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The Independent Culture
THE ACRID smell of singed paper is one of the abiding scents of my childhood. As it drifted through the house on summer days, it meant that my mother was bottling the fruits of the garden; and that the kitchen was out of bounds as she juggled with jars of scalding hot syrup, sterilised in the oven, on a wooden board swathed in brown parcel paper.

Next day, when the paper had been thrown away and the kitchen was tidied, only the rows of gleaming glass jars glowing with cherries, raspberries, peaches and plums, dark green gherkins and slim green beans, were evidence of the frantic activity of the day before. The supply of preserved fruits and vegetables lasted right through the winter and I can remember their delicious flavour even now.

Then in the Sixties the home freezer became affordable and many preserving jars were discarded. Garden produce was packed into plastic bags and boxes, and frozen until needed. Now, in the Nineties, the wisdom of preserving food in reusable jars is being acknowledged once more. And not just with the ecologically minded, keen to limit the planet's fuel consumption, but with all of us who enjoy good, simple food.

A set of glass preserving jars with tightly fitting lids is useful in any kitchen. As well as some inherited Kilner jars, I use French jars with wide necks and wire fasteners, German jars with screwtops and others with snap-on clips. All these jars are used for bottling fruit, for storing homemade pickles and chutneys, marmalade, jams and jellies - and even as storage jars. The airtight lids mean that the contents stay in perfect condition.

When I run out of large preserving jars I utilise conventional jamjars with screwtop plasticised lids. Over the years, I've devised the best way of obtaining an air-tight seal with this kind of jar. While the jam is cooking, wash the jars and their lids scrupulously clean in hot water with detergent. After rinsing the jars in cold water, drain on a clean cloth, then sterilise them - on their sides - in a hot oven for five to 10 minutes until completely dry. The lids are dried with a clean cloth.

When the jam has reached setting point, transfer the jars - using oven gloves or a thick, dry cloth - to a wooden board. Allow to cool for one to two minutes, then ladle in the jam until the jar is almost full. Immediately screw on the top, cover with a cloth and invert the jar quickly, then replace it right way up on the board. As you do this you often hear the air being expelled. Retighten the lid and set aside until the jam is cool, then wipe the jar and label the jam. This method gives such as good seal that I usually need to use a jar opener to remove the lid.

Early preserving jars, mainly ceramic, are now keenly collected. Those with details of the original contents, such as a 19th-century pot that held Devon clotted cream, advertising its merits on the side, are much prized. You can still find old jars bearing commercial names like the 1lb grey or cream jars from Keiller's marmalade factory, and French mustard pots from Meaux or Dijon. Original corks rarely survive; however, they can be replaced at a good kitchenware shop.

An attractive old preserving jar makes a good container for storing dry foods. I use an antique green ginger jar as a caddy for Indian spiced tea - which produces a most soothing brew, and is one of the best digestives I know.

Break a short piece of cinnamon bark into small pieces, and gently crush 12 green cardamom pods to release their scent, mix with one teaspoon of whole cloves, and 120g/4oz jasmine tea. Spoon into the jar, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and shake gently. Store at room temperature for two to three days for the perfumes to blend. Make spiced tea in the usual way and serve with lemon or milk.

Ceramic preserving jars that I specially like are the brown-glazed straight- sided confit jars from Gascony in south-west France. Jars of confit d'oie and confit de canard with the roasted meat embedded in its own sumptuous fat have always been a highly esteemed preserve in France. These days Gascon confit is mainly sold in cheaper glass jars - though it's never inexpensive, even then. In fact, making a highly delicious confit de canard at home is a simple and very satisfying process.

Our home-grown tradition of preserving food in fat survives in potted meat, fish and cheese. Potted shrimps are one of the great British treats. And home-made potted cheese is an appetising mixture of grated hard cheese - Wensleydale and Cheshire work well - blended with butter, a little powdered mace and a splash of dry sherry or Madeira. Pound the mixture together - in a bowl with a wooden spoon or, for speed, in a processor - until smooth, then spoon into a pottery jar or dish and smooth the top level. Cover and chill until needed; it stores perfectly in the refrigerator for three to four weeks. Spread on small oatcakes or triangles of hot toast and serve with drinks.


2.25kg/5lb oven-ready duck

30g/1 oz coarse sea salt

12 teaspoon black peppercorns

6-8 fresh bay leaves

2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme

Reserve any giblets for making stock. Use poultry shears and a knife to cut off the loose flaps of skin and fat at both ends of the duck. Roast these in an oven dish at 150C/300F/ Gas 2 for 45-60 minutes. Pour the hot fat thus produced into a cast-iron casserole that's large enough to contain the jointed duck, cover and set aside. (Give the small cooked pieces of duck skin to a grateful cat.)

Cut the duck into eight pieces. Arrange on a dish, sprinkle all over with salt and refrigerate for 12 hours. Rinse off the salt in cold water, and pat the meat dry with kitchen paper. Heat a heavy frying pan over moderate heat and sear each piece of duck - a few at a time, if need be - on both sides until the skin is golden. Transfer the duck to the casserole, packing it in tightly and tucking in the peppercorns, bay leaves and thyme as you do so. Pour the fat from the pan over the duck and cover with a tight-fitting lid.

Cook the duck in a preheated oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2 for two hours, or until the meat is very tender and falls from the bone. Remove from the oven and pack the pieces of duck and the seasonings into one or more preserving jars. Cover the meat with the cooking fat and set aside until cold. Add a tight-fitting lid and store in a very cold place or in the refrigerator until needed.

To use the confit, stand the jar in fairly hot water for 15 minutes or until the fat has melted and it is easy to lift out pieces of the meat. Then cool the jar, cover tightly, and store in the fridge until needed again.