The strawberry season is in full spate, and this year’s crop looks very promising indeed. After abundant rainfall in the early spring and the recent string of warm, sunny days, our strawberry fields and gardens have filled with sweet, fragrant berries all ripening at the same time.
To collect the large crop while it’s in the best shape, the fruit farms in Slovakia invite the public to come and pick the strawberries themselves. In practice it means you’re allowed to enter the fields, eat as much as you wish, and you only pay for what you take away. You’re supposed to bring your own buckets or bowls, and pick all the strawberries in your assigned row.
Strawberries perish quickly, so you have to consume or preserve them really fast. They’re great in yoghurt, whipped cream, and all sorts of cakes. You can freeze them or make them into delicious jam. And that was what I had in mind when buying a basketful of the cheeky-red fruit from a local farmer. Besides, my supplies of home-made jam are dwindling.
Home-made Strawberry Jam
1 kg fresh, ripe strawberries
400 g granulated sugar
Wash the jars and lids separately and let them dry off on a dishtowel.
Remove the leafy tops from the strawberries. Check for any bruises or blemishes and either cut them out or discard the berry. Rinse the strawberries under running water and transfer into a bowl. Add the sugar and stir well into the berries. Cover with a lid or a dishtowel and let stand overnight in a cool place.
7. Fill each jar just below the rim, and screw on the lid while the jam is still hot. Let it cool at room temperature. A slight popping sound you hear in the cooling stage indicates that the lid has sealed well.
8. Put the cooled jars in the fridge if you prefer, but I usually keep mine in the pantry. Sugar is an excellent preservative, and if you use fresh, well-cleaned fruit and cook it to the right thickness, your jam will keep for quite a while. I recently finished a jar of Blacberry Jammade two years ago, and it was still in perfect condition.
As you can see in the photos above, we in Slovakia reuse jars from jam, honey or other preserves, like lemon curd etc. Instead of sterilizing them, we thoroughly wash the jars and lids after use, and leave them dry off. Then we will keep them with their lids on in a cool, dark place. They usually sit on a specially assigned top shelf in our pantries.
They’re springing up everywhere right now. Unlike last summer, which was extremely hot and dry, mushrooms have perfect conditions for growing this year. Warm weather and plenty of rain is what they like, so it’s no wonder our forests are filling with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. Not to mention their manifold colours and smells.
I wasn’t planning for it, but when my husband brought a sizeable batch of fleshy, aromatic chanterelles from his Saturday walk, I couldn’t resist the urge to have their golden caps preserved for colder months.
Chanterelle or kuriatko (as we call it in Slovakia) is a wild mushroom with a shiny orange colour and an unmistakable aroma. It grows in clusters from May until November and can be found in mossy places, in the grass or under leaves in our deciduous or coniferous forests. Slovaks like to preserve it as a pickle, which is a popular accompaniment to many of our dishes.
Here’s a recipe for pickled chanterelles that I adapted from a Slovak website devoted to mushroom picking.
a batch of chanterelles or ‘kuriatko’
allspice, black peppercorns
Wash and dry jars of 700 ml volume capacity.
Clean the mushrooms with a soft brush, a damp cloth or your finger. If it doesn’t remove all the forest debris, rinse them gently under a slow stream of tap water. Do not soak them, as mushrooms absorb a lot of water, which dulls their flavour.
Break the larger pieces and start laying them in the dry jars. Use the smaller chanterelles to fill in the spaces between the bigger ones. Continue until you have filled up all the jars or used all the mushrooms.
Stand the jars in a row on the table. In each one, put the pickling seasoning as follows: 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 2 allspice corns, 3 black peppercorns. If you’re using smaller jars, reduce the amount of the ingredients correspondingly.
Add 75 ml white vinegar and fill with the water up to the grooves of the jar. Again, adjust the amount of the vinegar to your jar size.
Shake gently to help spread the pickling mixture around the jar and get rid of air bubbles.
Now screw on the lids and sterilize in a boiling water canner at 100ºC for 20 minutes. Store in a dark, cool place. Once opened, keep in the refrigerator and use within a week.
I wasn’t very pleased with my last year’s attempt at elderflower cordial – I didn’t quite like its look and somewhat bitter taste but then again, I may have chosen the wrong recipe. When my friend phoned me last week saying she had more elderflowers she could possibly cope with, I was hesitant at first. But when the freshly picked elderflower heads arrived, they looked and smelt so different from last year’s crop – the clusters of creamy white flowers were sending out a wonderful summery aroma I couldn’t resist.
I knew instantly I was going to have another go at elderflower cordial, so I searched through a few English and Slovak websites before picking a recipe that looked just right to me. The end result was more than satisfying – I loved the shiny, golden hue of the cordial and its tangy-sweet flavour, which gave such a pleasingly refreshing drink when mixed with cold water.
Home-made Elderflower Cordial
2 l water
40 elderflower heads
1½ kg sugar
In a large cooking pot, bring the water to the boil and let cool down to room temperature. Trim the flowers off the firm stems, leaving the clusters intact. Squeeze the juice out of the lemons.
