April Showers Bring May Flowers

It’s finally feeling like summer is coming. But a time of year that would normally see me full of excitement and plans for the garden and kitchen is instead leaving me feeling bereft!

It’s not something I’ve been talking about here, but for the last six months, Hubby and I have been negotiating the frequently infuriating, frustrating, and quite honestly heartbreaking process of surrendering our beautiful home to the Department for Transport so that their friends at HS2 can build a high speed railway line through it. In some respects our entire time here –  in this beautiful piece of rural England, in the cottage that we hoped might be our home for the rest of our lives – has been overshadowed by HS2, which was announced six months after we arrived, ironically on the very day that a huge box of bare-rooted saplings – the orchard I had always wanted – arrived in my kitchen.

So, this year, there have been no window sills full of seed trays. No greenhouse full of tomatoes and chillies (no greenhouse at all, any more – it has gone to live with a friend in the village). No cut flower patch. I’ve had to sit on my green fingers, and it’s been the worst kind of torture.

My poor potted orchard!The only thing we’ve done that could be considered to be ‘gardening’ has been the heartbreaking task of digging up my beloved orchard trees – which will otherwise end up under three metres of backfill – and transferring them into pots, and which felt like nothing more than an act of vandalism.

Of course, just to make me feel worse, everything has decided to blossom this year, most of them for the first time ever! I’m assuming this year’s fruit harvest is a write off, but hopefully my precious trees will survive the abuse, and go on to thrive in their new home.

In six weeks time (fates willing!) we – with the hens, and the trees, and Dave dog – should be just starting to find our feet in our new home in Cornwall. We decided to take the plunge, and make the move we’ve been talking about for years as ‘some day’, to make an opportunity out of what could so easily be a small personal tragedy.

Elderflower buds, just breakingFor now, though, the elder is starting to burst into flower, and yet another highlight of my culinary year is about to pass me by. I could cry!

While there will almost certainly be no elderflower champagne for me this year, there’s no reason you should miss out!

Zested citrus & elderflowersElderflower ‘champagne’ was a great favourite of my grandmother’s, and a few years ago, just after we moved to the cottage, I decided to explore it for myself. It’s been my gateway to a great adventure with all sorts of home-brewing, and is still one of my favourites. It’s so simple, everyone should give it a go!

However, there are two little ‘gotchas’ that I’ve come across with elderflower champagne. Firstly, this live-bottled brew can over-pressurise and create ‘bottle bombs’. Not something that has happened to me personally, thank goodness, but this is mostly because I absolutely insist on using only plastic soft-drinks bottles for this feisty little number. Secondly, if you make this brew with whole flowerheads (and I usually do – it’s a lot of hard work otherwise!), rather than hand-stripping the flowers first, it has a very short shelf life.

Ready to drink!While it’s still actively fermenting in the bottle, all is well, but after three or four weeks, as the brew is ‘fermented out’ and starts to drop clear in the bottle, the flavour begins to turn bitter. Insidiously at first, but pretty soon it will be undrinkably unpleasant. So don’t try to lay this stuff down – enjoy it at its fresh best, start drinking just as soon as you like, once the bottles have pressurised, and enjoy the batch as the sweetness diminishes (and the potency increases!) over the next couple of weeks.

Elderflower cordial, steepingElderflower cordial is another great favourite, and my larder will be the poorer for not getting a batch laid in this year. Again, home-made is the simplest of things. There are no gotchas here, and since I found out about using a little campden powder (wine-makers sulphite), I’m quite happy to lay it down in wine bottles in a cool dark place, where it keeps perfectly for at least a year. If you’d rather not use sulphites, then make a small batch and keep it in the fridge, or freeze a larger quantity using well washed plastic milk bottles or tetra-packs that have held fruit juice.

Diluted with sparkling water, with a handful of ice, it’s a wonderful refreshing drink on a hot day, and a taste of summer in the depths of winter. And the leftover citrus fruit makes a wonderful elderflower-infused marmalade, too!

