Preserving food has always been a bit of a disaster for me. I tried to preserve jam, I got mould. I tried to smoke salmon, I got ill.
I tried to make bresaola once, that thinly sliced, slightly spicy, delicious air-dried beef. I got hold of the best topside of beef money could buy, spent two weeks bathing it lovingly in salt, sugar and half a bottle’s worth of Barolo, massaging juniper berries into its tender flesh and turning it twice daily.
I was attentive, I made accurate measurements, I cancelled nights out to check on its progress.
“This will delight my friends at dinner parties for years to come,” I thought, smugly. I hung it just as the recipe suggested, in a cool place. At the end of weeks of anxiety, I brought it down, excited to finally taste its splendour. But something had gone horribly wrong.
What I uncovered was a creature that, in both appearance and odour, resembled a very shrivelled, very diseased, very dead rat. That was when I decided to give up on fancy preservation techniques and just bung things in the freezer instead. Sorry, dinner party pals, it’s goodbye cured meats, hello reheated sludge.
But recent news about how much food we waste has made me reconsider food preservation.
The environmental impact of the waste is bigger than you might think. If we bought only as much as we consume, it would save million of tons of carbon a year.
It might sound like something your gran did during the war to make the food rations stretch further, but keeping food preserved in sterilised jars is a great way to reduce waste.
Made too much dinner? Just whack the leftovers in a jar. Need to prepare food in advance of a big event? Use a big jar! You get home late and can’t be bothered to cook – there’s a jar for that.
But what if, like me, you’re worried you might introduce the next pandemic of bubonic plague to the world?
Enter Estelle Durand and Vincent Déry, a catering duo who’ve worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in both London and France, and now run their own catering business. They have become very passionate about the process of preserving food in jars since they joined forces with Le Parfait, the jar manufacturers.
“People want to conserve and preserve for ecological reasons and to save money, but cooking in jars is becoming fashionable again as well, because it is like the modern technique of sous-vide, but it also connects us to older traditions,” Estelle explains in a pretty French accent.
She has a point, with cupcakes and baking becoming all the rage for hip, postmodern feminists, surely jam-making and potted terrines will be a natural follow-up?
“When Vincent and I first started experimenting with Le Parfait, we thought all you could do was jams and pickles, because the sugar, salt or alcohol will keep the food from going off,” explains Estelle, “but actually it’s a very versatile technique and very easy to make all kinds of food, like terrines and stews, baby food, soups – anything, really, as long as it is properly sterilised.”
I peer dubiously at a pot of chunky brown gunk. One of a selection of dishes Estelle and Vincent prepared earlier, four weeks earlier to be precise.
“What’s that?” I ask, pointing gingerly at the potted substance.
“It’s venison stew.”
The stew looks very thick and hearty, and brown, and lumpy.
“Stew,” I nod.
“You always need a liquid base, because air means bacteria, but the liquid can be anything; oil, wine, a broth, water, anything. You don’t need to throw the liquid away either. You can use it for stocks or sauces.”
Vincent begins to show me how to make the stew. He takes red chunks of prime venison, coating them in flour, which will thicken the sauce later. He then adds the meat to a base of chopped fried onions, carrots and celery, garlic, paprika, cumin, sherry and smoky bacon.
“They all go well with the rich smoky flavour of the meat, they help to give it a boost,” explains Vincent, who has a passion for hunting out top-quality ingredients.
“The better the quality, the easier it makes the life of the chef.” It smells delicious, and when Estelle dollops out the dun-coloured pre-made version, it tastes good too – rich, gamey and smoky, just like Vincent said. My friends/taste testers/victims give it a thumbs-up.
“We think that the food actually tastes better if left for some time,” says Estelle. Even with no air? “Yes. Even though they are sterilised, a process still takes place where the flavours combine. Like, if you made a terrine, it will not taste good if you eat it the same day, but if you leave it the flavours will mingle and become more complex.”
Vincent dices Chegworth Valley apples to make a toffee and apple sponge, which is actually cooked in the jars as they boil. He takes equal amounts of dark muscovado sugar and maple syrup and combines with double that amount of double cream (about 125g, 125g and 250g respectively) and boils the calorific goo until it’s frothy and oozing, then lets it simmer for five minutes.
We layer the apples and toffee into the bottom of the jars, then pipe a simple sponge mixture over the top. We seal the jars and leave them to boil for about an hour. I like the idea of being able to whip out a set of individual puddings in cute little jars for unexpected guests, making me look like a culinary goddess, but they are so easy to prepare, you could probably just whip them up on the spot.
We taste the samples they prepared earlier. The toffee sauce is sticky and so sweet it aches, the simple sponge is light and moist. While one of the taste-testers describes it as “the best thing I’ve ever tasted in a jar”, another decides that actions speak louder than words, and is mutely shovelling the third jar of pudding down his gullet.
My verdict is less enthusiastic: it doesn’t taste old, but it hasn’t gained anything from being stored away for four weeks either.
A third recipe of salmon fillets in oil with fennel, shallots, preserved lemon and dill probably benefits most from a long marinade. Like the puddings, it’s boiled for an hour, which simultaneously sterilises and cooks the ingredients.
Nordic flavours are very fashionable right now and the ingredients are all easy to get hold of, Vincent tells me, although today we have to substitute dried dill for the fresh stuff, much to his chagrin.
They recommend serving it with toasted bread, adding some of the oil from the jar as a dressing.
I feel confident that I could replicate the recipes by myself, but a glance at the Le Parfait instructions makes me worried about sterilising the jars: “If the lid doesn’t stay airtight once the clamp is unfastened, or if the sealing cap doesn’t stay airtight to the terrine once the lid is unscrewed... or more generally if you have any doubt on the state of your preserve, throw it away: do not eat it and do not taste even a small bite.”
For someone who wants to use the jars to avoid wasting food, the risk of spoilage might put them off. “As long as you follow the instructions carefully there won’t be any problems,” insists Estelle. I ask if she has ever had the food go off. “Only once or twice,” she says. Two weeks later, I crack open the salmon confit. The taste is subtle and balanced. The oil is infused with the fresh, savoury taste of the dill and lemon, and the fennel slices make a pretty garnish. I dish the salmon out in big lumps and serve with a simple salad of capers and rocket. My friends are impressed. “I preserved it! Anyone can do it!” I exclaim, basking in the undeserved glory. “In fact, I’m even thinking of graduating to cured meat next, maybe bresaola....” – The Independent