In the summer of 2008, Kevin West was shopping at his local farmers’ market when he was struck by the smell of fresh strawberries, their luscious aroma prompting him to purchase an entire flat. When he got to his car, however, the Los Angeles-based editor at W Magazine reclaimed his senses somewhat, realizing that he may have been overzealous. “What am I going to do with 10,000 strawberries?” Mr. West asked himself. And then he had a eureka moment. He would turn them into jam.
The fruits of Mr. West’s labours then and since can be found, literally, in his just-published book, Saving the Season, which he describes as “an encyclopedia of the cuisine and culture of food preserving.” Although Mr. West had grown up on the homemade jams, pickled beets and other preserves “put up” by his Tennessee grandmother, she had passed away, so he was on his own when it came to that first batch, which, he admits, was awful. Over time, though, making a good jar of jam became a challenge and then an obsession for him, leading him to quit his day job at W in order to pursue preserving full-time.
Saving the Season, a 531-page tome featuring 220 recipes and 300 colour photographs, took more than two and a half years to produce, but its arrival at the end of June was timely. An ancient art, the process of preserving fruit with sugar or honey and vegetables with salt or vinegar is one of this year’s hottest food trends, according to Restaurant Hospitality. The respected industry publication credits “a renewal of nostalgia-driven interest in old-time techniques” for making both top chefs and home cooks “determined to jar everything edible for the pantry, whether preserved lemons, blackberry-thyme jam or pickled plums.” Pickling, canning and the like have also become the bases for quite festive social gatherings, their new adherents eager to swap techniques, share recipes and garner new ones from like-minded friends.
“It has a lot to do with the local-food movement and the rise of urban gardening,” says Camilla Wynne, owner of Preservation Society, a small-batch preserves company in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. Fans of her jarred preserves, which are sold across Canada through www.preservationsociety.com, throng the preserve-making workshops she hosts at her retail store. Her own DIY preserving cookbook, Les conserves selon Camilla, comes out in August.
“People increasingly want to know what goes into their food and are wanting to make it themselves,” she says. “Preserving is tangible. It appeals to people with desk jobs who want to work with their hands.”
At Ms. Wynne’s workshops, attendees learn jam and pickle making as a group, which, to her mind, is the best way to both tackle some of the more tedious aspects of preserving and enjoy the results. “If you’re going to peel 20 pounds of pearl onions, it’s nicer to do it with a bunch of friends,” she says. “And at the end of the process, everyone gets something to take home. You don’t often need 20 jars of jam for yourself.”
Mr. West, whose experiences hosting his own at-home preserving parties were documented in a 2011 issue of Bon Appétit magazine, agrees, noting that “the ‘many hands make light work’ saying is as true of preserving as of anything else.”
Throwing your own at-home preserving party is, moreover, as easy as it is fun, enthuses Julian Katz, a chef-turned-jam-maker who founded his own company, Toronto’s Stasis Preserves, in 2011.
“You can actually [can] anything that’s in season,” says Mr. Katz, who, like Mr. West, came to the process as a result of wanting to preserve the seasonal bounty he found at his local farmers’ market. “Food always tastes better when preserved in season to be enjoyed all year.”
Anyone throwing a preserving party should, Mr. Katz suggests, similarly use a produce market as a jumping-off point. “Go to the farmers’ market as a group, [see] what’s in season and buy it, bearing in mind that a quart of fruit will usually yield between two or three jars of preserves.”
When it’s time to make the preserves, have the following on hand at home: a large kitchen table, a cutting board, good knives, glass or ceramic bowls, several colanders, a supply of screw-top jars, enough aprons to outfit everyone (these can also make charming take-home gifts) and a large pot for cooking jams and other preserves on the stove. “Since it’s a party, you will also want some wine,” both to fill guests’ glasses and as a one-on-one substitute for water in your recipes. “Wine,” Mr. Katz says, “will add acidity to the flavour and also make the whole process more fun.”
Some more tips from Julian Katz:
Set a fun tone: Establish a mood that’s festive yet also roll-up-your-sleeves via poppy or jazzy music that encourages hours of, ahem, jamming. And do make it clear that everyone will be getting dirty. “Jam likes to splatter,” Mr. Katz points out. Everyone “will be wearing it home.”
Start out easy: If you and your guests are novices, begin with a basic recipe from a reputed DIY cookbook or your own family repertoire. “I generally discourage people from pulling a recipe off the Internet,” Mr. Katz says. “You don’t know if it has been tested for food safety.”
Provide some inspiration: If you have any, open some jars from previous seasons to guide and inspire guests, serving the preserves inside with flatbreads, toast, crackers and complementary wine or spirits. During your party, make different varieties of jams or preserves and ensure that all guests go home with samples of each, noting that “freshly made preserves [should] sit about two weeks before consuming to give flavours time to meld.”