Patricia Nell Warren

Victory Garden: Backyard Fruit Made Simple

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 22, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: patricia nell warren, urban gardens

Late summer is the biggest fruit time - a good time to talk about preserving all that wonderful taste. If you take some of my suggestions, you can keep part of your refrigerator stocked with a few containers of simple easy-to-do preserves made from your own trees in your own yard. PNW Fruit Trees 082209.jpgThe first time you treat your partner or friends to brunch with hot muffins and a fancy glass serving dish of homemade marmalade, you won't regret a minute of the effort.

Every year in the U.S., the amount of backyard fruit that goes to waste would probably feed a small country. I see this waste in Los Angeles especially, where citrus and loquats and other varieties of fruit trees have been planted everywhere in the city as ornamentals. So they bear abundant crops that simply fall on the lawn, unnoticed except by urban birds and rats. The yard guy rakes up the spoiled fruit and throws it in the trash.

But with food prices soaring, more people are suddenly discovering what money-savers these neglected trees can be. In some L.A. neighborhoods like mine, some homes (including mine) do fruit swaps so we can spread around that bounty. In Ohio or New York, a homeowner might notice that old weedy apple tree in the corner of the yard. With a little expert care (a job for your local arborist), it can be pruned and fertilized and brought back to fruit-bearing vigor.

You can plant your own fruit trees too. Even the smallest yard might have room for one or two dwarf varieties of fruit tree, if grown in the ground. Some dwarfs also do well in a large container on a patio. I have several container-grown citrus trees along a sunny east wall of my garden. They don't get very big. But hey -- my six-foot Key lime tree gives me enough of the tiny gourmet limes to make a couple of those fabulous pies every year.

Baby fruit trees don't cost much -- maybe $20 or so. And growing a fruit tree is pretty easy. Trust me. The Web abounds with information on how to plant, grow and care for fruit trees.

The challenge with a crop of fresh fruit is that it lasts only for a short time -- and it comes once a year. So you have to rush around and preserve what you can't eat.

But today not everybody has the time or the experience for the elaborate routines of canning and making jams and jellies that our grandmothers used to do -- all that boiling of glass jars so they're sterilized, etc. My own family used to do this during the Depression and World War II, and I used to help, so I know how much work it is. They knew the technology so well that they could store all their products in a cool place in the basement, where the jars of pickled peaches and other stuff would keep for nearly a year.

Today my Los Angeles corner lot has four mature fruit trees -- santa rosa plum, black mission fig, loquat and Japanese pear. They went in the ground in 1996, and are now big enough to inundate me every year.

So how do I deal with four fruit crops the easy way?

The French Solution

For me, one solution is an updated version of an old French process called the confit.

The French, especially country people, are universal geniuses about food and storing food - and they used this method for centuries before they had refrigeration. The word means "to conserve." A confit (pronounced cone-fee) essentially preserves a produce item by keeping it infused in, and covered by olive oil, or vinegar, or brine. Those little jars of capers or olives that you see in the supermarket are a type of confit.

Cooked meat can also be preserved this way, but you have to know what you're doing. In southern France, they make wonderful confits of duck and pork, which are kept from spoiling due to airtight-covered in lard or goose fat.

In a fruit confit, sugar is the preserving medium. Those little jars of crunchy candied fruits you buy at Christmas time are a type of confit. But fruit confit can also be syrupy - as long as you keep the fruit well-covered with the syrup so oxygen doesn't get to it.

For fruit confit, all you need is sugar, a lemon, a saucepan, a big container - and a few minutes every few days.

At mid-July my plum tree was literally bending double with dark-red luscious plums.

Our household can only eat so many fresh ones. I might do a couple batches of cobbler, or a fave French fruit dessert called clafouti. But it's hard to stay ahead of the landslide of ripening fruit, and there are always windfalls hitting the ground behind my back.

So the rest of the plums went into my annual confit. Every couple of days I picked the ripest plums and gathered up a couple dozen windfalls. These may be a little bruised, but that doesn't spoil them for confit.

Wash them gently and keep them whole and unpitted. Put them in a large saucepan with a little water, granulated sugar to cover them, and 2 tbsps. of lemon juice. Bring them to a boil slowly, so the sugar dissolves without scorching. Let the plums simmer gently for 30 minutes, or more, in the ruby-red thick syrup that develops, till the juices have reduced. Don't stir, so the plums keep their shape and are totally infused with the syrup.

