It is only in the last few generations that we have a constant supply of food, in our luxury first world anyway. It was however not that long ago at this time of year that our grannies had to think about the long cold winter and having to stock up on supplies to see us through to spring. It was not a given in the post war years that there would always be enough food to buy so with freezing only on the horizon for most homes come the sixties the long and established art of preserving food was alive and kicking in every household.
Most foods will naturally spoil over time, enzymes just break down and the bacteria grows given the right conditions, without protection from heat, moisture and air so you had better eat what had been caught, foraged or grown pretty quickly. Our ancestors soon figured out ways to prevent one or more of these factors decaying the food and so the ability to stash away stocks for the colder months developed over millennia and this would have been a major reason for the survival of the human race.
I recall mountains of fruit on the kitchen table as a child, my mother simmering jam as jars were sterilized in the oven and crab apple jelly being strained through old pillow cases tied between chairs overnight. This was an annual ritual. What nature gave out in one season could still be eaten in the next is a philosophy of survival as old as mankind itself. It’s a dying tradition with hardly any time to left to cook never mind spending hours preserving foods for future use.
This area of food preparation and cookery is a whole other craft and when you delve into it you really see how rich and refined it is. Most people will be familiar with cured meat and smoked fish but it goes right across the spectrum of produce and there is a technique for almost everything. All manner of natural oils, vinegars, sugar, fats, alcohol and salts lend themselves to protecting precious commodities for future use and many flavoured with spices and herbs will taste even better.
Another method is simply air drying meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. I remember being brought up to a large barn loft in Parma to see dozens of hams hanging from hooks across the beams with big open windows letting the air blow in from the hills. Our guide quipped we might be arrested if we tried this in Ireland; the canny Italians had been at it for centuries and no health inspector was going to change that. The French are masters at potting their meats in fat and making them last for months as in their confit of duck, the word coming from confiture, translating as preserve.
Cheese is the ultimate preserving of milk and butter keeps for ages too. The pickling of vegetables is very trendy and chutneys have always been a favourite. Professional kitchens that go down this route must be very skilled in their methods and stick rigidly to food safety guidelines. It is not so stringent for say fruits and vegetables, you can scrape the mould off the top of a jam and the rest of it will be fine. For the proteins though it is a whole other degree of danger.
Meat and fish treated without the compulsory due care and diligence is a recipe for disaster and even death to the consumer from some of the harmful bacteria that can grow if conditions are allowed to prevail. Going back to the basic principles of making sure air, moisture and heat are kept away from the relevant product being preserved is the key factor as well as working in a most hygienic manner in a properly sanitized sterile environment with the equipment kept pristine. Some kitchens I see in my food safety work would be too substandard to allow any food preserving at all. We reap what we sow.