Soak the flowers in the cooled water, add the lemon juice and stir to combine. Cover the pot with a lid and let stand in a cool, dark place for two days.
Gently squeeze the flowers in your hands before removing them from the pot. This will ensure all the flavours and aroma are caught in the extract. Strain the extract through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pot. Discard any remaining flowers and line the sieve with a cheesecloth. Pass the extract through it to achieve a clear, shiny look.
Place the pot with the extract over a medium heat and add the sugar. Warm to about 50ºC (or until you can dip your finger in it without getting burnt). Stir all the time until the sugar has dissolved. Turn off the heat.
While still warm, pour the syrupy liquid into clean, dry bottles or jars*. Screw on the lids and stand the jars upside down or lay the bottles horizontally on a table to cool slowly and ensure a good seal.
Keep in the fridge and serve mixed with cold water as a light, refreshing summer drink.
*We in Slovakia often reuse bottles and jars from other drinks, but we’ll always make sure they’re thoroughly washed and dried before filling them again.
They grow together with bilberries in our mountains – the tiny, bright red berries of acidic, bitter-sweet flavour. At least that’s what Slovak cranberries taste like. We don’t grow cultivated species as it is so very common in America or Canada. Our cranberries are not associated with Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners. In fact, they are very difficult to get in Slovakia, as they only grow in high altitudes.
When my uncle went bilberry picking last week, he also brought back two buckets of cranberries, and was happy to share one with me. It was a precious gift worth a three-hour climb up to the picking site, and another long walk downhill with all the produce. I paid him in kind with a packet of flavourful plums and a home-made fruit pie.
As it was a mix of ripe and underripe fruits, I thought my cranberries were perfect for a compote. I have tried this recipe I found on a Slovak cooking website, which yielded 3 jars of appetizing cranberry compote.
1 kg fresh cranberries 200 ml water 350 g sugar cinnamon stick
Wash the cranberries and let them dry off. Pour the water in a cooking pot and add the sugar. Let dissolve over a low heat.
Throw in the cranberries and the cinnamon stick. Stir well and cook over a low heat for 7 – 10 minutes, or until the fruits have cracked and released juices. At this point the mixture will thicken, so remember to stir it well to prevent scorching. Take away from the heat.
Remove the cinnamon stick and ladle the compote into clean jars. Screw on the lids while the compote is still hot.* Cover the jars with a blanket to ensure slow cooling.
Test the seal by turning the jars upside down. If the lids have sealed well, there is no leakage of the jar contents and you can be sure your compote will keep for over a year. Store it in a cool, dark place. Once opened, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within two weeks. (See the previous post for more useful tips on preserving fruit.)
*Most Slovak recipes I have come across say there’s no need to sterilize cranberries, as they are very acidic and rich in pectin. However, this was the first time I’ve bottled cranberries, and I knew how much hard work had gone into collecting them, so I wanted to make sure they’ll keep in good condition until next harvest time. That’s why I sterilized my cranberry compote in the oven at 85ºC for 10 minutes.
Cranberries are seen as number one natural cure for bladder inflammation in Slovakia. They are also thought to prevent tooth decay. Given the fact they are so hard to obtain in my country, we hold cranberries in great esteem.
I used to hate preserving our garden produce when I was a child. It would come in large batches on hot summer days when all you wanted to do was chill out with friends at the pool, or go on a hiking trip in the mountains. Instead, we were stuck in the kitchen overwhelmed with apples, berries or cucumbers that had to be dealt with – or they would go bad. I didn’t care back then, I didn’t understand what the point was in having a pantry filled with jams, bottled fruit and all sorts of pickles. My disdain only lasted until I’d left home to study at university and live at students’ apartments. Oh, how much I missed those bottles!
Once I started my own family, I would take every opportunity to get fresh garden produce from a reliable source to fill my pantry with bottles of all sizes and shapes. I would phone my Mum to ask for detailed instructions and go to great lengths to achieve the same luscious flavours in my preserves as she’d had in hers. I was so proud when she praised my jam or bottled apricots on her occasional visits.
Like my Mum, I have never used any chemicals in my preserves, and yet hardly ever had them spoilt. If I found a thin layer of mildew on top of my jam on a few occasions, I just took it away carefully and wiped the rim of the jar and the lid thoroughly with a clean cloth. Once opened, I put the jam in the fridge and used it within two weeks without any harm or digestive problems whatsoever. I still believe that if you have fresh produce of good quality from a reliable source, and are careful enough to clean and prepare it well before preserving, you are fine without chemical additives. Keeping your kitchen worktops clean is also very important.
Here are a few essential rules my Mum has taught me about preserving fruit:
Before you start, wash the jars and bottles thoroughly, preferably in hot water with a few drops of washing-up liquid added. Let them dry off on a clean dish-towel.
Use firm but ripe fruit for bottling, soft and slightly overripe pieces are more suited for jam. Remember to rinse the fruit under running water, remove the stones where applicable, and cut off any blemishes.