When they're tender, set the saucepan aside to cool. Then add the batch to what's already in your confit container.

The French used to store confits in big glazed wide-mouth pottery jars. Today the antique ones are highly collectible, and cost hundreds of dollars. Me, I use a large 1-gallon glass jar, or a big plastic container with a good lid. To be on the safe side, I store my confit in the refrigerator. It keeps a lot longer that way.

When my plum tree is done bearing by the end of July, I have a gallon of plum confit that will keep for several months. As a midwinter treat, it brings back that magical taste of warm summer days. Serve it over waffles or pancakes, or vanilla ice cream, or a custard. Or use it as a base for cobbler, even a pie or tart filling (just remember that the plums still have the pits in).

I also do a confit with my black mission figs. Again, the secret is to simmer the figs very gently in the syrup, and avoid stirring so they don't lose their shape.

I knew a California guy who loved figs so much that he collected dozens of different rare varieties. He kept them growing in 20-gallon pots, and fertilized them well. So he had several rows of magnificent potted fig trees filling his patio. It was a very unusual "orchard," and the trees never got very big. But every year he got a couple dozen fruits off each one, and enjoyed his edible symphony of different tastes.

Fruit Butters Are Easy Too

Another easy way to preserve backyard fruit is the kind of "butter" that doesn't come from cows. Apple butter is the classic, but you can make a butter with pears, peaches, apricots and many others. This year, butter is where I'm going with my Japanese pears and loquats.

For those who know the loquat, it's a wonderful rugged-but-easy-to-grow tree. Once it was native to south China, but today it's popular in subtropical climes all over the world. The loquat is a contrary spirit - it puts out its honey-scented sprays of ivory-colored blossoms in the fall, and sets its tangy yellow clusters of fruit in spring. The taste is somewhere between apricot and pineapple.

Fruit butter is a little more work, since you have to puree the cooked fruit pulp and add spices and such. Our grandmothers had to push fruit butter through a sieve to puree it. But today there are blenders and fancy gourmet food mills that turn puree-making into a breeze. And you can still store a quart of fruit butter in the fridge in a clean glass jar or plastic container.

Google can be searched for good recipes for fruit butter.

Marmalade Isn't Just for the British

For those very fortunate Bilerico readers who have citrus trees in their yards, a few jars of marmalade aren't too hard to make either, if you are a bit more ambitious. Motivate yourself by checking the price on a jar of your better American-made brand of marmalade at Trader Joe's. Then go online and look for the world's most expensive marmalade, made by the British firm Duerr's. Ingredients: Seville oranges, 62-year-old whiskey and Pol Roger champagne. It costs £5,000 for a 1kg jar.

The operational ingredient of marmalade is sugar, of course, and very thin slices of the whole fruit. So you're including the fragrant oily skin (called zest) as well as the bitter rind along with the sweet pulp. This combination of flavors is what gives marmalade its unique texture and tang. Any type of citrus will do - lemons, limes and grapefruit as well as oranges. I've made them all.

The thing that distinguishes marmalade from other jams is a little of that natural fruit jelling substance called "pectin." There are two types of jelling stuff in nature. The kind used in jello and other desserts is a clarified animal product, from bones and such. But pectin is a plant jell, found in apples and some other fruits. It's what makes the fruit mixture "set up."

Search on Google to collect recipes for home-made marmalade. There are lots of them - including a fabulous roster of recipes here.

Last But Not Least...

You're probably wondering about berries. They do deserve a brief mention. But they are so fragile that they're best preserved in jams and jellies (see Google for recipes).

For urban gardens, berries are seldom practical, because a patch of raspberry or blueberry or gooseberry plants takes up a lot of room. Some berry plants are thorny or prickly too, not fun to deal with as they start throwing those long arching canes. But if you're a rural gardener and have the room, knock yourself out on berries.

In my urban garden, I do have a corner for alpine strawberries. They're a fun variety called "Fragissimo," with fragrant pink blossoms and a hanging-plant kind of habit. The fruit has that intense wild-strawberry flavor, and there's enough to put in a bowl of granola now and then. Worth having, but never enough for preserves.

Back to trees, and the bigger picture.

