One of my most vivid memories of early childhood was observing my family preserving tomatoes for use in their Northern Italian/Slovenian cuisine. We always had an outing to vegetable producing farm to start with where we would pick a few boxes of tomatoes. Hot and lengthy work outside down near the barbecue underneath the nectarine tree. I hated these days, thinking we really should be down the beach like all our Anglo Australian friends. Even so, we pulled together as a family unit to produce a kitchen essential in our cuisine. My parents preserved tomato puree in sterilised beer bottles. Mum had a hand cranking machine that would pour tomato puree down a chute into a big pot. All the seeds and skins would spew out the other end. When we had enough in that huge pot, it was time to fill beer bottles using a funnel and ladle. Dad would put a new beer bottle cap on the bottle and press it down in a purpose built press. The filled bottles would then be wrapped up in several layers of newspaper and carefully placed into the immigrant’s preferred home bottling (canning to my American readers) unit which was the old copper boiler. Mum and dad had an old copper which they kept exclusively for the annual tomato preservation. The copper would be filled with water and slowly heated up to create a vacuum seal on the beer bottles. Dad would sit up late on preserving nights, checking on the copper. One batch of bottled tomato puree usually did us for a year. I also recall from very early on seeing mum using Vacola bottling jars in the kitchen for the odd bit of preserving she did along the year. My auntie did the same from her copious vegetable garden which took up nearly all their house block. Post war immigrants had it tough. Luckily for us today, my parents brought their canny survival skills to Australia and passed on this priceless heritage to my brother and I. The best gift my late parents handed to my brother Robbie and myself is the gift of independence and ingenuity.
Fowler’s Vacola home bottling (canning) system was invented in 1915 by a Scottish immigrant to our shores. “Vacola” as it has been known colloquially for many years, was the mainstay of the thrifty household where no food from the garden was wasted at all. When I became married, one of the first purchased we did was to acquire a Fowler’s Vacola stainless steel preserving outfit. I am still using this kit to this very day, 34 years later. Mind you, when I married the glory box was the mainstay of a new household preparation. Linens, pots and pans and other assorted household items were slowly purchased and added to the glory box in preparation for setting up a household as a married person. Another important purchase at the time was a sewing machine to make and mend clothes – something that is a foreign concept to many younger, affluent people today. The “Vacola” was a highly desirable acquisition too.
Whilst I do not do any preserving in the old copper which I have faithfully kept to this day, my late summer/early autumn activities in the kitchen center on preserving the harvest from our vegetable garden. We have been slowly picking tomatoes from our abundantly producing bushes and ripening the tomatoes on the back verandah table. I don’t like to leave the tomatoes to fully ripen on the bush because we have domestic and bush rats that turn up at night and eat chunks out of the fruit. We live in the country on one acre. Besides, tomatoes do not need sun to ripen because they actually ripen with air temperature. I had around five kilograms of tomatoes to deal with with the first pick, plus a nice bunch of home grown basil too. As the season progresses, there will be more tomatoes to pick. I preserved a second batch of tomatoes two days ago.
Time to preserve in the “Vacola” ….. This is how I do it. Please purchase a Vacola preserving book from the company if you wish to find out more and read up on the technical details such as preserving times and temperatures and what should be an activity in every household in Australia. Fowlers Vacola have a neat website where you can buy all your preserving equipment: www.fowlersvacola.com.au. Please note: I have no vested interest in this company at all. I just use their products and will do so all my life.
I selected the “Size 31” jars for this job as I know these jars take around one kilogram of tomatoes. Just the ticket for my job today. Thoroughly wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water. Rinse with hot water and stand the jars upside down on the sink. I never use a tea towel to wipe the jars as I do not want to cross contaminate. I use a freshly opened roll of kitchen towel. The rubber rings in this instance are “size 4” which suit the size jar I am using. Soak the rings in warm water for 10 minutes before stretching them around the indentation at the top of the jar. Do as I do and place the jar on a clean tea towel to stop the jar sliding off into the stratosphere.Make sure the rings are not twisted at all. Inspect all the way around the jar.
