A civic holiday long weekend hovers, ready to shove a doorstop under summer's swinging screen door. The days are getting shorter by about two and a quarter minutes every day, making for a quite noticeable 15 minute loss every week. But despair not, for the sun and heat of the past week have brought on the lagging tomato and corn crops along with other fresh vegetables and fruit. Ontario farms are bringing to market broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beans, corn, potatoes galore, and cucumbers and zucchini hang heavy on the vine. Strawberries have been and all but gone, but raspberries, currants, apricots and some early Niagara peaches are filling up baskets at Farmers' markets. The land here is so generous, always yielding the best it can, come wind, come weather.
When we first moved up here to the rural routes from the city back in 1978 our new neighbours, soon to be treasured friends, wasted no time in acquainting us with the gifts of the land. In the barn out back of their house were the chickens, the pigs and a big brown cow. On a small plot in the front, Dave and Vera Francis grew much of the vegetables they and two sons needed for a year. When the ripe time came, it was all hands on deck to pick and shell peas, gather in the beans, the corn and whatever else was growing. A family that eats together, harvests together. Once they had all they needed, we were invited to glean, to take our pick from their field of plenty. We gathered in asparagus, rhubarb, peas, green beans, carrots, and as Fall approached, winter squashes of all shapes and sizes.
Dave, Vera and the boys made use of local growers for berries and other fruit, often inviting us to come along. In those fields, with Vera's gentle instruction, I learned how and what to pick. "Make sure you pick clean," she would say, meaning that I was to slow down and pick absolutely everything that was ripe within my arms' reach before moving along to another spot. "Lift up those branches like this," she said while moving the back of one arm under the foliage to reveal luscious berries underneath. "See, there's real good fruit under there."
"If you pick it, make sure it goes into the basket," Dave offered another rule of good harvesting, "even it's not perfect." This one came with a small exception - it was acceptable to eat a few berries, "Well you gotta taste 'em to make sure they're good." It was hard to miss the rivulet of berry juice on his chin.
Picking done, it was time to preserved the harvest for the winter months. Veggies were blanched and frozen, fruits were put up in mason jars. Again Vera was my teacher taking time to explain all I needed to know about glass jars (clean with hot soapy water, rinse then put in oven at 250F), metal rings (no dents and perfectly round), Bernardin® lids (inspect for roundness), canning kettles and boiling water baths. I learned how to make jams and jellies, marmalade, preserves and pickles. I learned how to have the taste of summer in February.
I still make jams every year, still pick the berries at the same farm Dave and Vera took me to thirty-five years ago, and then hurry home to get the summer goodness packed into mason jars.
Every Friday from June through October, I drive out to a local organic farm to pick up a bushel or so of fresh veggies for our meals during the week. I don't put by any for the winter months now and we no longer keep a vegetable garden of our own.
But come mid-summer every year I remember when we did. I remember the indescribable sweetness of fresh picked peas, crisp snap of green beans and carrots, and the squirt of juice from a sun-warmed tomato.
And I remember Dave and Vera who were so generous with their time and friendship; who taught me so much about country living and the gifts of the land; who opened their hearts to a young couple from the city and invited them to glean in their field.
©2015 April Hoeller