Jam Battle

Bacon jam and fermented carrots square off at Toronto preserve battle and swap at the Drake Hotel

Canners came, battled, swapped and everyone left with something new. Despite what some may think, canning isn't just about your grandmother's pickled beets anymore. Loud music, free food, passionate foodies and more mason jars than I could possibly count filled the Drake lounge on a rainy night.

Earlier this week at the Drake Hotel, Ivy Knight hosted an event devoted to fruit preserves and canning in conjunction with the launch of new Toronto food website, Green Eggs Toronto.

Canners are people who make preserves, fermentations, salsas and chutneys and enjoy them year round. Though a few preserves were vacuum-sealed in a bag, the most common vessel was the mason jar by far.

The concept is new to me: I have only once tried to make salsa and it was a complete disaster. Despite using the best and freshest ingredients (many of which I grew myself), it never really came together. It didn't have that fresh, crisp taste I love about salsa. The cilantro was overpowering, no amount of salt would balance the acidity of the tomatoes and it was altogether, a frustrating summer afternoon.

I have to hand it to these guys - this is not as easy as it may seem - this is a hard task, and they have got it down to a science. Organized labels, precisely measured stock and some of the most creative flavor combinations I've ever seen.

An enthusiastic canner gave me a lemon-tangerine marmalade to take home, and let me tell you, it's absolutely delicious. This marmalade makes you feel like eating brunch in Palm Springs, CA on a warm Sunday morning.

There were two parts to Monday night's event. The first was a preserves battle, where prominent Toronto chefs put out their own special preserves and people tasted and voted for their favourites. Though many of the chefs were friends, you could tell this was serious. Nobody wanted to lose, and everyone wanted to win. Carefully set-up displays
and well-labeled jars, these chefs were ready to start doling out preserves, and the full house crowd at the Drake lounge was more than ready to decide on the winning mix.

The competing preserves were zucchini relish from Mark Cutrara (Cowbell restaurant), venison trotter and cherry pemmican from Matty Metheson (Parts & Labour), Watermelon pickle from Scott Vivian (Beast Restaurant), jalapeno bacon jam from Nick Liu (Niagara Street CafĂŠ), Ontario peanut and honey confit from Anthony Rose (Drake Hotel) and 6-week-fermented carrots from Guy Rawlings (Brockton General).

In the end, the jalapeno bacon jam from Nick Liu won the popular vote. Alternative uses of bacon has been pretty popular lately, and the crowd at the Drake proved it still is. Full of flavor, and a unique combination of smoky bacon and spicy jalapeno, made this preserve stand out.

The second part of the night was a preserves swap. Anyone who brought their own preserves to the event could swap with anyone else, and try out something new. People brought everything from exotic jams with bacon to good old-fashioned marmalade.

Joel MacCharles, and Dana Harrison, renowned canners who run the blog wellpreserved.ca have over 700 jars in their pantry and are obsessed with the process. The two live in Toronto's east-end and have an incredible passion for canning. Having blogged every single day for the last two years, these two know a thing or two about preserves.

Though I was never able to try it, the carrot cake jam I kept hearing about sounded absolutely delicious.

Eagerly awaiting the swap, all of the canners held their selection of preserves close, talking excitedly to one another of what they brought to trade.

Sarah Hood, long-time canner, brought many preserves to this event, but offers a word of advice to those just getting into making preserves, emphasizing the well-calculated labour that goes into creating preserves: "If you just put beans, or any other vegetable in a jar with water, you've just made Botchulism."

Ginger Corsair, devoted blogger and baker and recent canner, came out to the event to swap some of her preserves and try out some others. Corsair was excited by the obscurity of some of the preserves people brought to the event. "It's actually really good stuff; I'm not going to turn my nose up at that."

There were so many jarred preserves at the end of the night that even those who didn't bring any of their own, got to take a jar home to try. I went home with my marmalade, and a new respect for the canning process.

Writing and photo by Adam Vrankulj

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