In a new series, food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton explores the history and techniques behind the methods she uses to conserve Market produce. This month: drying
When thinking about all the different old ways of preserving produce I sometimes wonder who or how anyone first discovered that, say, smoking fish not only helps it last longer but tastes really good. Or that covering meat in salt for a while can work a similar kind of magic. It is far less of a stretch, though, to imagine someone in a long-ago Italian farmhouse accidentally leaving a few tomatoes outside in the sun, to then find them a few days later and discover they had—hey presto!—been so simply dried into deliciousness.
I know that may not actually be how sun-dried tomatoes were first happened upon, but you take my point. What is certain is that this technique, which at its heart really is as simple as at my imaginary Italian farmhouse, has for thousands of years been a hugely important and effective way of preserving. It works by removing water content that would otherwise allow growth of the kind of bad bacteria that cause decay. Stop or slow down the decaying process and the produce could be used beyond its season, or be safely transported on long, slow journeys into communities far away from wherever the fruits, vegetables or pulses are grown.
Versatile and nutritious
For us now, those reasons for drying produce still matter, but they are only part of why, if you take a look in your kitchen, there’s probably a fair amount of dried produce in there. Have you got any dried beans or pulses—maybe chickpeas, fava beans or lentils? We all know how versatile they are to cook with and how packed with nutrition. How about a bulb of garlic—got one of those? Of course you do. And our being able to enjoy cooking with garlic all year round is thanks to the fresh ‘wet’ garlic bulbs being allowed to dry after their summer harvest.
The simplicity of drying has always lent itself well to home cooks having a go. Dorothy Hartley in her iconic book of culinary folklore, Food In England, writes evocatively of how people used to core whole apples and then string them up in lines along the ceiling to dry. Lovely if you have the space. I suspect oven-drying apple slices is possibly more achievable for most of us these days.
Even better, if you ever find yourself with an abundance of really good tomatoes (but without the sun beating down on your Italian farmhouse), try this: cut the tomatoes in half, remove the seeds, sprinkle over a little salt, lay them on wire racks and then put into the oven on its lowest setting for 6-8 hours with the door left slightly ajar. Store in olive oil in sterilised jars. I promise that any lack of sun-dried romance will be more than made up for with the flavour you have preserved and intensified into sweetness.
The first stage
Drying can also be used really well in combination with other preserving processes. My previous feature in this series was about preserving fruit in sugar. That becomes only the first stage in making something like candied peel and the subsequent drying is absolutely vital. The same thing with curing meats. Drying comes after the salting and without it the end result would be no good at all.
I’m getting ahead of myself now—curing is the next instalment in this series. As I type, I have a pork tenderloin hanging to air dry and with each passing day it gets more tempting to slice into. But I know I have to leave it be and wait for the drying process to do its job. For the moment it serves me as a reminder (as if I needed it) of how very clever this very simple way of preserving produce is.