Just Can It
As a child, my grandparent's farm was my Eden. By the time my brother and I came on the scene, my grandfather was semi-retired — leasing several acres of his land to neighbouring farmers and running a driving range on the rest. Much of the farm was ours to enjoy — climbing hay stacks, riding horseback, learning to drive on the riding lawnmower and eating peaches and mulberries straight from their branches.
My brother and I would help plant the large garden at the beginning of the season. And at the peak of summer, a swarm of aunts would decsend upon the kitchen, our grandmother at the helm. They would pickle, can and jam as much of the garden as they could. The larder would swell with emerald pickles so sweet, they'd make your teeth hurt, spicy chili sauce, stewed tomatoes and my favourites, peaches and black cherries in simple syrup.
The thought of that massive production line taking over my small urban kitchen is overwhelming. And while a slow-and-steady strategy is best employed considering the limited capacity of the one large pot in my kitchen, thanks to a handful of entrepreneurs, there are other options.
Enter Veronica (known as "Vee") Gutierrez, owner of The Heirloom Kitchen. Her just-launched business is unique — customers grow, pick or buy the produce or main ingredient, drop it off at The Heirloom Kitchen, indicating how they'd like it preserved — pickled, jammed or fermented, to name a few — and Gutierrez will work her magic. No muss, no fuss. The customer gets to enjoy his or her garden's bumper crop masterfully preserved in jars to be consumed at their leisure.
Gutierrez left a fulltime gig in finance to complete her diplôme de cuisine at le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, finishing the superior level of the program at the school's London, England campus. But she learned the art of preserving from her mother at an early age. "I grew up preserving" she says, "if we didn't use it, we preserved it. Not wasting food was instilled in me early on.
"Preserving is such a Canadian thing to do," she says. "My parents immigrated from Uruguay and Mexico City and didn't come with preserving skills." Instead, her mother learned to bake and preserve from a community of women on the west coast, from friends and residents at the retirement home where she volunteered — it was like a "factory line of sisters chopping peppers."
That influence and level of experience comes through in Gutierrez's flavour combinations — from creative, out-of-the-box recipes to coveted classics and tightly held family secrets. She makes Canadian favourites, such as mustard pickles and pickled eggs, and exotic items such as Momofuku-style kimchi. And who else makes a canteloupe-vanilla bean jam that tastes like a creamsicle?
Then there is The Cauldron Kitchen. The idea of opening a bright and shiny new commercial kitchen in Ottawa had been simmering with co-founders Dave Neil and David Villarroel for more than three years before they officially opened the doors earlier this year. The Cauldron boasts three different spaces available for rent in four-hour blocks, typically used by small producers and local food businesses, such as The Kneaded Kitchen and Savoury Pursuits.
The spaces come, as you could imagine, with heavy-duty equipment far beyond what my kitchen would allow. The combined list of resources includes: a deep fryer, six-burner range, deck and convection ovens, steamer, dehydrator, flash freezer, commercial dishwasher and tons of prep space.
When it comes to preserving the season, The Cauldron is offering a series of 12 workshops on Tuesday nights, following the harvest starting in early August through late October, as part of its food school, for novices and the experienced alike.
Susan Jessup, culinary alchemist at-large (or "mad scientist," she says with a laugh) and head of product development at the Wild Oat Bakery on Bank Street, is one of three instructors (along with SmoQue Shack owner and chef, Warren Sutherland and Jo-Ann Laverty, cofounder of The Red Apron) sharing their well-honed tips and tricks in the series. Jessup, who has been working professionally in Ottawa's food industry for more than 16 years, attributes her love of food and food knowledge to a childhood of foraging, hunting and gardening.
Jessup plans to infuse the hard-and-fast science of preserving with creative whimsy —"guiding people to places they haven't been before," she says. "Obeying the laws of science — there is no flexibilty when it comes to following the rules of health and safety. Beyond that, we're only limited by our imagination."
According to Jessup, preserving is a lost art. "Preserving, wintering things over, this is what our ancestors have been doing for centuries." In her workshops, she plans to cover the basics of brining, pickling and preserving, incorporating her appreciation for food history, culture and how to apply that knowledge today. It's about expanding our food literacy. As she says, going back in order to move forward and, at the end of it, she wants students to walk away with a beautiful, extraordinary product. Whether it is a bright plum ketchup and green tomato mincemeat at the height of summer, a gift jar of colourful root vegetables in the fall or a quick pickle anytime of the year.
And with that list of serious kitchen equipment at The Cauldron, what I really like is the idea of hosting a preserving party. Getting together with a group of friends and family to book the space and share in the cost ($250 for four hours — prep space, specialty equipment and kitchen included). If you're wise and really efficient, you could get a winter's worth of preserving, freezing and drying done in a few hours. And I imagine the stainless steel kitchen could be hosed down when the canning is done. Again, no muss, no fuss, at least not in my kitchen.
The lost art of preserving is making a comeback. But what we also lose sight of sometimes is a house filled with aunts, children sneaking a premptive bite, a good round of towel whipping and the sense of community that goes along with a day or a weekend of working together in the kitchen.
The Heirloom Kitchen
The Cauldron Kitchen Inc.
1155 Lola St., Ottawa, Ont.