Las Conservas

IT WAS A FRIDAY NIGHT IN THE OLD TOWN OF CÁDIZ. THE ROUGH STONE BUILDINGS STILL PULSED HEAT OUT INTO THE TINY STREETS LONG AFTER THE SUN HAD GONE DOWN. AMONGST THE SMOKE AND THE SHOUTING I FOUND A SPACE AT THE BAR. I ORDERED A BEER AND LOOKED AT THE MENU. THERE WASN’T A PIECE OF FRESH FOOD TO BE SEEN — YET THIS BAR WAS PUMPING. A GREAT MIX OF YOUNG AND OLD, MEN AND WOMEN; THE LITTLE ROOM RINGING WITH LAUGHTER. A SHEET OF WAXED PAPER WAS PLACED ON THE MARBLE BAR IN FRONT OF ME AND A PACKET OF CRISPS WAS OPENED AND POURED ONTO THE PAPER: PERFECT SLIVERS OF POTATO COOKED IN FRESH SUNFLOWER OIL. NEXT CAME A BOWL OF LITTLE GREEN OLIVES. WONDERFUL. THEN A TIN OF MUSSELS: THE BARTENDER RIPPED OFF THE LID AND THE RED PIMENTÓN-INFUSED OIL DRIBBLED DOWN HIS HAND LIKE BLOOD. STUNNING. THE MEN WHO OWNED THE BAR LOVED GOOD FOOD BUT WERE NOT COOKS — SO THEY SIMPLY BOUGHT THE BEST PRESERVED FOOD FROM ALL AROUND SPAIN AND OPENED UP THE TINS, JARS OR BAGS. IT IS ONE OF THE BEST BARS IN ANDALUSIA.

The Spanish, you see, are not snobs about preserved food, because nothing goes into a tin or a jar unless it’s the best — the best mussels, anchovies, clams, sardines, tuna, asparagus, beans, capsicums (peppers), peaches and apricots. The best of the season is put under glass or into a tin for the rest of the year. Safely secured from deterioration, the goods are traded across Spain, as they have been since preserving was invented. Galician clams are harvested in the north and served in Cádiz in the south. Cantabrian anchovies are cured on the Bay of Biscay and eaten across Spain. In Navarra there are entire towns in the Ebro Valley where particular varieties of fruit and vegetables are grown specifically for the preserving industry. I once met a market gardener in the Basque country who supplied the many Michelin-star restaurants around San Sebastián. Interestingly, he held some of his best produce back for preserving. His was a relatively small operation, no bigger than a large garage, set up on the banks of a creek under a copse of beech trees. One lunchtime he opened a jar of his broad (fava) bean confit in olive oil. He gently heated them in a small saucepan, then poured them into a flat ceramic dish. With a little sausage and some bread these made a meal. A very good meal — the flavours of the beans having developed and concentrated. Hand-picked, hand-peeled, hand-cooked and hand-packed, they had been changed completely by the process. And so had the price: they were around 15 euros for a small jar! Spaniards will pay a good price for good conservas; for some they are a kind of fast food. With the main meal being taken in the middle of the day, some people work back or go out and want to eat later at night. Instead of cooking they will open a tin or jar of conservas as a snack.

The basis of preserving is to knock out the bacteria and to create a sterile environment in which bacteria cannot survive. This means sterilising using heat, and making the food itself too acidic, too salty or too sweet for bacteria to live in. We start the process by sterilising jars, lids and seals. Jars can be sterilised in the oven by placing them slightly apart in a cold oven and heating the oven to 120°C (235°F/Gas ½) and holding the temperature for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven off and leave the jars until cool enough to handle. Never shock glass by putting hot things into a cold jar or cold things into a hot jar. I handle jars with a clean cloth and never touch their interior. Seals and lids can be sterilised by boiling them for 10 minutes. The food itself is cleaned to remove bacteria-carrying dirt, then blanched to kill germs on the outside of the food. Some bacteria spores can survive this process so the food is then pasteurised — cooked at a set temperature, in this case 80°C (175°F), and held long enough for the core temperature of the food in the jar to reach this temperature. During this period the air expands and is forced out of the jar, creating a vacuum seal. Your conservas should then be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

The use of a cooking thermometer is important for successful preserving. These are cheap and can be bought from cooking equipment shops, as can high-quality cooking jars, heavy preserving jars, rubber seals and lids.

The Spanish make a lot of conservas in glass. They like to see the quality of the food they are buying and later eating. Take a leaf from their book and never eat any food that looks discoloured — and certainly never eat food that is ‘bubbling’, or food from a jar with a distended or blown lid, or if a surge of gas comes out of the jar when the lid is opened.

My family have been preserving food for years and I have included a handful of recipes to get you going. We have erred on the side of caution and included increased times and temperatures for safety. We have also included quite salty brines or overly sweet syrups to ensure the liquid will be unsuitable for bacteria to ‘thrive’. You can use the preserves straight away, but normally one uses them when the food is out of season.
Remember to use only the best produce available — it looks better, lasts longer and most of all tastes great.

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