Drying, juicing, jamming and leathering

Many of us grow a lot of fruit and naturally never wish to see any go to waste... Yet in too many of our gardens the bulk of some fruits are rarely eaten at all. Sure the first raspberries, the first apples, the first plums all are, but the last? As we get more and more fruits ripening we become careless. Summer and autumn produce massive surpluses which all too often merely go to feed the birds, when they could be feeding us throughout the rest of the year in so many different ways if we just make the effort.

In particular there are countless apples going to waste rotting under trees. We can pick the late varieties and keep them in a frost free place on trays where they may keep several months but inevitably they shrivel somewhat and rather often get attacked by rodents.! I have found dead deep freezers and refrigerators make the best stores. Their constant temperature and humidity keeps apples (and roots, see Kitchen Garden July 2000) in amazing condition for many months more than on open trays. A few apples even survive until the next early apples are ready!

However you can only store so many apples and there is always such a surplus of them. And you cannot store any early ripening apples with which we are inundated at this end of summer. Plus of course there are all the autumn soft fruits coming in such as blackberries and autumn fruiting raspberries, strawberries and so on to deal with as well. Sometimes just protecting fruits from the birds and the weather can much prolong their season of use. I find some of the early summer soft fruits left on their bushes hang on through till autumn. Blackcurrants and gooseberries get sweeter if left and redcurrants and whitecurrants can hang on in dry years until mid-October! But you still have to pick and use them some way at some time!

Sadly many fruits have to be picked too early just to stop the bird damage; after all most fruits improve the longer they ripen on their parents. (Pears are a notable exception and should be picked a tad under ripe and then finished in a warm humid atmosphere.) Late apples are noticeably better the longer they are left on the tree but the danger then becomes of losing them to the frost if not the birds. But with all these precautions much of the fruit must still be gathered in and stored some way if not used as soon as it is ripe or it will be lost. And you can only keep the very best in a fresh state for any period at all.

That is why we invented jamming and jellying. By adding sugar and cooking it up into a gel we can stop the fruit fermenting and mouldering and keep it available for the rest of the year, and possibly for a couple or more after. (I have some 'vintage' jams now ten or more years old, I can't say they're still nutritious but certainly rather interesting flavours develop.) The problems with both jams and jellies is that half their weight is the sugar which adds a very serious economic cost, may cause dietary upset and the cooking needed to make preserves destroys some of their nutritional value. Thus they are currently out of favour. Less sugar can be used, and less cooking, if the jam is made as 'freezer' jam and kept frozen until needed.

In fact this modern alternative of freezing has enabled us all to have our own fruits year round without turning them into jam. Little processing other than picking and cleaning needs to be done for the soft fruits but apples and pears need pureeing first with the attendant heating drawbacks. And after freezing most fruit has poor texture; usually dividing into a flaccid facsimile and juice, but this does not stop them being useful in compotes and for other culinary dishes. It is well worth freezing a modicum of most fruits for later use, but it is also very useful to freeze many more of them for later processing in other ways. This helps spread the workload when there is a sudden surplus to cope with as it can be picked and dumped in the freezer until you have the time to process it further.

An old method, requiring no modern gadget, drying; is by far and away the most ecological and nutritious means of storing fruit requiring little heat and no sugar. It is amazing how rarely fruit is dried in this country when other places excel. I know our climate does not suit but it is not hard to find a warm dry airing cupboard, construct a fly proof area in a dry greenhouse or use the decaying warmth of an oven. Anyway, apple rings are so easy and simple to prepare and an excellent way of preserving early apples. I just core and peel them and then hang the rings on a string above my kitchen range. A very large pile of apples turns into a biscuit tin of dried rings. These are delicious chewed or they can be used in cooking.

Pears can be treated similarly but are easier halved than cut in rings, and dried on wire trays. Plums also need to be on a wire tray and dry well if split open and de-stoned; all varieties first become chewy-but-the-same then all turn into something very similar to a real prune. (Be warned they have the same effects as well.) Best of all I have found to be though are dried rings of the Asian pears, I have a Kumoi and this fruit is one of the finest for drying. The rings are sweet and perfumed, wonderful!

However it is not so easy to dry most soft fruits so I never bothered with them. Then I came across an old recipe for making fruit leather. This process turns the fruits into a paste which is dried down further to a leather like sheet -all without adding sugar. The drying concentrates the natural sugar and so makes a sweeter product. It's a chewy sweet that can be eaten at any time as a snack or used in other foods as a dried fruit additive. With modern kitchen processing equipment, good hygiene and a bit of practice excellent leather is easy to make. You could even make a hat out of it which you could eat but could not wear long in the rain.

Leathering combines extremely well with a freezer full of soft fruit and a surplus of apples. It also helps in the production of juice but more on that later. Most fruits can be turned into leathers on their own but their strong flavours and thin textures do not make the best. Plums for example turn into a prune like toffee. However if combined with apple their flavour goes further and their texture is improved. So whereas both apple and plum leathers on their own are disappointing the combined leather is delicious. But even better is apple and a soft fruit.

So starting with some apples; clean and chop, cook them just sufficiently to easily turn them into a puree by passing them through a fine sieve. Add to the puree about a quarter to half the same amount of any other fruit puree such as blackcurrant, strawberry, raspberry and so on or a mixture of these. Spread the mix very thin, say a centimetre or so on well greased trays and then dry these very slowly in a very low oven with an open door. Once the sheet of leather has formed it can be eased off and dried further by suspending it in a warm dry place. The sticky surface can be 'cured' by dressing it with a mixture of icing sugar and corn starch. Fruit leather looks just like leather but tastes just like fruit!

Juicing combines well with leathering as different parts of the fruit are used. This is especially handy where freezing is used to temporarily store the soft fruit, or is used overnight to pre-prepare it. As the fruit defrosts it separates into the juice and the gelatinous bit. If the latter is passed through a sieve on it's own to remove the skins, stalks and seeds it is thicker and easier to leather yet retains plenty of flavour. The juice that first separated improves the leather if included with it but is also rather useful itself.

Juice can also be extracted by all sorts of means from full scale presses to several different kitchen gadgets. It does not matter much which means you employ but most methods remove all the goodness from the pulp leaving it too impoverished to make leather from. This is fine if you are just after the juice but if you want to make leather use the freezing method of separation to take only part away.

Juice is used to make jellies by the addition of sugar and cooking. Some juices such as redcurrant are quite acid and so combine well with other less tart fruits to make their combined preserves more tasty such as the divine raspberry and redcurrant jam. And combined juices often set better than either on it's own, apple juice in particular can be added to other fruits to make their jams set and apple puree is even more effective. Of course juice can be sweetened, diluted and drunk or it can be frozen in plastic bottles to drink later.

We all should drink more water and it tastes a lot better with a shot of concentrated fruit juice added to it. Naturally you have to defrost the juice to use it so to save waste freeze potion sized ice cubes of it, and make ice lollies too!!! The problem is if you leave half a bottle of unused juice in the refrigerator after a couple of days it ferments and goes off. Which leads me to the best way I've found of preserving a surplus of apples; fermenting them…