellar, potatoes were stored in boxes in the cellar and the apples laid out carefully on the shelves until they were too shrivelled and dry to be palatable. My Grandmother made sauerkraut with the glut of summer cabbages and sweet and sour vinegar gherkins. Salt-brined fermented pickles were unheard of in Westphalia and were known to be a speciality from the east – Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

It was not just my grandmother who was busy with preserving summer fruit and vegetables – the whole village was. My mother recalls coming home from school and finding her mother sitting around the kitchen table in the garden with two or three close neighbours, large baskets sitting by their side, busy topping and tailing beans or podding peas or chopping cabbages or cutting the stalks of strawberries.

My great-grandparents owned large fields outside of the village on which they grew wheat. In August the extended family would gather to harvest the corn which would be milled by the village miller. Pigs were slaughtered in late autumn with the first frosts – at about the time the curly green was being dug up. My great-uncles would take it in turns to stand guard outside the house to prevent the strung-up beast from being stolen or pilfered until they’d had time to cut the carcass up into it’s constituent parts and stored for later use. Pig’s trotters, tails, ears, skin, guts, blood – nothing was wasted. Every part was transformed into a dish that could nourish the family for as long as possible. “Hunger is the best sauce” is a Dutch saying and there’s nothing like hunger or the fear of hunger for us mortal human beings to abandon any notions we may have to observe a fat-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, protein-free diet.

My great-grandparents, who never considered themselves farmers, not only grew wheat they also kept a herd of dairy cows. My great-aunts would take it in turns to churn the milk to make butter. By the time the butter was finished the milk would have fermented naturally. The left-over whey was drunk as buttermilk. Fresh milk, not used for churning butter, would be left on the kitchen counter where it would ferment into fat milk “Dicke Milch” (the equivalent, I think, of clabbered milk in English) and was eaten with preserved summer fruit or fresh summer fruit depending on the season.

Yoghurt, like olive oil, came from far away and was not generally known of in the village.  The unique bacteria, lactobacillus delbrueckii (bulgarius) and streptococcus salivarius that ferment milk into yoghurt are not native to northern Europe. The LABs responsible for fermenting dairy produce into yoghurt, are thermophilic meaning they wither and die in the cooler, temperate climates of northern Europe. They are a micro-species that thrive in and are native to Mediterranean climates and the Middle East. Which is why if we want to make yoghurt in northern Europe we have to go through the effort of heating the milk up in a pan or leaving it overnight in an oven heated to 35-40 degrees centigrade. Often the native LABs end up colonising the dairy being fermented rendering the final product more buttermilk than yoghurt.[1]

Traditional populations in northern Europe ate their own fermented milks soured by local, native mesophilic micro-organisms. They had no particular need to eat yogurt for good health. In northern Europe sour cream, buttermilk, quark, clabbered milk and local cheeses are fermented by a completely different set of micro-organisms (to be technical lactococcus lactos, leuconostoc, mesenteroids) that prefer cooler temperatures. These LABs provided the local population with a wide variety of micro-organisms to keep their gut and immune system in order – but few in northern Europe today care to consume the once traditional fermented milk convinced that yoghurt is somehow healthier.

By the early 1960’s times they were a changing. The German “Wirschaftswunder”or Economic Miracle was beginning to take off. The urban mills were back in business, table sugar could be made from sugar beets to make jams, the fragile green-houses rebuilt, the abattoirs functioning again and the factories spewing out consumer goods. It was around this time that my Grandfather bought a freezer to spare my Grandmother all the hard work of preserving food. The corner shop was beginning to be stocked with canned food and sugar and sunflower oil. Times they were a-changing and when it comes to how we in western Europe prepare and consume food it has never looked back. We can still grow our own food in our spare time – and many still do with great pleasure – but preservation has morphed from a need into a hobby.

There is no longer a need to collect beech nuts, or for extended families to grow their own wheat, or to bottle summer’s fruit and vegetables. No need to keep a herd of dairy cows, to churn the milk to make butter, to harvest the corn in August and bring it to the miller for milling. No need to slaughter a pig in autumn and keep the trotters for a tasty soup stock. No need to devote half the garden for potatoes and the rest for radishes, lettuces, beans etc. No need for neighbours to sit together under the shade of a fruit tree and prep vegetables for the winter. Community and conviviality have given way to convenience.

My great-aunts sold off much of the land they owned and houses were built on top. The two millers in the village (one wind, one water) closed down. The wild nuts of the beech trees lie unused on the paths where they fall. Pigs live in big industrial farms fed on GMO feed imported from Argentina. Much of the pig’s most nutritious meat is now fed to dogs and other domesticated pets in the form of pet food. Gardens have been terraced and grow flowers not potatoes. The modern visitor to the village can drive through it in under ten minutes passing an Aldi on the way in and a Lidle on the way out. Traces of the village’s traditional diet survive in plastic bottled buttermilk, sauerkraut soured by pasteurised vinegars not wild LABs and bottled gherkins sweetened with isoglucose and industrial vinegars.

The past sixty years have completely transformed the food choices made by the heirs of the village. The grand-children, who’ve had the very great privilege of never knowing hunger, opt for convenience foods. Anyone trying to find non-sweetened, no added flavour buttermilk has to spend hours trying to spot the pot amidst the thousands of colourfully packaged, decorated and flavoured yoghurts. “Finding Wally” is child’s play in comparison.

