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A Heritage of Preservation

Being seasonal and sustainable is very fashionable at the moment – and with good reason. But as the saying goes: “there is nothing new under the sun”. Even in the days when the first Europeans came to South Africa, seasonality and sustainability were of the utmost importance when it came to cooking. In fact, it influenced the culinary traditions of the Cape Winelands.

One such tradition is that of preserving fruit.

Although the preservation of fresh produce was not exclusive to the French, much of the tradition established at the Cape had a French origin. In celebration of Heritage Month we will be sharing some interesting facts, tips and traditions on the art of preservation.

Already in the time of Jan van Riebeeck, French chef, La Varenne, published a cookbook (1651) sharing recipes for jam and confiture using a variety of fruit such as cherries, quince, apricots, plums, peaches and green walnuts. These recipes covered the various techniques – from whole pieces of fruit to jelly, smooth jams, runny jams and syrups.

According to well-known food historian and Culinary Manager for La Motte, Hetta van Deventer-Terblanche, prior to the arrival of the French Huguenots at the Cape, the Dutch already had the habit of serving confiture after lunch. The Huguenots, did however, make a significant contribution with their knowledge of preserves, jams and confiture as they came from a fruit-producing country. They also had exceptional skill when it came to cooking with grapes and producing must syrup.

Until the French established fruit orchids, green walnuts, turnips, quince and gherkins were often preserved at the Cape. The availability of a wider selection of fresh fruit encouraged its extensive use in confectionery (also read our blog Summer fruit and Sweet wine) and also main meals – from there the typical South African culinary tradition of having a sweetish element such as cooked apples or quince on the plate. Preserving the excess was, however, also a priority and fruit was bottled and kept in the form of jams, jellies, confiture and chutneys.

The French influence is also clear in the Afrikaans terminology used to describe the various processes of preservation. It was customary at the Cape to serve whole pieces of fruit in dainty dishes with tea or coffee, not only after a meal. This fruit, called konserf in Afrikaans, is directly from the French conserve, which means canned. The French verb confire, meaning “to preserve”, also translates as confiture or the Afrikaans konfituur.

Hetta shares some interesting facts:

Food Historian and La Motte’s Culinary Manager, Hetta van Deventer-Terblanche

  • I grew up in the Overberg where the belief was that green figs had to be preserved before October 15, or they would be hollow in the middle. The date might differ for other areas, of course. Green figs preferably had to be cooked in a copper pot to ensure a good green colour. Rumour has it that some housewives added copper sulfate (blouvitrioel), something I would never do!
  • Thought foraging was a new trend? Of course not! Food from the veld, such as sour figs (suurvytjies) also ended up as jams.
  • With limited resources, the new farmers at the Cape had to be innovative. The nectar of the Protea repens flower (sugar bush) was used to make syrup and when the first vineyard came into production, brandy was distilled. That was followed by the well-known brandy-preserved grapes, called Kaapsejongens (translated as: young men from the Cape) and brandy-preserved small apricots, called Boeremeisies (translated as: farm girls).
  • While preserving the way our grandmothers used to do, has become highly fashionable again, there was a time before the use of glass jars – not even mentioning sterilised jars! Fruit and vegetables were preserved in pottery and clay containers closed air-tight by using an animal bladder.
  • Quince has always been a favourite when it comes to preservation. In the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt already, quince was preserved with honey. (Although cane sugar has been known to mankind for millennia, in the West it has only been used in its current, refined form and as a commercial commodity since the 16th century.) Quince was also popular at the Cape and in Europe. Quince marmalade used to be similar to jam and it often ended up as a sweet, similar to today’s pâte de fruit.
  • Confused between jam, conserve, confiture, preserve and chutney? Food24 gives a great explanation, click here.

Inspired to do some preserving of your own? Here are some tips from the Pierneef à La Motte kitchen:

  1. Fruit Jelly: Fruit jelly is not made with gelatin, but with the fruit’s own pectin. Lemon juice can be added to better the quality of the pectin, so keep that in mind when your jelly won’t set. Add some lemon juice and cook it again. To ensure a lovely clear jelly, first filter the lemon juice and jelly through a muslin cloth. Choose fruit that is not too green or too ripe. When it is perfect for eating, it is perfect to preserve.
  2. Marmalade: Ensure that the strips of citrus have been cooked until very soft before you put them in the sugar syrup, otherwise they will not soften.
  3. Chalk: When you have to soak fruit such as makataan (wild melon) overnight in chalk water, use 2 tablespoons chalk on 4.5 litres of water. The fruit has to be properly covered by the chalk water – use a weight to push it down. The chalk water adds a lovely crunch to the makataan.
  4. Sterilise bottles and lids.
  5. To test fruit such as apples and pears, pierce them with a match – the match must enter easily although the fruit should not be too soft.
  6. To prevent fruit such as quince, pears and apples from discolouring while being peeled, put the peeled fruit in meek salt water.
  7. A squeeze of lemon juice works well with very sweet fruit jam such as ripe fig jam or peach jam.
  8. Fruit and sugar should never come to the boil before all the sugar has melted, otherwise the sugar will form hard crystals.

September is the official start of Spring, when early fruit comes into season. Guavas, strawberries and early peaches such as Nectarines are already available in the Franschhoek Valley and Chef Michelle will be making some delicious preserves with the early harvest.

Pierneef à La Motte’s Chef Michelle Theron

Are you visiting us on 24 September for Heritage Day? Do chat to her about the art of preservation. She will be in Pierneef à La Motte restaurant’s demonstration kitchen and will be handing out jars of her delicious preserves to take home!

Chef Michelle Theron’s recipe for Strawberry, lemongrass & ginger preserve

Chef Vicky Gurovich’s recipe for Kumquat & mulled wine preserve


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