Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >

Advertisements

The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2014 Edition

Dear visitor – this post is preserved for archival purposes.  Click here to view the fully updated Eurovision 2015 Drinking Game Rules (with bonus ‘Fair Dinkum’ Aussie round).

The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Saturday May the 10th. So, without further ado, I present to you – The Eurovision Drinking Game, 2014.

Get those bottles open!Could this be the very best Eurovision Song Contest drinking game on the internet? With all due modesty, I think it might be! Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a drunken student party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even remembered enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions!

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of both the song and the performance have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

European FlagsYou will need to divide up the countries and songs between your players. The best way to do this will depend on your personal preferences, and the number of people at your party. It’s probably unwise (though it may well be very entertaining!) for everyone at the party to play for every song. A small party might only want to play a subset of the songs available. You could allocate the songs by ballot at the start of the party, or draw straws before each song. The choice is yours!

The Songs – 

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Musical scoreSelected features of the song and performance trigger forfeits. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the infamous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

    • Is not in an official language of the country being represented
    • Change of language
    • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
    • Change of tempo
    • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Russian folk-dancersThe performer, costume and performance –

    • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
    • Folk costume
    • Folk instrument 
    • Folk dance
    • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
    • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
    • 'Policewomen'Flags & banners
    • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
    • Costume change
    • Bare feet, bare torsos
    • Underwear as outerwear
    • Spandex, lurex, sequins
    • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
    • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
    • Fur, feathers, wings
    • Trapeze or wire-work
    • PyrotechnicsMagic, circus themes
    • ‘Booby Prize’ This is the big forfeit, down the remains of your drink! – Performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!)

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment. Use the same forfeit list, but all penalties are doubled.

For the convenience of all my lovely readers, I have made you a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card this year. Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Your cut-out-and-keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novices. Nevertheless, these rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be!

Voting!Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.

‘Booby Prize’: Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know what you thought of them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years. You can leave a comment, or tweet me @CountrySkills (where it’s likely some Eurovision live-tweeting may follow!).

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

As our Danish hosts might say – “Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret!” (Bottoms up or the rest in your hair!)

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Elderflorescence – it’s not too late for elderflower cordial, champagne, and how about vinegar?

The scent of an elder tree or shrub, in full flower on a hot sunny afternoon, is one of the heady, intoxicating, unmistakeable aromas of high summer.  This year the elders seem to be making up for last season’s poor showing – they’re simply smothered with elderflowers right now, dressed up from tip to toe in ivory flowers like a fairytale bride.

Elderflower buds, just breaking

Last year, we really struggled to harvest the elderflowers I needed to make my traditional annual batch of elderflower cordial and champagne. I blogged at the time about the ritual of gathering my elderflowers, and what it means for me. Well, this year, the elderflowers are in abundance – what took several hours and a five mile walk last year, we achieved in ten minutes on a short length of our country lane on Sunday. That’s one of the things about foraging – it’s never ever the same!

A chilled fizzy glass of summer!I adore elderflower ‘champagne’. My grandmother used to make it, and it was my gateway to home brewing, I suppose! My favourite recipe is here, with full instructions. It’s a great and rewarding introduction to home brewing, so even if you’ve never tried to brew before, do consider giving it a whirl. It’s not as scary as it seems, I promise, and the result is a fun summer tipple, fantastic for bbqs and parties, and which costs very little.

Under Pressure!Unfortunately for us, it’s really bad timing for starting a batch of elderflower champagne just now – but you most definitely should! Just be aware, it’s a lively beast, and I would under no circumstances advise trying to store it in glass bottles – even those tempting-looking pop top Grolsch-style ones. Just look what it did to the stout small plastic bottles I used last year!  With a little luck there will still be enough flowers around that I can get a late batch on the go in a few weeks time! Otherwise – and this would be nothing short of a minor tragedy – we’ll have to go without this year!