Last year I made a small experimental batch of elderflower and lemon gin, and some elderflower vinegar. I can report that both of these were excellent – though the lemon gin would have benefited from having the rind removed after a couple of days, leaving just the elderflower to infuse for longer, as the citrus overwhelms the floral character a little.

The elderflower vinegar has amazed me (and the very small number of people I’ve shared it with!). It captures absolutely all of the beautiful sweet scent of the fresh elderflowers, without sugariness, and makes a quite remarkable simple floral vinaigrette! It’s so good that I may just try to make some this year, even if I can’t manage anything else with the house move imminent!

While I’m on the subject of flower vinegars, I absolutely must mention (and heartily recommend to you!) chive flower vinegar, since chive flower season is here or just around the corner. This is remarkable stuff – for a start, just look at the colour!

Chive flower vinegar

The flavour is great – all the fresh onioniness of chives, but without the ‘hot’ character that often comes from raw alliums. It is the simplest thing to make – even a jam jar quantity with a dozen or so chive flowers will be worth your effort – and keeps at least a year in a cool dark place (do beware light – the colour will degrade very quickly even if it’s not in direct sunlight!).

So there you go – May flowers; the figurative ones are hopefully just around the corner, and as for the real ones, they not just for looking at, but for eating too! So enjoy them! And while you do, spare a little thought for us poor up-rooted souls..?

More of this to come!This wonderful little cottage has been so good to us – we have learned so much from being here, and this blog undoubtedly owes its existence to our having made it our home. It’s going to be a real wrench to leave (and heartbreaking to think about what will happen to this little patch of heaven soon) but hopefully, for us, it’s a step on the way to another, bigger adventure!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

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13 thoughts on “April Showers Bring May Flowers

  1. Goddess, I had no idea that they had gone ahead with claiming land etc for HS2. I thought we could still stop it. So awful to hear such a personal story on how it is effecting people. Sorry that you are losing your home. And your poor orchard. Must be all so heartbreaking. My heart goes out to you & your family.

    It is lovely that you have a ‘plus side’ with all this (though with great cost), in your move to Cornwall. So a new exciting chapter, and I hope the orchard trees take the move in their stride.

    • We’re trying to frame it as an opportunity – and we’ve had that nudge to make the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ move to the West that we may not have got around to for years (ever? who knows). So it’s not all bad. But is is a total wrench, and it’s all taken so damn long and been so bloody difficult!

  2. Thanks so much for this post – brought memories of my mother’s elderflower cordial flooding back! I would also recommend elderflower fritters (for those not in the middle of a house move…) – unusual and delicious little treats!

  3. Oh Kate, I’m so sorry to read of your uprooting, how awful. But so exciting to be making the Big Move West and I hope that it all goes really well – will be looking out for your future posts & seeing how the orchard grows ❤ I spend every year telling myself to pick elderflowers… perhaps this year will be the year I finally get around to doing just that.

    • I can’t recommend it enough, to be honest. Elderflower cordial is really really trivial and repays the effort in spades. Even a small batch is worth making. Going out picking is half the fun, of course.

      Thank you for your kind thoughts! It’s certainly going to be an adventure!

    • Thank you, that’s so kind of you! I’m sorry to say I decided a couple of years back that the time and writing effort needed to participate properly in these kinds of prizes and awards was better spent focusing on the real purpose of the blog, though, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline your nomination. I really appreciate the thought though, thank you again!

  4. So sorry to hear about your enforced move, it must be heartbreaking. HS2 has a lot to answer for. I wish you all the best with your move to Cornwall, it’s such a beautiful county I’m sure you will settle in and love it as much as I do

  5. Pingback: Cannelloni al Forno, from ‘Pasta’ – Cooking the Books, week 21 | Country Skills for Modern Life

  6. Pingback: Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22 | Country Skills for Modern Life

  7. Pingback: New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden | Country Skills for Modern Life

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