The amount of sugar you need will depend on the fruit sweetness. A general rule is 500 g sugar for a kilo of fruit like blueberries or redcurrants. Apricots, strawberries or plums are sweeter, so you will only need 300 – 400 g sugar for a kilo of the fruit. The sweetness of fruit may vary within the same kind, so be sure to taste it before adding the sugar.
Let your preserves cool down slowly after sterilizing them in a hot water bath. You can cover them with a blanket to ensure slow cooling. To test the seal, turn the bottles/jars upside down. If the lids have sealed well, there will be no leakage of the bottle/jar contents.
And now off to making a blackberry jam. I got two buckets of blackberries from my friend’s organic garden in the mountains. They look and taste sumptuous, so I’m looking forward to the result.
Home-made blackberry jam
3 kg blackberries 1,5 kg sugar ground cinnamon (optional)
Rinse the berries on a sieve under running water and let them dry off. Depending on the size of the sieve and the amount of the berries, you may have to do that in batches.
Transfer the berries into a very large casserole. Because I wanted to make both a jelly (clear jam without pips) and a regular jam, I divided the berries into two smaller casseroles.
Add the sugar and stir well with a wooden spoon to ensure all the berries are sweetened evenly. Cover with a lid and let stand overnight in a cool place.
By the following morning the berries will have softened and released juices. Blend the sugared berries using a hand blender. Add the cinnamon if preferred (it gives the jelly/jam a nice, spicy twist) and stir well.
If you want to make a jelly, place a sieve over a deep bowl or a pot. Line the sieve with a piece of muslin and transfer some of the berries on it. Mash them with the back of a spoon to extract juices, which will collect in the bowl/pot. Repeat in batches until you have juiced all the berries. It will take some time, but you can do something else in between, or work on your jam (as I did).
Tip: Don’t discard the fruit pulp as it makes a tasty addition to fruit and chocolate cakes. I have frozen small amounts of the pulp in yoghurt tubs to use in baking.
For both jellyandjam cooking the method is the same:
Put a large, non-stick pan with a wide bottom over a low heat. Pour 2 – 3 ladles of the juice/blended berries in the pan and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The jelly/jam is of the right consistency when the spoon leaves a path behind in the pan, as seen in the picture below, right:
Blended sweetened berries
Pour 2 – 3 ladles of the blended berries in the pan.
The jam is of the right consistency when the wooden spoon leaves a path behind in the pan.
Spoon or ladle the cooked jelly/jam to a clean jar. Again pour 2 – 3 ladles of the juice/blended berries in the pan and cook in the same way. Remember the time you need to achieve the right consistency, so that all the jelly/jam is cooked to the same thickness. Add to the jar and repeat the cooking process until the jar is filled up to its grooves (see picture on the right). Wipe the brim clean and screw on the lid while the jelly/jam is still hot. This will ensure the lid seals well. A short popping sound you hear later, as well as a slightly pulled-in lid indicate a good seal.
Start filling a new jar in the same way. When you have used all the juice/blended berries and filled all the jars, leave them to cool down and store in a cold, dark place.
Once opened, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within two weeks.
When I first tried The Grand Viglas Paté, I was intrigued by the new taste and look of the red stuff that came with it. As I had no idea what it was and how it should be eaten, I spooned it on top of the patéed bread. Only later did I find out the dark red, tangy-sweet garnish was an onion marmalade.
When I started searching for a recipe on the Internet, I came across dozens of English, French and Slovak variations on onion marmalade. Finally, I decided to make my own one from food staples I found at home. The recipe I’ve put together uses basic ingredients that are likely to be on hand in each household (not only a Slovak one) at any time.
1¼ kg onion 2 tablespoons salt 500 ml apple vinegar 500 g sugar 10 allspice corns
Wash the jars thoroughly in hot water with a few drops of washing-up liquid added. Let them dry off.
Peel and thinly slice the onions. Put in a large cooking pot and stir in the salt. Leave to stand overnight in a cold, dark place.
The onions will have let out juices by the following day, so add to them the vinegar, the sugar and throw in the allspice. Stir well, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Adjust the heat and let simmer for about 1½ hour or until the onions are translucent, soft and sticky. They will have reduced in volume, and their colour will have changed as seen in the pictures below:
Use a teaspoon to remove the allspice corns if you prefer. Scoop the onion marmalade into the jars and cover with the lids. Let cool down slowly under a blanket. As they are cooling, you will hear the lids pop. At that point they will pull in slightly, which indicates a good seal. If you want to do an additional test, turn the jars upside down. The lids have sealed well, if there is no leakage of the jar contents.
Store the jars in a cool, dark place. Once opened, refrigerate it and use the jar contents within two weeks.
The amounts stated in the recipe yielded two jars (of different size) of the marmalade. I’m looking forward to trying it plain on my bread, or to pair it with our cheeses. Hopefully my family will also appreciate it with their meat.
If you use red onions and red wine vinegar, you’ll get marmalade of a deep red colour. Mmmh … sounds like another batch, perhaps?