Planting a few fruit trees will not only enrich your own life and your own environment, but it will make a wonderful legacy for oncoming generations. Fruit trees can live to a great old age. The globe is dotted with some famous and historic ones. In Spain, the orange trees of Seville, especially those in the patio of the great mosque, are centuries old. In England, some sweet chestnut trees have got up to 1000 years. In northeast China, there is an ancient sacred pear tree that is said to be 3000 years old.

My personal tree-legacy story comes from the Montana ranch where I grew up. We inherited several crab-apple trees at an abandoned homesteader site on the west side of the river. They'd been planted in the late 1800s by a family named Keating. Nothing was left of the Keating house but a few foundation stones - but these hardy trees had weathered on, year after year without any care, even through the worst winters and the great drought of the 1930s. They always bore a heavy crop of the sweetest rosy-red crab-apples I've ever eaten. Every year at preserve-making time, my grandmother and my mom would drive over there and collect a bushel of fruit to make crab-apple preserves.

Not long ago I checked that part of the ranch on Google Earth, and those trees are still there. Hail to Pomona, great goddess of fruit trees!

Okay, okay - if you're a little nervous about planting trees, you can take the shortcut to your city's farmer's market. There you can buy inexpensive, locally-grown sun-ripened fruit in season. So you will still have that dish of homemade confit or marmalade that will make your brunches famous in the whole LGBT universe. And you'll still save money.

Best of all, you'll help transform the human regions on Earth into a greener and thriftier place.

_________________________

Photo by Tyler St. Mark


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Wow, that was a delicious wealth of information. Unfortunately even apple picking near me is further away than it used to be. I like the idea of patio planting though and i am definitely stopping by the grocers for some apple butter today. I really had no idea of the work that went into preparation so i will enjoy tasting it all the more. Thanks.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 22, 2009 6:14 PM

Patricia, that was fascinating! Thanks for sharing. (I love loquats! Wish I had a tree nearby.) And it is amazing how much good fruit goes to waste in back and front yards, while people buy the same from markets.

Yes, a famous actor recently was quoted as saying, "We don't need farms anymore --- we have everything imaginable available in the local grocery store." What was he thinking? Did he think that all that fresh produce grows right there in the store?

By the way, this leads to a political-economic statement, which I hope is not too far afield: America needs its agricultural industry. If we import all our food someday, then we will be as dependent upon foreign countries as we are now dependent on the OPEC (and other) countries for petroleum products. If America didn't have food and grain to export, or balance of trade deficit figures would be even worse! Agriculture is ultimately a national security issue.

(Patricia, I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I hope you agree. And BTW, this is not to say that the American farm subsidy programs aren't screwed up and in need of serious fixing.)

A.J., I agree with you 110 percent. I grew up in agriculture and think we have sold our country's ability to feed itself down the river.

We now import a hefty percentage of what we eat from other countries, in the interests of free trade. In the process, not only have thousands of family farms and ranches been put out of business, but the land they lost has been rolled over into corporate agriculture or -- worse still -- developed. Example: California, which is one of the richest agricultural regions on earth, but its wonderful volcanic soil is being paved over at a rapid rate. It's a stupid, stupid policy maintained by both political parties over half a century. Worse than stupid...it's a crime.

I mentioned the French above. They are highly protective of their agriculture and, until just recently (according to WorldWatch Institute), were able to feed their entire population on what was grown within French borders. Maybe it's because the French haven't forgotten World War II and the hard times that followed.

One of the best European traditions was to surround your house with a garden, no matter how small your yard was -- even a few flowers for cutting. It was a tradition that the USA returned to during World War II -- the victory garden. Time to get back to this kind of reality.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 24, 2009 5:55 AM

Patricia, your article brought back rosy memories of my mother and my partner's mother creating magnificent preserves of all types. Other than bananas we ate fruits of the season or those preserved.

I'll share our Christmas dessert recipe with you for brandied peaches.

After canning (in September) drain all sweet "water" off the peaches in a quart Ball container. Fill the container with inexpensive brandy. Place the lid on top and store in the back of the refrig to allow the peaches to absorb the lovely brandy for three months.

Serve a single half in a sherbet dish with raspberry jam and pour a few tablespoons of the fruity brandy overall.

