Monday, June 16, 2008

Musings in the Making of Strawberry Preserves

Making Strawberry Preserves is a long process. It is a craft and a skill that I am sure no midwestern Farm should be without. The whole process is also a practice in patience, a seasonal ritual, and a meditation. It is a great learning experience which I am sure becomes perfected the longer one practices. A lifetime would be a great investment.

First I got the Strawberries. Next I got out my canning equipment (jars, lids, rims, stainless steel pot in which to simmer the Strawberry mixture, Pyrex measuring cup to pour finished mixture into jars, wide mouthed funnel for ease of pouring into jars, canner, tongs to lift out hot jars from hot water bath, hot pads, tea towels, wooden cutting boards to set hot jars on to cool). I made a quick check that I had all the ingredients.

Strawberries from local Farmers (and hopefully eventually from our own Patch) generally are very tender berries. I believe this is particularly true with the older varieties. Consequently, we need to use our Strawberries almost as fast as we get them from the Strawberry Patch and handle them as little as possible. Once the Strawberries arrive, those other important Human agendas need to be set aside. The Strawberries will not wait.

We washed the Strawberries and hulled them. (Hulling means taking the green tops off and a bit of the core.) Parts with imperfections are removed; some berries which are "past peak" are tossed into the compost bucket with the tops. The Chickens will be thrilled.

I put the ingredients together into my favorite stainless steel pot. The pot goes on our aged stove at medium to medium high heat. I cook and stir the mixture. And I cook and stir. And I cook and stir until the mixture is thick and comes off the spoon in sheets, rather than a steady stream. Stirring is more and more important as time goes on because the mixture will be more prone to stick.

Hopefully, along the way, I will have some Elves and Fairies who will come eagerly to my assistance. Richard and Melanie helped with the details including assembling equipment, getting ingredients, and hulling the berries. As the 1st one up, Richard will likely put away my clean dishes in the sink when he gets up tomorrow morning.

This is not a task which I can do without focus. I need to attend to what is going on. The whole process took about 4 hours, not counting getting the berries. I did not use commercial pectin, which would have saved time.

So I stayed with it. The whole exercise yielded a meditation and some very interesting thoughts. I was trained as a professional Home Economist in the late 1960s. We did make Jams, Jellies and Preserves in the lab. That training did help my understanding of the process but it was no substitute for experience. My Cherry Preserves which I made in lab didn't pass muster. While perfectly sealed, I turned the jar over and those beautiful Cherries floated exuberantly to the top. As a student teacher spring 1969, I did teach a unit on such things. That was somewhat of a hoot. True confession: I have never made Jams, Preserves or Jellies at any other time in my adult life.

Richard on the other hand has become quite a master at making Chokecherry Jam. Chokecherries were wild berries commonly found on the Northern Plains and used extensively by Native American Tribes. Chokecherry Jam there is a big deal for many especially the older folks and those with rural backgrounds. These days, most folks may smilingly share their Jams but won’t reveal the location of their patches. Over the years, I watched Richard’s little experiments in making Chokecherry Jam and Syrup and his attention to detailed copious notes. I have tasted his results. They were splendid and quite legendary among our friends in North Dakota.

So here we move to the Farm. Depending on the year, fresh fruits in these parts abound. We don't do much with sugar in our household, but Strawberry Preserves seem a rite of passage for our new endeavor. So far, I have made 4 batches of Strawberry Preserves. The 1st batch was to perfection: lovely red color, good flavor, nice spread, great on ice cream. The 2nd batch was also "spot on". But I got in a bit of a rush on that 3rd batch; worse yet, I got a little cocky and thought I had figured it all out. For Batch 3, once again the fruit floated to the top. I believe the mixture will be quite forgiving and I shall need to recook it. The 4th batch seems right on target. I will need to test it tomorrow.

We live in a high speed society. We rush about doing all kinds of things. We seem to know a lot about a lot of things "skin deep" but rather are Master to none. I think back to those that I have known (and know) who made (or make) such things as Strawberry Preserves. They put a lifetime of experience into every jar. I can imagine that I will over time get a feel for this process and a feel for the mixture itself. With time, experience, and attention, the whole process will become second nature. After a respite of almost 40 years, I’m up for that.

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