If any word has come to the forefront in the '80s, it is perhaps 'Conservation'. Today the word 'conservation' is linked to nature and natural resources - to rainforests; to unique flora and fauna; to our mineral wealth and the like.

Whilst contemporary conservationists look to the future, they also look back on the past, often with condemnation of our forebears for their lack of conservation leading to today's problems.

In many cases this view is undoubtedly all too correct; however, in other aspects we are currently far less conservation-minded than people of two or three generations past, due in numerous ways to advances in technology, communications, standards of living and greater disposable incomes.

I remember being told some forty years ago that modern economy was largely based on waste with the tendency to go even further towards 'disposals' items and to the trend to replace rather than repair (often the cheaper alternative now), we are seemingly moving further in this direction - moving away from conserving what we already have.

The Oxford dictionary defines conserve: "keep from harm, decay or loss", whilst conservation defines as "preservation". It is on these basic definitions that we have fallen behind our predecessors, particularly in regard to food.

The motto of our grandparents (and theirs before them) was "waste not, want not". In days when people were more self-sufficient and lived largely on what they grew or raised, many hours were spent on salting or smoking fish or meat; on bottling fruit and on drying fruit, vegetables, nuts, herbs etc. to tide them over the months of non-production.

As standards and technology improved, came refrigeration and freezing. With advances in communication, there is little in the food line unavailable fresh today because it is "out of season" in any particular area - it can always be freighted in - even by air - but at a cost.

An increasing number of people are realising this, and appalled at the resultant wastage, are reverting to old time practices of "conservation".

Technology steps in again with such items as pressure cookers, deep freezers and electric dehydrators. Coincident with these advances, studies have been carried out on the preserved products to ascertain the damage done by cooking or preserving. Food technology highlights such items as vitamins, fat, fibre, hydrocarbon, sugar content etc.

In all forms of preservation and cooking there is some loss of vitamins (this begins from the moment of harvesting), but the least loss is found in the modern, fast method of dehydrating. Another aspect, the enzyme content, is lost in both bottling and freezing, whilst being retained in the drying process.

Dehydrating or drying is the oldest form of food preservation. Sun drying is still carried out commercially in areas of very low humidity, but it is a lengthy process, not recommended for domestic use due to risk factors of mould and insect damage.

Solar dryers can be successful in some areas, but no guarantee of quality is possible due to irregular sunshine, venting of moisture and problems of duration of drying.

Ovens, both convection and microwave, can be used, but the risks of "cooking" rather than drying make this a risky and unreliable method.

Specially designed electric dehydrators are now currently available throughout Australia. They are simple to operate.

Drying not only removes the moisture from the product, it concentrates both flavour and sugar.

Dried fruit and vegetables can be kept for many years if stored in airtight and insect-proof containers.

Virtually all fruit can be dried and either eaten 'as is' or, as with vegetables, rehydrated for cooking.

For those who do not grow their own fruit and vegetables, large savings can be made by buying in bulk during the peak season and drying.

T.K. Holme

DATE: July 1990

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