You are very right about the need to move food closer to people and there is work underway to do so in urban "vertical farms" that would be multi story with natural light sources allowing for considerable produce to be grown, minus the cost of transportation, and further greening our urban centers. You can google the words for more information. That is only one part of the solution of course, but time will tell how we deal with the urban food crisis to come where many foods are unavailable due to transport costs. It is a brave new world where we will have to relearn what mother knew. "I will only buy fruits in season." A vertical farm will permit longer seasons and lower costs. I fear without this we will be importing more foodstuffs all the time. Just in South Florida I witnessed two orange groves near us fall to developers of houses now surely empty. One was the oldest grove in Palm Beach county and there was not a single voice to keep it as a bit of living history. I was incensed by this because so few people cared. I spoke out to the mayor about it but he was in the pocket of the developers.

Wisdoms Womyn,
You are as always a powerful Medicine Womyn. Caring for GrandMother Earth and her families which in turn teaches how to care for the humans.
My only grumble is that I am not there to enjoy the harvest with you. (giggle)
While in Harlem with many other emergency thinkers, in the days of riots, we saw peoples hungry, angry and tired. Later many began the city roof top gardens, pot food (nutrition), and vacant lots that transformed to communities of abundance and freedom from the 'man'. It was a true coming home.

EarthThunder

Folks, as I read this article and then all the comments you folks have administered from days to long gone. I am heartened by the input from all of you. I just moved from a rental in the town on the other side of the Interstate (5) to a 1952 stick built on ¼ acre of ground. I had a normal front yard now a formal Rose Garden to get past that brown patch all the neighbors seen to put up with between July and September. So what does a then single guy do with all that space? Simple just go nuts on it at 6’4” I am not inclined to get on my knees for much these days (well there are exceptions). I mapped my city farm into eighteen areas in order to keep a journal on my progress. So I moved my Rhododendrons and Forest Ferns to a raised bed 55 feet long then built a second to match with a 3 foot isle for the Apple, Cherry, and Plum trees spaced between with Rhubarb. Another 3 foot isle and 8 more boxes with an isle between for 5 by 10 foot raised beds (each bed is 3 2 by 6 high) held in place with rebar in the ground keeps the walls from bowing out. This is my veggie garden. Right now the Blueberries are about done for the season. Cat cannot catch the Starlings but does a great job of trying and keeping them out of my garden. Zucchini and Yellow Squash are just starting as I raised the plants from seed. Broccoli from seed are now showing their real vigor and leaves. Ever bearing Strawberries were planted late but now enjoying a handful most every day. Next spring I expect Rhubarb – Strawberry Cobbler. I have made my Pepper Dill Pickles and soon will be enjoying German Mustard Pickles made in earthen crocks all rescued from grandma’s house when non of my siblings were interested in much of anything except waging wars between all involved. Honey Bees are delightfully happy to have all this work to do. The Cane Berries are about done but there are Blackberries to munch on as I come back to the house. I built my garden much like an English Maze. You cannot got forward to any place in the garden without turning corners. Currently building another box along the west fence that will hold my grapes and semi-dwarf Cherry trees of which I intend to fasten onto rebar between steel “T” posts. I gave the Flowering Crabapple tree a major haircut on Sunday afternoon. I removed overlaying branches and short stubbies from the whacking it has been given in past years. This one is busy making fruit for great jelly that is very tart to the taste. So next year I expect the 8 boxes (2 foot wide by 14 long) to produce Boysenberries, Marion Berries, Black Raspberries, Himalaya Thornless Black Berries, and late summer Red Raspberries. As I survey my little farm in the city I can safely say that there isn’t a time during the summer from May to October that there isn’t something to munch on when friends drop in.

All I can say is...wow. All that on a quarter acre in the city. I wish we could all see it.

John R. Selig | August 24, 2009 8:07 PM

For those of you who have not been as fortunate as I to have had the opportunity to eat at Patricia's table, not only is she an amazing author and a master of the garden Patricia is also one heck of a great cook! One never goes hungry when Patricia is in the kitchen and everything she makes is a treat especially when it features the latest fresh pickings from her glorious garden!

Loquat is for cough and lung in Chinese medicine. Sometimes i would take the Ninjiom Pei Pa Koa (a famous loquat syrup) when got scratchy throat.

You can access info online @
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nin_Jiom_Pei_Pa_Koa
ninjiom.50webs.com