Canning makes a comeback

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      Self-described “food geek” Andrea Potter is the queen of cool canning in Vancouver. But as innovative, hip things often do, it started by accident.

      “I made this raspberry coulis at a restaurant I was working at,” she told the Georgia Straight. “After a few days, it got kind of fizzy. I thought it was lovely, kind of neat-tasting. But the chef said, ”˜That’s rancid! Throw it out.’ That’s when I started learning about aged sausages, sourdough bread, miso, sauerkraut, and I really got into this book.”

      The book she’s referring to is Wild Fermentation: the Flavour, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green, 2003). For those who are part of the burgeoning DIY foodie culture, it’s a paperback bible on the 21st-century version of home-based food preservation.

      As the head chef at Radha Yoga & Eatery, Potter’s got the food-safety background to responsibly lead a new revolution of an old craft. Fermenting, she said, looks a lot like old-style canning. But instead of an OCD-like focus on sterilized jars, she claims that a finger straying into a jar of ginger beer won’t kill off your nearest and dearest.

      In addition, unlike regular canning, in which food is boiled until all bacteria—good and bad—die, fermenting means food is still alive with enzymes, probiotic bacteria, and other goodies. Potter claims her kombucha (a fermented tea) can “battle pathogens”.

      As Potter demonstrates, canning—just about the least sexy word in the English language—doesn’t have to be about replicating the Green Giant’s wares for cheap.

      Nor does it have to be the onerous jar-sterilization task that The New Home Economics Omnibus, published in 1945, makes it out to be: “Should there be a queer odor when the jar is opened the food is thrown away at once.”¦These precautions are taken because of the widely spread occurrence of the botulinus organism, which is deadly.”

      Instead, Tara McDonald, executive director of Your Local Farmers Market Society, hopes that Vancouver’s young folk take up the canning flag—collectively dropped by the boomers—for the sake of the planet. But she knows there are limits.

      “A lot of young people live in apartments or small spaces, so it’s difficult to get a setup going,” McDonald told the Straight, mentioning that this can include dozens of jars, giant sterilization pots, and the space to chop and peel untold volumes of produce. “Community kitchens take it away from the small-apartment problem, but you still need a place to store all the bottles and stuff.”

      But it’s worth it, she notes. According to McDonald, in B.C., the industrial infrastructure for processing fruit and vegetables has diminished to almost nothing. The province—which could be considered Canada’s fruit bowl—was once fairly self-sufficient in terms of preserving its own produce. Now, according to a 2008 Agriculture Canada report, about a third of the preserved produce on Canadian store shelves hails from abroad.

      Plus, as Statistics Canada reported in 2008, Canadians are eating more preserved fruits than ever, at an average of 8.8 kilograms each per year.

      In other words, we’re eating a lot of canned foods. A good chunk of them are coming from other countries via pollution-spewing vehicles, so why not keep it local?

      For those with limited patience, an easy way of preserving fruit is to dump booze on it. The basic technique is to start with a clean jar, layer fruit and white sugar in equal amounts, pour rum or another type of alcohol over the whole thing, and twist on a lid. Voilí —totally doable in a condo kitchen. (For detailed instructions, check out Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation [Chelsea Green, 2007].)

      For Potter and McDonald, with the best of the region’s produce bursting into markets and stores, canning is as relevant today as ever. Plus, a can made in July is one less present to buy come December.

      Potter’s fermenting classes, offered through Radha, resume in September.

      “I don’t know why there aren’t more young people in the kitchen [cooking] altogether,” Potter said, noting that even traditional canning isn’t that difficult. “I hope it [the canning trend] is here to stay. It’s a really solid, sustainable solution. If each person puts a few cans away each summer, we can all eat more locally through the winter. We’ll be enjoying local cabbage for a long time.”