Dairy produce is now fermented by non-native, laboratory harvested LABs and sweetened with artificial stevia and freeze dried mango. Liquid sunflower or rapeseed oil has replaced beech-nut oil. Margarines processed from modern seed oils have replaced butter, lard and beef drippings. Walk into the Aldi or Lidle (or indeed any European super-market) and 80% of the products on offer are packaged, convenience foods made largely from invented new ingredients that did not even exist fifty years ago. A mere 20% or so of the products on sale is fresh produce. Tomatoes, rarely grown in Westphalian gardens fifty years ago, sit cushioned on polystyrene foam wrapped in Clingfilm from January to January. It is now easier to buy an aubergine than some curly green. If industry interests have their way much of the fresh produce will soon be new, invented and patented, GMO varieties.

This description of a non-descript village in a relatively unknown area of Germany is indicative of how much the European diet has changed in the time-span one can equate to a speck of dust. Our traditional diet has been squashed by an unquestioning faith in innovation, progress and efficiencies.

Traditional cooking is considered mouldy, smelly and obsolete. Worse than that it has been drummed into our heads that northern Europe’s traditional diet is “unhealthy”. Butter, drippings, lard make us fat and unwell. We must eat modern, invented fats to stay healthy and forget the fact that traditional fats nourished hundreds of generations before the development of patent law.

Table sugar causes diabetes but the modern, invented and patented sweetener Stevia with zero glucose and fructose or the invented and patented sweetener crystalline fructose at 99% fructose will solve that problem. Traditional home preserves are mouldy, dangerous and potentially lethal – but a food industry, applying the latest modern techniques and applying strict government regulations will guarantee that nothing like that could ever happen to you.

Your grandmother may have kept food stored for a while but we modern populations know better and insist that food has “gone off”, turned pathogenic, within a matter of days and must be binned. Fresh food is the only type of food that is safe to feed your family and we must spend our hard earned cash in huge superstore everyday of the week to get it.

Traditional cooking, which was once as familiar and unremarkable as understanding the local roads, has now become so rare and misunderstood celebrity chefs serving soups made from pigs trotters accompanied with fermented red cabbage are lionised as icons of our time and can earn a fortune promoting their “brand” whilst the rest of us, in awe of their culinary abilities assume we could never replicate that. Yet these cooks are not the astro-physicists of cooking – they are simply doing what your grandparents did fifty years ago!

In September 2015 I do not need to preserve food for my family. G. and I do not need to worry about what seeds to plant in the spring so that we can have enough food for our children. We do not need to quickly water the growing vegetables in summer before heading off to work and water them again when we come home from our office job to make sure they do not shrivel up and die.

I regularly go into the Aldi to buy bottled tomato pasata or chickpeas or lentils. I buy frozen broccoli, spinach and peas when we’ve run out. I buy red cabbage on the market in February if I want to sauté fresh cabbage in butter and bacon for supper. I buy carrots any day of the year. I use the freezer all the time to preserve stocks, soups, fruit, batters …Blueberries are shipped into Belgium from Chile in January. Mangos picked in Brazil on Wednesday are sold fresh on the Belgian market by Friday. A funky shop sells vegetables flown in from Italy all year round.

I, like everyone else in twenty-first century Europe, do not need to preserve food….and still… at the end of summer and in early autumn the squirrel inside of me scuttles back and forth to the market to try and think of ways to preserve the summer goodness for the long winter months ahead. It comforts me to think I know how even if I don’t need to. If there is such a thing as inherited memory then it is urging me on to preserve.

If you, like me, believe there is some merit to the proposition that we have inherited memory and if you, like me, have some ancestral memory in your DNA urging you to preserve what you can whilst you can then perhaps some of these recipes will inspire you to have a go.

For us food preservation is a hobby not a need. I’m sure Heinrich and Alwine Krabbe, who knew only too well the deprivations and hardship of war, would want it no other way. For the sake of their generation, who kept the following generation fed and healthy, let us respect not trash the traditions they would have liked us to preserve for future use.

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Alwine and Heinrich Krabbe.

. [1] The ubiquity of yoghurt, pleasing and delicious though it is, is an entirely contrived marketing trick that goes back to the turn of the twentieth century when a Russian microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff published a paper noting the health benefits of raw, unpasteurised fermented dairy. In 1919 the company DANONE saw a commercial opportunity and began producing the first batch of yogurt. The DANONE yoghurt is fermented by a strain of LABs (originating in Bulgaria) and isolated in a lab in Paris at the Louis Pasteur center. Thus yogurt no longer became a regional specialty fermented spontaneously by a culture of wild, local microorganism but a global mono-product fermented by just one bacterial strain carefully extrapolated from the wild ferment.

2 Comments

  1. Angelika Garnett says

    Your article is so interesting and it brought back so many memories!I can still see my mother working in the garden so that we all (6 of us) had enough during the long winter month. The longing for the spring and summer to come stretched ahead of me so I could enjoy the fresh vegetables of the year. Having the first strawberries with Dickemilch or Buttermilk was delicious and the soups made with pickled ham and fresh vegetables were super. I wish that as a child I would have paid more attention to my Mother’s preparing, pickling and preserving food because most of our generation have forgotten. What a shame!

  2. Hi Kathleen, I hope you will be able to continue your ancestors’ know-how, passed on to them from generations before. And that your children will happily preserve it, too. Your effort here is an important historic recollection.

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