Keeping Quality

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Fermented pickles keep several years under refrigeration; vinegar keeps practically forever if sealed.


Back in the days before refrigeration, pasteurization and other modern (therefore “better”) ways of preserving food, keeping quality was a big deal. If you wanted to get through the winter – and possibly longer than that, depending on weather and the harvest – keeping quality was often one of the defining factors in choosing food crops. I am reasonably sure that one reason for the popularity of beans and grains was that when properly stored they will remain edible for many years. No pioneer household was without a large sack or barrel of beans. Keeping quality is part of the reason we have so many heirloom bean varieties still available. If you look at older garden catalogs, they often include keeping quality as one of the most valuable characteristics.

Raw milk butter freezes indefinitely and keeps over a month at room temperature if properly stored.


Or take milk. One of the arguments for pasteurization – and today’s ultra-pasteurized products – is that it allows you to store milk for longer periods. Yet properly handled grade A raw milk from the morning milking invariably kept quite well in this study. By the way, older studies – done before the advent of big Farma and big Pharma throwing money into research to get the results they want – are typically more honest. The study, conducted between August 1918 and August 1919, looked at how long milk would stay sweet under different storage conditions. The milk was already 30 hours old when it reached the lab. The milk was cooled at the farm with well water to temperatures varying between 38 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit. It was not refrigerated or cooled during transport. At the lab it was stored in various places: an ice chest, a cool cellar floor, on a slate slab in the cellar about four feet off the floor and in a location with an east-facing window about eight feet from a gas fire. The milk kept 14, five, four and five days, respectively. Soured milk was not inedible. It was then used for cottage cheese or in other recipes. We have a tremendous surplus of milk in this country; extended storage doesn’t gain much and pasteurization negatively affects the healthy qualities of raw milk. The real effect of pasteurization is that dairies can get away with housing animals in unsanitary conditions and don’t have to be as careful in handling the milk.
Fats like butter, lard and ghee are shelf-stable for months, if not years in the case of the latter two. The key is to make sure the butter is worked well to get all the water out, as water is the source of the bacteria that spoil butter and ghee. Duck fat, lard, tallow and olive oil were once used to preserve many foods. Confit may be a trendy foodie item today, but it was once an important means of food preservation. A confit could keep for several months on the shelf.

Ground spices are good for at least a year – whole spices last several years.


One reason spices were so valuable centuries ago is that many of them have antioxidant as well as antimicrobial properties. Properly chosen spices added to almost any food could help it remain edible for much longer. One study evaluated such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, black pepper, cayenne pepper and mustard. Food was free of contamination for as long as 14 months, with cinnamon, cloves and mustard promoting the longest storage. However, ginger, black pepper and cayenne pepper only added a few days to storage qualities. The researchers noted that molds were the first thing to appear – since they make their presence known with visual growth on the food, it’s pretty easy to know when a food should be dumped instead of eaten.
Certain varieties of fruits and veggies keep better than others. Sweet and red onions, for example, don’t last as well as yellow storage onions. Hard-neck garlic doesn’t usually last as long as soft-neck varieties, which can go a year or more. Winter squash from c. maxima and c. moschata (Butternut, Sweet Meat, Hubbard and Banana, among others) will last a year if properly stored. Apple varieties such as Arkansas Black, Newton Pippin, Baldwin and Cox’s Orange Pippin are often too hard and tart to eat right off the tree. Harvested late and stored properly, they mellow and remain crisp and juicy for months. In fact, these varieties don’t really taste very good until they’ve been in storage for at least three months.
Whole grains last at least a year at room temperature. Grinding them just before you make bread means maximum nutrition. Depending on the size of their families, most ranch wives only baked bread once a week. The loaves usually remained good for that period. Once stale, they were turned into fried bread – with or without an egg batter – dried for bread crumbs and croutons, or used to create dishes like bread pudding, strata or panzella.

Tallow is shelf stable for a year and good indefinitely under refrigeration.


I’ve never been able to understand why food manufacturers can’t “get” the basic idea that artificially increasing keeping quality decreases their markets. Preservatives do indeed make food last longer. However, that means stuff piles up on the shelf or in the warehouse while you keep bringing out more product, and the whole system gets constipated. If it didn’t keep as long, your fresh production would turn over much more quickly. You save money because you don’t need to add preservatives and might also save on packaging material. You can get by with a smaller warehouse. You don’t need as many employees. Instead of needing a 200% profit just to break even, half that much (or even less) is plenty. Not to mention that there’s less food waste and environmental damage.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, I’d say America’s food system is well on its way…

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Heirloom Flowers

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Indian Chief 1929


I know, I know, I’m hipped on the subject of heirloom vegetables and fruits. I’m the same way about heirloom flowers. Part of it’s my fascination with history, but it’s also because heirloom flowers have so much to offer. What brings this up is a recent foray to my neighbor one place over. When she bought her place it came with a neglected garden full of all sorts of interesting things. In particular, she has beds loaded with old iris plants and offered to share.

