Growing up, the pantry was always my favorite room in the house.
Every time I went to grab a jar of jam or a bottle of tomato sauce, my eyes would fondly pass over the collection of jars neatly aligned on the shelves, glistening in the dark, each labeled with my mum’s quick handwriting.
The pantry gave me a sense of safety and protection. It meant lazy breakfasts with homemade jam and toasted bread, improvised summer lunches revolving around a big shared bowl of pasta al Pomodoro, and Friday night pizzas with my family and a movie. It was a reminder that there was someone—my mum, in this case—always stocking the pantry with food, love, and memories of seasons past.
My mum would store in her pantry all the tomato preserves she had made during summer: the pelati, peeled tomatoes bottled with a single basil leaf; the passata, the simplest tomato puree made for pizza and as a starting point for pasta sauces; and the pomarola, a darker, flavorful tomato sauce enriched with carrots, celery, onion, and parsley. This would only need a knob of butter to dress a bowl of spaghetti or penne.
The tomato preserves would cover a whole shelf. Then, there were all the summer jams. Mum would start with the first apricots at the beginning of the good season, producing a few jars in a bright orange hue. Then would come the time of plums: a ruby red jam, slightly sour, and my favorite for crostata, the Italian equivalent of a pie, a shell of shortcrust and a filling of jam.
Blackberry jam was the preserve my mum took the most pride in, as this meant waking up at dawn to venture down our country road to the edges of the woods, where the blackberries grow protected by the shade of tall trees, not far from a stream. There, she would pick the berries one by one, fighting against brambles, bees, and horseflies. She would come back home in the mid-morning, her arms scratched by thorns, and immediately make her famous jam in a big pot sputtering on the stove. It’s a thick, velvety jam, almost black with bluish hues, my favorite on buttered slices of bread for breakfast.
My grandmother brought the pantry-hoarding habit to an even higher level, influenced by her whole life spent in the countryside and by her teenage years lived during the Second World War, when a well-stocked pantry was not only a matter of pride but a way to survive.
At the end of summer, her family would make tomato paste. They had a dedicated row of tomato plants that they would scarcely water, so as to harvest tomatoes with a dense pulp and a concentrated flavor. They would spread the salty tomato paste in large trays to dry in the late summer sun, then scrape it into jars, cover it with olive oil, and stack the jars in the pantry to use for soups, sauces, and stews.
In September, she would make a harvest jam with grapes, apples, and figs: seasonal, decisively sweet, a reserve of energy for the upcoming winter.
And in the winter, she would cure and dry black olives, those left after the November harvest, forgotten on the olive trees, hidden by leaves or high on tall branches.
Both my mum and my grandma influenced my love for preserving. It would be reductive to describe it as a habit or a hobby; I feel an ancient urge to bottle, can, or preserve whatever the season offers with abundance. It’s my personal way to celebrate the passing of seasons: a hymn to seasonality, a respectful homage to the humble produce.
In winter, I begin the new year by making a few batches of mixed citrus marmalade, changing every time the ratio of lemons, oranges, citrons, blood oranges, bergamots, and bitter oranges I use. Each year, my marmalade has a different taste, a distinctive vintage flavor. Slicing the thick, spongy citrus peels is my favorite kitchen meditation.
I also collect the peels to candy, taking pride in the shimmering pots aligned in my pantry: crescents of translucent peel suspended in thick, amber-colored syrup, ready for my Christmas cake production.
Spring is a more challenging season for preserving, though I make sure to save a couple of days to prepare carciofini sottolio: tiny artichoke hearts first blanched in white wine and vinegar and then preserved in good olive oil with black peppercorns and garlic cloves. They make the ideal nibble for a summer aperitivo.
When the countryside is verdant and the hedgerows come back to life after the cold season, I incessantly peruse the fields to spot the first elderflowers—my yearly batch of flowery syrup and cordial is about to happen.
As soon as summer comes, my hands itch to work in the kitchen. There is an abundance of ripe fruit to preserve and turn into thick glossy jams, and basketfuls of sun-ripened tomatoes from our vegetable garden demanding to be peeled, pureed and bottled.
Summer vegetables offer countless possibilities to those who love preserving—and who are not scared of some work by the stovetop on a sweltering summer day. I stoically grill eggplants and zucchini on a scorching hot cast iron pan and preserve them in my best extra virgin olive oil; or blanch vegetables in vinegar, from carrots to peppers, from fresh onions to green beans, to make a giardiniera: a colorful seasonal collection of pickled vegetables.
Summer is an exciting season for berries, too. Blackberries are the most common fruit in my neck of the woods, the jewel-like berries studding the hedgerows and calling for late afternoon walks, dark-stained fingers, and tinted lips. Raspberries and blueberries grow in the Appennini mountains, making the idea of a jam a perfectly good reason to plan a weekend of hiking and berry picking.
Autumn is a season for reflecting. I open my seasonal canning venture with my grandma’s harvest jam, moving soon after to wild apple compote and pumpkin jam. If I’m so lucky as to find good local mushrooms, I save some of their stalks to dry for future pasta sauces and risotto.
My last endeavor of the season is to browse through the olive tree branches to pick forgotten olives, as my grandma did. Their curing involves time, patience, and plenty of coarse salt.
One of the first jams I make as soon as the good season knocks on my door, full of expectation and promises of abundance, is a strawberry jam.
I chose to keep the ingredient list as short as possible—strawberries, lemon juice for some tartness, and half a vanilla pod for a tantalizing aroma—as I have learned that easy jams are a crowd-pleasing treat.
Use it for breakfast slathered on toasted bread with good butter, smear it on scones and have it with Earl Grey tea, make a crostata, or simply enjoy its sweetness with a spoon, tasting the season and all the memories infused in this jam jar.
Makes about 5 medium jars
- 2 pounds ripe strawberries
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 vanilla pod
Wash the strawberries and remove the stems and leaves. Dice them and gather into a pot. Add the juice of 1 lemon.
Put the strawberries on the stove, add the vanilla pod, split open, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the strawberries are soft enough to be mashed with a spoon. Simmer for another 5 minutes, until you have a thick puree.
Remove the pot from the heat, add the sugar, and stir until dissolved.
Bring the pot back on the stove and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. If you have a candy thermometer, the marmalade will be ready when it reaches 221 degrees F. It will still be very liquid, but will thicken once cooled down.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can also check whether the jam is ready or not with the saucer test. Pour a drop of jam onto a cold dish from the freezer. If it thickens and does not slip away when you tilt the saucer, the jam is ready to be poured into sterilized jars.
To sterilize the jars, you can boil them placed in a large pot and covered with water for about 20 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the jars cool down completely before removing them.
They can be kept in the pantry for more than a year.
Recipe by Giulia Scarpaleggia.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan-born and -bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com