Sunday, September 05, 2004

Filling the cellar 

We bought our 1908 house for many reasons, among them a great neighborhood, wide front porch, oak floors, and leaded glass windows. That the house has a full basement was not one of those reasons, but the basement - specifically the part that I think of as the cellar - now has a special place in my life.

When we bought the house, our basement was largely original construction. There had been some electrical and plumbing improvements, but the basement still had the original asbestos-covered boiler (converted from coal to natural gas at some point) and huge concrete utility sink.

In the northwest corner of the basement, there was a small room, obviously constructed of the odds and ends of wood left over from building the rest of the house. The walls were built of wide boards, of the same sort used for the subfloors. The room was lined on three sides with wooden shelves, constructed of an assortment of planks, beadboard and moldings. The door was built in the style of a gate, planks nailed onto two horizontal crosspieces and a diagonal brace, its only hardware some hinges and a hasp for a lock.

We moved to Seattle from northern California, so when I walked into this small room, I thought, not surprisingly, wine cellar! And so it was for the first two years that we owned the house. We brought back wine and port from a trip to Napa Valley. We experimented with Washington and Oregon wines. Our wine cellar was small, but we enjoyed it.

After a couple of years in Seattle, I grew more attuned to the seasons. In an attempt to eat locally, we bought a share in a local CSA farm. We ate salmon and halibut fresh in season. We bought cherries from the farm truck that appeared in our neighborhood for 4 weeks in June and July, and berries and peaches later in the summer.

However, the seasons for the local fruits were just too short. I wanted that luscious sweetness to last. And so three summers ago, expressing some long-dormant gene from my southern grandmothers, I bought canning equipment, jars, flats of fruit, and a huge sack of sugar. Because the knowledge of exactly what to do with these supplies was not encoded, I also bought a book or two on preserving.

I had never made preserves. The results of my first attempts were not great: gummy jelly, overly sweet jam. I kept trying. I decided that I did not like to use prepared pectin, preferring the tradition method of cooking the preserves until they set naturally. I now spend several days each summer and fall "putting up" local cherries, berries, peaches, apples and pears. Sometimes I followed recipes; other times I vary them to suit my tastes, or experiment with flavor combinations of my own.

The small wooden-shelf-lined room in our basement has been transformed from a wine cellar into the traditional storage cellar that I imagine it was built to be. Our port collection still has its shelf in the back of the cellar; the bottles sport an authentic-looking layer of dust and a cobweb or two. However, the products of my canning now occupy a much larger portion of the shelf space in the cellar; at present count, there are seven dozen jars of jams, preserves and chutneys on the shelves. Recently, as I carried a box of freshly-made jam into the cellar, I imagined how the room might have looked at the end of summer, 90 years ago. The cellar, I believe, would have been filled with jars much like the ones that I placed on its shelves. Now, as it would have been then, our cellar is full of the flavors, memories and sunshine of summer, just waiting to brighten a rainy winter morning.