Rebecca Stewart: Bottling summer’s sweetness

Digging, peeling, crushing and boiling yacon for a year of syrup.

Images: Summer Stewart

The main preserving season is winding down as the summer crops are mostly finished. Only a few stragglers continue producing and then only until the first frost.

Our autumn harvests are in and stored away apart from the last of the pie melons still hanging from their vines. I am hoping for next year’s crop seeds from these last of fruit. So far, each one that has been cut open has white seeds rather than ripe dark ones I am looking for.

Our feijoa hedgerow has gifted us it first small harvest and the last of the apples were found hiding under the comfrey beneath the trees.

Yet winter and its frosts will bring a new harvest and signal time to start digging the large fleshy yacon tubers. They are the last big preserving mission of each growing season. Yacon syrup is our main homegrown sweetener, but extracting it is a rather drawn-out process.

Now, the tall leafy stems are still topped with their small sunflower-like blooms as we sneak in before the frosts to dig a couple of the smaller plants. It is best to wait for the frosts to sweeten the tubers, but we are impatient for some sticky syrup as we ran out far too early last year.

The cut-back stalks have large leaves and we feed these to our pigs, but they are also great compost material. This makes the yacon a fabulous multipurpose plant.

Digging tubers always feels like a treasure hunt to me as I fossick in the cold ground for the gems hidden beneath the mulch and soil. We snap the fat eating tubers from the red rhizomes as the rhizomes will be replanted to give us next year’s crop.

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The haul of crisp plump yacon is washed on the lawn and lugged to the kitchen for processing. David starts on the peeling, crushing and pressing of the yacon, while I carry on with another harvest task, the rendering a mountain of beef suet fat.

We’ve been kept busy with the suet fat for the past couple of days. This is just another aspect of our homesteading harvests, making full use of all that we have and trying not to waste anything. The rendered fat will be stored in jars in our cool store and used for cooking most of our meals along with our stores of lamb tallow and lard.

Once all the yacon prep work is done the resulting large pot of brown slightly sweet juice must be reduced to syrup consistency. The process is like making maple syrup. Unfortunately, our winters are not cold enough for maples to produce sap with a high enough sugar content. Our mild winters, especially lately, mean that maples won’t produce a syrup for us.

So, we carry on with the labour-intensive process of making yacon syrup. As we work through the piles of tubers, washing and peeling them, our hands are stained brown with their juices. The tubers are then cut and minced to release more juice. We squeeze and press the pulp to get every last drop of mucky looking liquid.

Then comes the many hours of boiling down the juice, hovering over the pot as it nears the consistency of thick molasses. At optimal thickness, the molten mess is carefully poured into a hot sterilised jar. Holding that single jar of deep golden-brown sweetness in my hand can invoke a sense of achievement and perhaps also some disappointment. So much work, so little reward.

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But this is the reality of our life. Sometimes we must put in huge effort to achieve what we could go and purchase for less than an hour’s pay. Other times the rewards are much greater. Our apple harvest, for example, by the year grows more bountiful with little effort from us.

The garden, trees and life that surround us add to our quality of living and being. We relish the knowledge that we feed ourselves from our own land and by our own efforts, that we know where our food is from, how and with what it was made. These are the things that make that one jar of yacon syrup an achievement to be celebrated and rejoiced. This pushes us on to dig up the other 15 yacon plants still in the garden, to wash, peel, crush and boil until we have many more jars of wonderful gooey syrup. It is our way of achieving the sweetness in life and building our self-sufficient mindset.

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