Food preservation came about as a matter of necessity, when winter brought snow or chill, and the fresh, abundant food of summer became scarce.
Necessity, being the mother of invention, caused early human beings to discover ways in which to preserve their own lives and those of their families, by creating a store of food for non-season, or nomadic times.
Food preservation covers all practices where foods are manipulated to be stored or kept in an “altered state” if you like, to lengthen it’s usable or shelf life.
Methods employed to do this can be as simple and non-invasive as freezing in snow or ice, salting, air-drying or smoking … in other words, dehydrating or curing. It is believed that the earliest methods of food preservation were discovered as a coincidence when such elements as hot air and wind, or smoke from fires created a drying state in which food could be kept for long periods and consumed without fear of poisoning.
Smoke from wood fires contains antimicrobial compounds that inhibit or prevent the growth of organisms that are responsible for food spoilage. This was especially important for preserving proteins such as poultry, meat, fish and cheese. Evidence of this method is found in the Ancient Mayan and European cultures.
In Scandinavian countries this was their best method of preserving fish, where ‘cold smoking’ was employed to enhance the lengthening of life to salted or cured salmon.
Drying, as a preservation method, can be traced back to the Asian and Mediterranean cultures for over 10,000 years through evidence in paintings, carvings and frescos.
This method may have been discovered simply by finding fruit which had dried on the vine, or on the ground, but today these regions are prolific in their production through their traditional methods of dehydration, often still by sunlight and dry natural air drying, applying to such foods as tomatoes, figs, apricots, herbs, nuts, berries, seeds, grains and beans, and bi-products of these.
An interesting example of a dried bi-product is bean curd skin and originates in Asia. Tofu or bean curd skin is obtained by sun-drying fresh soya beans, then soaking them in water, blending or crushing them, straining off the milk, heating and allowing a skin to form on top, just like cow’s milk.
This skin is then drawn up from the milk and hung to dry, thus creating a food that contains a high level of protein and therefore serves as a substitute to meat.
Fermentation is the process where pathogens are encouraged to convert one food into another. In other words, the natural product in effect spoils, but results in another safe and edible product. In some case’s fermented products can be even better for our consumption due to the healthy bacteria that is created in the process, enhancing our natural gut flora and assisting in digestion.
Sauerkraut and kim chi are very commonly recognised as healthy fermented products today, but not all of us are keen on fermented cabbage, with or without the chilli, and so we can easily be ‘put off’ the notion of fermentation. Bread is possibly our most recognisable form of fermented food.
Wheat, sugar, salt and liquid are transformed through the addition of yeast. Even sourdough is made with the addition of a naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast, which is then added in a quantity of dry ingredients to form a rising dough. Fermenting hops and sugar with yeast, of course, produces Beer.
Traditionally wine and cider was made from seasonal fruit, with the addition of wild yeast or mould to create a fermented, effervescent juice.
One of the earliest examples of fermentation would have been in the creation of cheese, through milk being most likely stored in a bag made from the stomach of a goat or sheep.
The rennet still present in the stomach lining may have caused the milk to curdle, the whey being strained off and salt added to preserve the remaining curds, thus extracting more whey, until a firm and tasty block of milk product was the result.
Then there are the pickling methods, using vinegar, sugar, salt, oil etc., along with the application of heat to suspend a fresh product in a jar or tin.
The pickling philosophy became a social practice in many cultures such as the famous “Tomato day”, where Italian families came together to make their beautiful Passata sauce, kept for the winter to add to their dried pasta or reconstituted beans, dried meat or fish.
Harvest festivals are a recognised tradition in almost all cultures globally where the food is gathered and subjected to some form or other of preserving for the coming months, to be used by a family or often kept in storage for use by a village or community.
Just about every culture has it’s own version of Giardiniera, or Piccalilli. French, Mauritian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Islander, Thai, all nations have their dish, handed down to help keep the nation going. In Australia, we’ve evolved into a culture, which originally called on the traditions of our founding nations of the British Isles and Ireland.
Recipes handed down from mother to daughter at the kitchen hearth have become the new preserves or pickles of today, made famous in the “Green and Gold” recipe book, or the prolific “CWA” cookbooks and most famously the “Woman’s Weekly” series.
A well-known method of preserving and pickling is the “Fowlers Vacola” system or method, made famous by Joseph Fowler from Melbourne in 1915, who emigrated to Australia from England and wanted to find a way to keep the lush fruits of the garden in his pantry.
In essence, his system works by storing fruit in sterilised jars, submerging in water then reaching and maintaining a heat of 92 degrees for over an hour in order to preserve the product.
Pickling and preserving not only allows us to keep our fresh produce longer, but it has created a platform for us to introduce herbs, spices, seeds and even nuts to jams, and blending fruits with vegetables to enhance each other’s character in the resulting product.
Making pickles and preserves is no longer looked upon as a matter of dire necessity in a world of harvesting crops and herding yaks, but is now a cottage industry, a recognised gift idea for birthday, wedding, or Christmas giving.
Today, like almost everything, cooking has become a multicultural practice. The kitchen is a global place and food traditions once seen as obscure or foreign are now welcomed, respected, enjoyed, celebrated and shared in all homes and communities. Salting, brining, drying, smoking, dehydrating, sugar curing, jamming, freezing, preserving, fermenting, pickling and so on are methods that today make up a huge commercial industry.
And meanwhile, in a world where not only backyards are shrinking, but agricultural land parcels are threatened by encroaching industries, the effects of global warming or just natural evolution, we are coming back to the home traditions for ourselves of gardening and preserving our own little harvests.
Our communities are thinking “recyclable”, our gardens “shared” and our methods “sustainable”.
Written by Gabe Streater for Sustainable Education.