Preserving Summer

We’ll all die, but preserve your memory like the oils of summer. Put your favourite recipes into your book, in your handwriting, with your cooking stains. That, truly, will last forever.

There’s something very instinctive about preservation. Holding on to what we have. Preservation followed by regeneration. The story of life. In the kitchen, we discovered very early that the preserved version stands very well beside the fresh. Not the same, mind, but in its own way just as delicious. There are the short-term preserves like stewed fruits, adding a couple of weeks of pleasure to a bag of apricots or plums. Then comes the long term: jams, conserves, and for those with plenty of time, the bottling of fruits for the winter. Preserved peaches for instance; pears in red wine; tomato sauce from your excess tomatoes; cherries in vodka; turning grapes into wine; the list is as good as your imagination.

Somehow this art, which seems such an Australian thing (particularly post-war to the Beatles), is fading away. Stuck in the back of my cupboard is the king or queen of preservers, last used to keep hot dogs bubbling away at a birthday party. The process of preserving fruit seems to take so long, and there’s so much pressure on our time these days, that … But I’ll never part with it; to do so would be to part with the dream, to part with the past.

Lately, I’ve been into something that takes little time, but might be better than all the above (well, maybe not better than making wine, but few of us have the chance to stamp on our own grapes). It’s called preserving flavour. It’s as old as time itself, yet it almost has a futuristic feel about it. It’s about holding the flavours you love, in oil. There is nothing stressful about it. No hard and fast rules. All you need is plenty of oil, plenty of vials (most of the time taken is spent searching for jars, then lids, then getting them clean!), large and small, and plenty of herbs and spices.

Whenever I’m engaged in this art of preservation, I think of dressing up, and splashing about delicious perfumes; I think of luxurious baths, filled with oils, and foams, and bubbles. I think, too, in a bizarre way, of cryogenics, and the preservation of life, not that I’ve been experimenting with this method in the kitchen. In this crazy buisiness, so I’m told, they cut off your scone and preserve it in nitrogen, in the belief that in a hundred, or a thousand or a million years, some hero will come along with a way to regenerate a dead, and quite possibly old and, very likely, out-of-date brain, and give it to a new carrier. As far as I can gather, no body of any merit has had its head preserved, which suggests to me that this venture is supported by those whose ‘gee whiz, isn’t he fantastic’ PR is driven from within, rather than without.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, one hopes, the spirit is preserved without high-tech refrigeration. What we offer today is there through generations, teaching, influencing, affecting. All the more reason to keep in touch with the family tree. All the more reason to make sure you write down your favourite recipes, and your family’s favourites, so they will be preserved for eternity.

Dream of your posterity while you’re cutting up the chillies for the following recipe. Note here, too, when you’re preserving these fiery creatures, it’s not the body you’re cutting up, it’s the soul you’re holding on to.

Flavours in oil

When you’re holding on to flavours in jars, make small quantities, several times. Why? Not so many jars to wash. You can retain the sense of fun, rather than becoming a production line. Each time you do it, you learn more about the process. And the lighter load reduces the dread of hours of chopping and peeling, which means you’re less likely to put it off. Towards the end of the season, you’ll need to do more. By all means choose the aromas and flavours you love, but you must make chilli oil. It is one of my favourites.

6 hot red chillies

2 cups good quality olive oil – It’s often touted to use oils with little flavour. I prefer olive oil because it gives a double edge to your flavoured oil.


Slice the chillies, keeping the seeds, and add to the olive oil. Bring gently to the boil, stirring all the while, squeezing the chillies with the back of a wooden spoon. Continue simmering for about 5 minutes, and then set aside to cool.


Strain through a firm sieve, pressing hard on the chillies. Allow to cool further, and strain again, through a fine sieve or kitchen cloth like Chux. Bottle. Use sparingly but often.


    You’ve got de oils, now what to do wit’ dem. The best way to consider uses for flavoured oils is to interchange them with butter. Follow these steps with your best crusty sourdough bread.

  1. Pour some chilli oil over the bread.
  2. Spread a little creamy goat’s cheese over the top.
  3. Add some slices of freshly picked tomato.
  4. Sprinkle lots of black pepper, and a little salt on the tomato.
  5. Pour a little basil oil on top of the tomato. (If you wish to close the sandwich, pour the basil oil over another slice of bread, and cover the filling.)
  6. When you eat it, make sure you have at least a tablecloth wrapped around your neck. The firmer the bite, the more the oil splashes. This is a summer sandwich, made with love, for lovers.


  • Use chilli oil as the starting oil for your favourite risotto.
  • Pour flavoured oil over steamed rice.
  • Pour flavoured oil over your home-made pizza, or add flavour to your takeaway pizza.
  • Slice a batch of tomatoes and sprinkle well with a little balsamic vinegar and a deal of chilli oil and basil oil. Allow it all to sit for several hours. Eat, via a dunked slice of toast.
  • When sauteing chicken, start the chook in tarragon oil.
  • Cover freshly picked spinach leaves (washed and dried) with chilli oil.
  • Drain bocconcini and recover with basil oil.
  • Draw a hot bath and add rosemary oil. Lie quietly.
  • Keep experimenting.

NOTE: You can do the same for basil, which makes for one of the truly great flavoured oils. A whiff of basil oil and you feel like you are rustling through the basil plants on a sunny day. The Italians like a mix of basil and chilli mixed in oil so much they have dubbed it olio santo, holy oil. You can do it with tarragon, with bay leaf, with rosemary, with coriander. If it’s a herb you like, you can do it.