It was a New Year’s Resolution that promised to change our lives. Our family began 2011 committed to eating only locally sourced foods. Everything that entered our kitchen would be from BC, or even better, from Richmond itself. After all, don’t we boast some of the best farmlands in the country? Aren’t our streets bursting with locally grown produce every summer? Farmers’ markets and roadside stands offer luscious local fruits and veggies at bargain prices. By eating locally we would feast like kings, save money, protect the environment, and improve our health. It was the beginning of a whole new life for the five of us – but it was doomed to fail.
You see, not a lot grows around here in January. The roadside stands are empty and boarded up, imported fruits and veggies get top billing in supermarkets, and during the wintertime, the only thing you can get at a U-Pick is a Christmas tree. Anyone who wants to eat locally during a BC winter needs to plan ahead. So we tried again six months later – and this time I was ready.
I called upon my childhood memories of my mother, endlessly canning and preserving everything that came from our garden, our orchard, and the nearby forests and fields. Summer and fall in our home meant a bubbling water-canner on the stove, kitchen counters laden with freshly picked fruits, and the musical ‘plink’ sound that jar lids make as they cool and successfully seal against bacteria. I consulted the internet for tips and advice. I needed to know produce schedules – what is ripe at what point in the year and how best to preserve each of the different fruits. Peaches, pears and plums will all can beautifully, but most berries tend to lose their flavour and colour while in the jar, and do much better frozen. Fruits can be canned in a water-canner, but vegetables require pressure-canning to be properly preserved.
I began to haunt the roadside stands around Richmond. I made notes on where the best produce was, and who had the lowest prices. I began to get to know some of the farmers, and often managed to get discounts by buying bulk quantities, or by buying fruit that was a little overripe – not so good to eat fresh, but perfect for jams or for freezing for smoothies. I bought a year’s worth of fruit in just a few months. It drained our summer budget, but for the remainder of the year we didn’t spend a dime on frozen berries or imported fruit (except those yellow Ataulfo mangoes, which my daughter and I are powerless to resist!).
Between July and September my kitchen counters groaned beneath the weight of my fruit stand finds and U-Pick harvests. It wasn’t always easy. I burnt my fingers sterilizing hot jars and managed to splash boiling jam on myself regularly. I also suffered the setbacks of leaking jars that wouldn’t seal, jam that wouldn’t set and needed to be rebranded as syrup, and pickles that never really tasted quite right. But slowly, bit by bit, jar by jar, I managed to amass a formidable store of preserved fruits, jams, jellies and syrups, as well as a freezer packed with berries, corn, and pumpkin puree. It is all gone now (except the pickles), and my cupboards hold shelf upon shelf of empty jars, waiting patiently to be refilled.
Don’t be shy. Get to know your growers. Ask questions about the produce – when to buy, what to buy, and how to best preserve. They are the experts in their field (no pun intended), and you will learn a lot. Talk to the neighbourhood grandmas as well. They have all the best tips and recipes, and I haven’t yet met one who wasn’t a treasure-trove of useful information and stories.
Encourage your kids to be “picky” about their food. Take them out to the U-Picks. Get them to see where their food comes from, and let them be a part of the process. They may not collect much by the end of the day, but they’ll be far more likely to eat the food if they pick it themselves.
Make more than you think you will need. I canned over 120 litres of applesauce last fall and we were done by March. Peaches and pears went similarly quickly. My three kids, not normally the best fruit eaters, eagerly popped open jar after jar whenever they were looking for a snack. Also, I couldn’t resist sharing out my efforts to friends and family. I learned to be pushy about getting my jars back afterward though. My empty jar collection is practically my fourth child, and I guard it carefully.
Wait until the fresh fruit is out of season before breaking into your stores. Your jars of peaches will tempt you dearly, but if you start popping those lids during the summer, you will end up with bare cupboards before the winter begins. Of course, everyone needs to have a little taste now and then to make sure that you’ve done a good job!
Save some of the work for later. Jams and jellies can be made from frozen fruits, so when you come home with a flat of slightly overripe berries, wash them, stem them, and throw them in the freezer. One rainy winter afternoon you can pull them out and make jam. Standing over a boiling jam pot mid-summer can be a sweltering affair. The same activity in on a cold day is positively cosy.
Zoë Lee lives in Steveston with her husband, their three children and three cats. They moved here seven years ago for the stroller friendly, pancake-flat terrain, and stayed for the parades. She has an MBA with a focus on Leadership and Organizational Change Management, which is the ideal degree for any stay-at-home mom.