A little Aussie bottler

 Photo: Rodger Cummins

As the Royal Canberra Show approaches, many skilled home gardeners will be preserving fruit and vegetables for display. This is a noble art.

Bottling surplus fruit has been a key pursuit of both town and country folk for many, many years. Prior to the invention of fruit in sealed tins, the glass bottle served as one of very few options for preserving the goodness of the harvest for the winter months. European families have maintained this tradition for centuries and Australian pioneering families took up this same tradition because of the abundant fruit crops that could be grown in many rural areas.

We have kept this tradition in my family, using the Australian-made Fowler preserving unit, bottles and accessories. The unit that my mother had in her days on the farm at Burgooney was a metal one that sat on top of the wood-fired stove. A thermometer was placed into the side of the barrel and it needed to be watched constantly, to avoid either overheating or undercooking.

The modern preserving units run on electricity and we have found our Australian-made unit to be excellent. My wife Noreen has perfected this art, passed down from her grandmother.

Preserving well allows you to maximise nutritional value and goodness of the fruit. If you can grow or source good quality harvest fruit, it is a low-cost option for providing wonderful wintertime meals and desserts.

Joseph Fowler began manufacturing home-preserving kits in the cellar of his Camberwell home in Melbourne in 1915. The quality of his product meant that a factory would be opened in Hawthorn just five years later and Australian families took to this way of preserving quality, ripe fruit in the days before home refrigerators. The key elements were to fully vacuum seal the bottle, use a sugar syrup to preserve the fruit and complete the preserving process at the correct high temperature treatment to ensure good, safe preservation of the fruit.

The steps for preserving are quite simple if followed closely. Fill the jars with raw, fresh fruit (or sliced vegetables) add sugar syrup or natural fruit juices, seal and place into the preserving unit. The unit is filled with cold water and simply switched on for a set period. The electric thermostat will ensure the water heats to the correct temperature and stays at that point. These days, it takes just 60 minutes in the modern electric unit and the preserving job is done. Select only good fruit; ripe but still firm. Wash the fruit in cold water to remove dust and any residual orchard sprays. Wash under running water or use a colander; washing small quantities at a time to avoid bruising. Use either full fruits (such as plums and cherries) or halves with the seed removed (such as apricots and peaches). Pears are excellent for preserving; cut large pears into several segments removing the pith and seeds. Cut away any small skin blemishes. For pears, add some citric acid or lemon juice to the syrup.

Preserve bottles use a rubber ring around the neck of the bottle. Make sure the ring is new or near new. The ring serves to let air out during the heating process but it then provides a vacuum seal for when the contents later cool down. Make sure that both the jar and the ring are high quality. And make sure the ring does not get twisted when fitting it to the jar.

Pack the fruit quite firmly into the jar. Fill it with the sugar or fruit juice solution. Some people like to use a mild honey solution; if you wish to try this, replace the amount of sugar with the equivalent amount of honey. Use a wooden or plastic flat shaped packing stick to press the fruit down and to ensure that there are no air bubbles. Leave only a 12-millimetre airspace at the top of the bottle before sealing. Place the metal lid onto the jar and use two spring metal clips to clamp the lid.

Once you have filled a number of jars, they are all to be placed inside the preserving unit. The larger unit will take 12 tall jars or eight shorter, fatter jars. The smaller home unit will hold six taller jars. Fill the unit with cold water then switch on the electricity (or heat up the stove). The optimal preserving temperature is 92C.

Heat for the required time then remove the sealed bottles using a pair of bottle tongs to avoid burning of your hands. The bottles are then cooled, preferably sitting on a wooden board or rack. We have always turned the bottles upside down for this cooling process. Leave undisturbed overnight and then turn the jars upright and remove the clips.

Store your preserves in a cool, dark place. This will help with the retention of colour, flavour and nutrition. If done well, home preserves can retain peak levels of nutrition for at least 12 months. Check your preserves each month for signs of faulty sealing or underprocessed fruits. In such cases the fruit will begin to grow moulds and will need to be discarded.

In the garden

■ If you have some space, plant out a row of bush beans, beetroot, silverbeet, radish and frilly open lettuces. These will produce crops before the cold days of mid-autumn.

■ Plant seeds for winter crops of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts into seed raising trays.

■ Collect up fallen fruit from under your fruit trees. Good windfalls can be cooked but dispose of damaged fruit that has been lying on the ground for a time.

■ Keep up deep watering of your vegetable beds and fruit trees during these hot weeks of summer.

■ Turn your compost, adding in grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps and available animal manures.

>> Owen Pidgeon runs the organic Loriendale Orchard near Hall.