Picks & Preserves: Making Fruit Magic with Kat Sylvester

Meet Kat!

Kat is one of our amazing Pick Leaders here at Not Far From The Tree. We heard through Instagram that she was turning her freshly-picked fruits into preserves and selling them with 100% of the proceeds going to an Indigenous-led charity. We got the scoop!

“Picking [fruit] taught me to really slow down, to pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons, and the ways we move with them.”

Hi Kat! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up just outside Six Nations of the Grand River on a flower farm that my grandfather started. I ran away from country life in 2005 to live my big city dreams in Toronto where I spent a decade choosing capitalism. After some personal upheaval five years ago, I started looking critically at my life for the people and actions and things that brought me the most joy. I ended up learning that while ‘things’ couldn’t make me happy, leaning into my roots to protect and champion the earth while making things for others could.

How did you get started with NFFTT?

I first volunteered in the summer of 2020 after my good friend sent me an Instagram post about the start of the season. She had met the founder [Laura Reinsborough] at a dinner the previous winter and knew this was the kind of organization I would love to be a part of. I volunteered right away, and midway through the season I was given the opportunity to upgrade my role to a Pick Leader.

What is your favourite fruit picking memory?

My grandparents had a pear tree in their front yard growing up. During the growing season whenever we would go visit, my grandfather would be waiting under the tree with a fresh picked pear for me. Or sometimes he would lift me up so I could pick one myself.

What fruit creations have you made so far this year?

  • Apricot & Jalapeno Jam
  • Apricot Salsa
  • Bourbon Cherries
  • Cherry Pit Simple Syrup
  • Cherry Pie

Can you talk us through your process of canning and preserving?

I typically start by washing the fruit when I bring it home. I’ll dump my harvest into the sink and let it soak in a light vinegar bath for 15-20 minutes to get rid of any hitchhikers, then I’ll sort through the fruit once more. Depending on what I’m planning to make I might sort them into a process vs. fresh pile and then I go to work pitting and chopping. Most recipes I’ve used so far call for leaving the skin on (you get waaay better flavour!) but I’ll still trim off any fungus or major flaws before I start cooking. Once the fruit is chopped it’s usually a matter of cooking the fruit down and adding it into the sterilized jars. I don’t have a dishwasher so I wash my jars in hot soapy water and then put them in the oven at 350 degrees to dry. Once they’re dry and hot, I’ll add the preserves and pop them into a water bath. I don’t have a jam pot, so I use my biggest pot and process in batches. 

What equipment do you use?

Last year I bought myself a wide-mouth metal funnel after I melted my old plastic one into a batch of jam, and this year I decided to save my finger by buying a contraption that lifts the hot jars from the boiling water. If I could go back in time I would just buy the $30 preserving kit from Canadian Tire that comes with all the tools I need, instead of my usual approach which is realizing halfway through cooking that I actually did need that tool and trying to ‘Macgyver’ a solution.

Do you have any advice for a beginner? Have any mistakes turned into happy accidents?

I think my best advice for beginners is to just try. I had never preserved anything in my life before last summer and I just jumped in with a batch of grape jelly. It was incredibly messy and nothing turned out the way I thought it would but going through the motions helped me to understand the mechanics of preserving in a way that researching couldn’t prepare me for. I also really like challenging myself to find uses for the whole plant. It pushes me to find recipes that fall outside the typical preserving spectrum which I find really fun. Like, thinking about uses for cherry pits led me to make a batch of orgeat (an almond based liquor) which led to Mai Thais, which led to midnight swimming, and the literal worst hangover of my life. But it was fun!

What are you doing with your preserves? Can you tell us about the organization to which you’re donating the proceeds?

After my first year picking, I had so many preserves leftover that I ended up giving away baskets for the holidays. It was lovely to have so much abundance to share that it got me thinking of how else I could pay that forward. So many of my friends had expressed interest in the things I was making that I decided to try selling my preserves this year to raise money for the Canadian Roots Exchange. They are a youth-led organization with Indigenous-based leadership, founded on the principle that all youth in Canada must be given the opportunity to play a leading role in the hard work of reconciliation. 

Photo courtesy of Canadian Roots Exchange (2018)

“I think a lot about food security and the community access points to fresh foods so I’m constantly looking for ways to assist that feel really tangible for me.”

Has picking and preserving fruit changed your personal relationship with, or understanding of, food?

There’s something about picking and preserving that completely changed my relationship with food. I think the best way to explain it is that picking taught me to really slow down, to pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons and the ways we move with them. There’s something incredibly beautiful for me about picking fruit to turn it into something we can eat year-round, especially in the dark winter months. It feels straight-up magical to open up a jar of preserved peaches in December, when you can remember picking them from the tree still warm from the sunshine. 

Follow along with Kat’s preserving adventures on Instagram and check out her sustainable candle company!

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