Walking down to the cantina in my grandmother’s old house was always an intoxicating experience. The closer you came, the stronger the aromas got and I always knew there were treats to be had in this dark, mysterious place.
My grandmother’s cantina was in the basement of the house. Four rough stonewalls with an even rougher concrete floor, a hand painted door made of slats of wood was kept closed with a nail and string. A light bulb hung in the middle of the room, also operated by a string that dangled from it.
Lining the four walls were perfectly neat shelves that held literally hundreds of jars of summers finest foods. In the centre of the room was a permanently cemented wine press and although this room of delicious foods was immaculately clean, there were grape stains everywhere, each telling their own story from years of making wine. This room was my delicious heaven.
I could pick from jars of peaches, pears and cherries, my grandmothers favourites were beans and a mixture of fall vegetables called ‘giardiniara’. There were small jars of jam and hundreds of large mason jars filled with tomato sauce – the staple of all good Italian kitchens.
Walking through the cantina was like watching a TV show. I could visually recall the event, the people and the fun behind every jar.
My grandparents of course had a very large garden that helped feed the insatiable appetite of the cantina. Jars would get eaten at a rate beyond what we could replenish so it was an all summer activity of canning that began every June.
Home canning is not complicated. It is a simple procedure that applies heat to food in a closed glass jar to interrupt the natural decaying that would otherwise take place. My grandmother canned the summers’ bounty to provide good food for the family in the off-season, but today it’s the perfect way to share your favorite tastes with family and friends.
There’s a growing movement of home cooks who are interested in preserving flavor, not just food. From a sassy salsa and crispy pickles to award-winning chili and savory fig compote – and let’s not forget irresistible fruit jams – oh yum!
People today can and preserve fresh foods because they want to reclaim foods natural flavours. Canning fits into the modern revival of hand grown, organic, heirloom agriculture and using food in season.
Stacks of locally grown, ripe produce are piled high at farmers’ markets right now and if we don’t capture the rich lively flavours, they’ll disappear for another year. Get out there and capture your favourites. Here are some non-traditional canning projects if you’re so inclined! Have fun!