My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 7 – Harvest and Preserving

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management

Summer and Fall in Niagara are the time for harvest and to enjoy the bounty of nature. At the same time, the smart cook is looking for ways to extend the harvest so that it’s produce will last into the late fall and winter when fruits and vegetables would not have been easy to come by locally.

Mrs. Beeton has reserves two chapters of her book – chapters 36 and 37 – to all things related to preserves, jams, pickles and store sauces.

Mrs. Beeton tells us that: “All methods of preservation are put in practice occasionally for fruits and the various parts of vegetables, according to the nature of the species, the climate, the uses to which they are applied, etc. Some are dried, as nuts, raisins, sweet herbs, etc.; others are preserved by means of sugar, as, for example, many fruits whose delicate juices would be lost by drying; some are preserved by means of vinegar, and chiefuly used as condiments or pickles; a few also by salting, as French beans; while others are preserved in spirits.”

She goes on to elaborate on the importance of finding ways to preserve fruit due to its importance in the daily diet. If fresh fruit cannot be had, then preserved fruit will need to fill that dietary gap!

For the new household manager, Mrs. Beeton thankfully provides ample advice on how to go about preserving fruit – mostly in sugar as preserves. Here are the things you need to know about the best home method for preserving fruit:

  • Fruits intended for preservation should be gathered in the morning, in dry weather, with the morning sun upon them if possible. This is when they are at their fullest flavour and will keep in good condition longer that when gather at any other time.
  • Until fruit can be used, it should be placed in the dairy, an ice-house or a refrigerator. In an ice-house it will remain fresh and plump for several days.
  • Fruit gathered in wet or foggy weather will soon mildew and be of no service for preserves unless it is used immediately and very thoroughly boiled, when it may be made into preserve or jam that will keep, though of course of inferior quality.
  • There is no mistake more common than to suppose that any half-ripe or over-ripe fruit is good enough for jam.

As sugar is one of the main ingredients in preserves, we are provided with a full page of instruction on the best kind of sugar to use for this purpose.

According to Mrs. Beeton: “ A well-known writer says: “Sugar-candy is the purest form of sugar; white loaf sugar comes next; then the pale, dry, large grained crystallized sugars; while all the moist sugars are of inferior purity, invariably containing not only water and uncrystallized sugar, but also mineral and organic compounds. They are not infrequently infested by small insects, the sugar mite, many thousands of which have been detected in a single pound of brown sugar.”

This is then followed by a long ad fairly complicated explanation of the pros and cons of a whole array of sugars. The final conclusion however is that white, refined lump sugar is sold specifically for preserving and really the only kind to be used on delicate fruit anyway.

Now that we know what the two main ingredients are – fruit and sugar – the domestic manager needs now to know how to put them all together to the best ends. This includes how to make a syrup of the sugar. A few key takeaways from this section of the Book of Household Management:

  • The syrup should be two parts sugar to one part water.
  • This mixture should be boiled until it thickens and pours with a similar consistency to oil.
  • Care should be taken not to burn the sugar.
  • Some of the best fruits to be preserved in a simple syrup are apricots, nectarines, apples, greengages, plums of all kinds, and pears.

Next in the order to preserving fruits is making jam or marmalade. Mrs. Beeton tells us that “the term marmalade is applied to those confitures which are composed of the firmer fruits, as pineapples or the rinds of oranges; whereas jams are made of the more juicy berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, currants, mulberries, etc.

Advice from Mrs. B. on jams and marmalades can be distilled down to the following:

  • Jams require the same care and attention in the boiling as marmalade. Care must be taken not to burn it.
  • While jams can be bought relatively cheaply, any housekeeper who wants good jams should make them herself.
  • A preserving pan or maslin-kettle and a long wooden soon are necessary tools for this task.
  • The ratio of sugar to fruit is usually ¾ lb to 1 lb of sugar for each pound of fruit.
  • The jars used to preserve the jams should be clean and dry and kept in a clean and dry cupboard or pantry.

The chapter goes on to provide advice on jellies, candied and crystallized fruits, and fruit pastes – which we are told are out of date at the present (1912).

The other well-known method of preservation is pickling – fruits or vegetables steeped in vinegar previously boiled with spices, to which is frequently added salt and sugar, in quantities varied according to taste. Mrs. Beeton mentions that pickles are so easy to purchase that most housekeepers don’t take the trouble to make their own unless absolutely necessary.

The most common pickled vegetables are cabbage, cauliflower, chillies, gherkins, onions and walnuts.

In the case of pickles we are given the following advice:

• To make pickles successfully, the vegetables or fruit must be perfectly dry, fresh and not over-ripe.
• Vinegar should be boiled in an enamelled pan. Never use copper vessels for boiling vinegar for pickles.

Once out intrepid household managers have been provided with this useful advice, she has then been provided with 58 pages of recipes for making jams, jellies, pickles and preserves of all sorts from apple and blackberry jam to worcester sauce!

My copy of the Book of Household Management has three recipes (Black currant jam, Cherries, to preserve, and Rhubard jam) that have been marked with an “X” and some handwritten notes – a testament to the previous owner’s use of these recipes!

Detail from page 1136 of the 1912 edition of Mrs. beeton’s book of Household Management.

I can only imagine the daunting task of the new housekeeper as she learned the art of preserving with the help of Mrs. Beeton!

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services / Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and a proud owner of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

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