Going commando

Find out about more canning events at www.yeswecanfood.com. Tickets sell out within minutes.

Beneath a leafy canopy at Capay Organic farm, Anya Fernald and staff have set up two outdoor stoves and, on picnic tables, basins large enough to bathe a baby. The makeshift kitchen, tucked between orchards and fields, resembles a sepia family photo from the 1930s, except one table holds 200 pounds of peaches.

Fernald, a sustainable-food business consultant and director of Slow Food Nation, is teaching people how to preserve food and fill their pantries before it’s too late. “We’re at that precipice of things becoming lost knowledge,” she warns. Since preserving food can be intimidating—there’s botulism and bacteria spoilage to consider—her Commando Canning workshops strip the process to the essentials.

Twenty people paid $60 each for this Commando Canning lesson, lunch and six jars of jam. Fernald launched the workshops after creating a team-building experience for her staff. Together they canned 35,000 pounds of tomatoes in three days, making pasta sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce and Bloody Mary mix.

Preserving fresh food is a valuable skill in these tough environmental times, notes Thaddeus Barsotti, owner of the 20-acre farm. “Our mission is to connect people with the land that grows their food. You have to know the carbon footprint of your eating habit.”

Fernald grabs a paring knife to teach a group how to score. “Go all the way down the meridian,” she instructs. “Don’t go deep or you will damage the flesh.” She hands the knife to a young man, who slices hesitantly. “Go longer,” Anya encourages, as she strides to another group.

“You’re blanching,” she says. “The length of time depends on the ripeness. Try 15 seconds. Don’t cook the peaches. I don’t want mushy flesh.”

She stands over pots of hot water on the table. “Dip and hold for 15 seconds, take it out and let it cool, and dip it quickly into ice water.” Another group slides the skin off. Most of a fourth group slices peach flesh away from the pit, while two people open pits to extract the nut. Later it will be crushed and tiny amounts added to the jam for more flavor.

By late morning, a couple is wrist-deep in a tub, mixing peach chunks and 40 pounds of sugar with their bare hands. When one person balks, Fernald reassures: “Salt, sugar and vinegar are natural antibacterial agents. They take out moisture and make the product stable.”

The mixture macerates over lunch. Afterward, while Barsotti leads participants on a short walk, Fernald stirs the boiling jam-to-be. “That’s the way sweetness smells,” she says, smiling.

When participants return, they sterilize half-pint jars and hot-pack the jam. By midafternoon, peach jam glistens in more than 200 jars.

Commando means casual, spontaneous,” Fernald says. “It also means no underwear.

“That could be a whole new demographic for us, but we may not have that mailing list.”