Mystic Melody 1949


Southland 1934


In my experience, iris are one of the toughest plants there is. At our old house, I would dump excess thinnings out in the back forty. Said dumps usually took place in the early spring, which meant the dumpees went through a blazing summer and about six months without any water. I didn’t plant these iris or give them any care, just tossed them in piles on top of bare ground. Invariably, within two years I would have thriving clumps of heavily blooming iris.

Natchez Trace 1964


The iris at my neighbor’s place were probably planted over the last 30 years or so. Apparently the grandfather of the man from whom she bought the property was an iris fancier; his daughter carried on the tradition. She also had other bulbs like narcissus, rosebushes and a scattering of perennials like lychnis, or rose campion. The latter was one of Thomas Jefferson’s flowers at Monticello and has been grown in Europe (it’s native there) for centuries. The gray, hairy stems earned the plant the nickname of Dusty Miller and the flowers are a deep fuchsia red. It self-seeds readily, as do many heirloom flowers.

Edith Wolford 1986


So what are heirloom flowers? Originally, those in the horticultural world defined an heirloom as a plant discovered or registered before 1938. In some cases, there are so few surviving old varieties that they are much younger than that. Gladiolus are one example – most of those available are 60 years old or less; none survive from earlier periods like the 1800s, when hybridizing of these flowers first began. In roses, the term “old garden rose” generally refers to an heirloom variety. The other term used for heirloom flowers is “antique flowers,” although I think that’s a little misleading. In furniture and household goods, antique means more than 100 years old. Younger than that, it’s a collectible.

Coral Magic 1979


Like their fellows in the vegetable garden, heirloom flowers offer a lot. One of the most noticeable is the scent. Modern roses, for example, may look gorgeous, but many have no scent whatsoever. Another is growth habit. Unlike hybrid teas, which win the good little soldier award for their neat, upright growth habit, old roses are often blousy, rambling collections of stunning colors and scents. Rosa Gallica has been around since the days of the Roman Empire. The pink and white stripes of Rosa Mundi – named for Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II of England, have been gracing gardens since the 12th century. Souvenir de La Malmaison grew in the gardens of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. These roses are often grown on their own rootstock, which means you can easily grow more by cutting off a bit of root and growing it on. Many also produce hips, which are rich in vitamin C and can be made into an immunity-boosting syrup.

Beverly Sills 1979


Good sources of heirloom flowers can be found on line. Old House Gardens and Van Enlgelen offer primarily bulbs and tubers. Select Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Seed Savers Exchange offer such goodies as Black Hollyhocks (1629), Love-Lies Bleeding Amaranth (1810 seed list, but probably back to the 16th century) and Painted Lady Sweet Peas (1797). For heirloom roses, check out Roses of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, the Antique Rose Emporium and Heirloom Roses. In the meantime, I will be tucking such iris goodies as Indian Chief (1924), Southland (1934), Mystic Melody (1949) and the luscious Beverly Sills (1979) into my garden. Thanks, Carol!

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Breeding Age

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“Research over a number of years has indicated that, economically the optimum age at first calving is between 23 and 25 months of age.” The Dairy Site

Making decisions based on economics when you are dealing with a biological function like pregnancy is short-sighted (IMHO). I think that’s particularly true when you’re talking about breeding age in a house cow. A dairy cow that is well cared-for can produce well into her teens. In commercial dairies, most cows have only two or three lactations because they are culled around age five or six. I suspect beef cows can also live and produce that long, but you aren’t likely to find much information on that subject because in today’s industrial farming system the cows are usually culled well before that. The assumption is that if you just give them enough food and get them to the right body weight before breeding, everything will be hunky-dory. Hmmm – I’ve seen plenty of teenagers who are the same size as adults. Does that mean they think and act like adults (insert loud laughter here)? Of course not, because their brains, organs and hormonal systems haven’t reached maturity yet. Why are cows different?

Strawberry and calf.


The accepted advice from the “experts” is that you should breed a heifer when she reaches puberty, which is usually around 12 to 14 months of age. That means that a heifer bred at 12 months will calve at 21 months – just shy of two years old. So the expectation is that this heifer should be able to continue growing (she’s probably only between 55% and 65% of her adult weight at breeding age) while providing enough nutrition to her calf in utero and then lactate for at least six months while also maintaining her own body condition. She will then have to handle the stress of birth, lactation and the resumption of her normal ovulation cycles in order to rebreed in a timely fashion. At about the same time she delivers her calf, she will be losing her two-year-old teeth, which makes it harder for her to graze in even a lush pasture.

Now, in humans, for whom there is no “economic benefit,” any GP or OB will tell you that women who have babies too early are more likely to have complications and that babies born small tend to have life-long health issues. Having seen that first-hand in my clinical practice, I have always opted to wait until a heifer is closer to two years old before breeding. Younger cows are more likely to have fertility problems after calving and produce less milk. Their calves are smaller and lighter than those of heifers bred when they are older. Despite the fact that their calves are smaller than average, in my experience those are the calves you have to pull.
Yes, it’s more expensive to feed a heifer a few more months before breeding. But in the long run, it’s better for her growth, better for her first and future calves and better for her overall health and longevity. Biological processes can’t – or rather, shouldn’t – be hurried.

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