Wash and drain the tomatoes. Drop them in small batches into a pot of boiling water for around 30 seconds. This process facilitates easy peeling.
Halve the skinned tomatoes and drop them, cut side down into a Vacola jar. Add washed and drained basil leaves throughout the laying process.
The tomatoes will have lots of gaps in the jar (1st photograph). Make a fist and press down into the jar to compact the tomatoes. Slide a knife down the side and push towards the center of the jar contents to expel any air gaps. The last photo shows what the filled jar should look like – nice and full with loads of squishy juice. Add one tablespoon of lemon juice as a lot of modern tomatoes are low acid.
Just some minor bubbles to expel. Top right: slide on the clip. Press down the clip until it clicks into position on the jar. You will hear that distinct clip noise as the clip presses down to hold the lid on. Bottom photo: check that the lid is horizontal to the top of the jar and that the clip is in place. This checking is important to ensure that the lid is in the correct position for a successful preservation.
Place the preserving outfit onto the sink just as I have. Make sure the emptying spigot is placed over the actual sink for ease of emptying out after preservation has been completed. Placed the inspected jars into the outfit and use a pot to fill up the outfit until the jars are covered by at least 5 centimeters of water. Set the preserver to the correct temperature and also set the timer to let you know when the preservation is complete. In my stainless steel preserving unit, I set the temperature at “Hold Boil” for one hour. After one hour, I have to turn off the unit and leave it totally undisturbed for another hour. This process with my particular unit stops the tomatoes from fermenting.
After I leave the tomatoes to sit in the unit for one hour, I turn on the spigot to start emptying the outfit water into the sink. Use the Vacola tongs to remove the jars from the outfit. Place the jars onto a wooden board. Using a tea towel, press down onto the center of the jars to consolidate the vacuum seal. Leave the jars as they are for around 18 hours with the clips on. Sometimes I forget to remove the clips for a few days. No harm done. During this time, the jars will cool right down, forming a nice vacuum seal. Remove the clips and label the jars. I always date my produce. Don’t rip off the clips – slide them off so they do not disturb the vacuum sealed lid. Store in a cool, dark place.
Here are some other preserves I have in my pantry at the moment. Roasted red peppers on the left. Corn relish, followed by roasted red pepper and capers. On the right, a nice Italian style antipasto pickle.
The sky is the limit with preserving. Why buy value added, ready made food when you can preserve at home? Honestly, in this day and age with our cost of living and with approximately 3 million Australians living beneath the poverty line, home preserving should be the focus of many households.
All of us should strongly consider growing and preserving our food. A cousin in Slovenia assured me a couple of years ago that growing vegetables at home is the “national past time” in his country due to the economic situation. I have come to the conclusion that this country cannot continue to hand out welfare like it has in the recent past, due to near sighted crisis management policies on a government level that is increasingly struggling with an increasing aging population and not enough taxes to support everyone in comfort in a manner all of us have taken for granted in this bounteous country. Nip this situation in the bud and start gardening. If you have a bit of access to some dirt or some big plant pots, start growing what you need for the remainder of your life – food. If you don’t know how to go about it, visit the library and borrow some basic starter gardener books and read up. If you know a gardener, ask question as gardeners are usually quite generous people with information sharing. The internet is a great place to start with a gardening question.
Why purchase vegetables when you can grow you own for a fraction of the cost? This last question is a no brainer. The quality of home preserves cannot be matched with any commercially prepared alternative. The crushed, peeled tomatoes jars I prepared and wrote about in this blog contain no sugar and definitely no salt; just organically grown tomatoes, basil and lemon juice – all grown here at home. Give your taste buds a real treat and turn those food miles into food meters from your vegetable patch to the back door and into the kitchen. The cost of living inevitably rises. We must start taking more responsibility for our food sourcing and consider alternatives that my cash strapped ancestors and parents did. It works.