Elderflower cordial, steepingBut – thank goodness – I have found time to make my elderflower cordial, and it  is steeping in the kitchen as I write – I’ve made it this way for a few years now (full instructions & photos blogged last year), and the results are always amazing. If you’re not a brewer, or don’t want to use campden (sulphite) to stabilise the cordial for storage at room temperature, how about freezing it in carefully washed out milk bottles or juice cartons?

Filled marlalade jarsAnd don’t neglect the lemon and orange slices from the cordial once it’s finished – they make really great marmalade!

Those of you who read the blog regularly know that I’m always up for trying something different! So, considering the success of the chive blossom vinegar, I’ve started an experimental batch of elderflower vinegar.

Stripped elderflowersFor this, I’ve stripped the elderflowers off their stems – I finally found a technique that works for me, which is closer to rubbing the flowers and stamens off the green stems than it is to picking off the tips, and gives flowers almost entirely without green material.  Give the flower bunches a good sharp shake first, to dislodge any ‘passengers’ who might be hitching a ride.

You will probably find, despite this, there are some tiny little insects in amongst your flowers once you’ve picked them. Just ignore these (certainly don’t be tempted to wash the flowers as you’ll wash away much of the lovely flavour!). The vinegar will be filtered through fine muslin later, in any case, and if that still doesn’t reassure you, consider that you eat large numbers of insects and associated material every day already – just take a look at the US Food & Drug Administration’s pamphlet on allowable levels of insect and other contaminants in different foodstuffs if you don’t believe me!

Elderflowers steeping in vinegarI filled about half a 1 litre kilner jar with loose flowers, and then filled it up with cider vinegar. In retrospect, I may have used something with less aroma of its own, like rice wine vinegar, but cider vinegar was what I had, and hopefully the fruity note of the cider vinegar will complement the elderflowers beautifully. Put the filled jar somewhere warm to infuse – unlike the chive flower vinegar, there’s no need to keep it out of the light as there’s no problem with colour fading.  I expect to leave it for a couple of weeks before straining and bottling.

This vinegar smells beautiful after only 24 hours,  with a gorgeous fresh elderflower fragrance. So does the cordial, actually, so my kitchen is a sweetly-scented haven right now, and with my living room full of little posies of gorgeous sweet peas from the garden, the house smells nicer than a perfumery!

Elderflowers and citrus fruit

So, if you do nothing else this week, seize the opportunity to capture – even if just in a small batch of cordial or vinegar – one of the ephemeral scents and flavours of high summer.  During the long dark winter months, it’s amazing what a taste and smell of elderflower can do to lift my spirits!

And of course, with elderflowers so abundant this year, we can only hope for a great elderberry season to come!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

The Eurovision Drinking Game – because in the country, you make your own fun!

Making your own entertainment is, most definitely, a country skill. Living out of town, you don’t have access to restaurants, bars and cinemas without resorting to the car or a rather expensive cab. There’s the pub, and village activities – a great sense of community, but necessarily limited in it’s options!

European FlagsIt’s been said that, while the rest of Europe may feel embarrassed or nonplussed, sometimes, by the cultural festival that is the annual Eurovision Song Contest, the British are the only ones who seem to think it’s a drinking game. [If you’re not European, then I’m sorry, the rest of this post is likely to be pretty confusing!].

There are many variations, of course, but this one one is *mine*. I started developing it when I was still a student, and a number of victims have ‘play-tested’ it for me over the years (you know who you are!). Some even remembered enough the next day to make suggestions for improvements, which have been incorporated over time.

So, revised and refreshed, in time for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, which this Saturday will come from Malmo, in Sweden, it’s time to offer it up as a game for the world to enjoy! Break out the home-brewed cider, and play along!

Introduction –

This game is based on the songs and performances that make up the Eurovision Song Contest. Features of songs and performances are identified, and carry drinking forfeits (usually ‘take a swig’ with a small number of exceptions).

Euro shot glassesEveryone at the party *could* play for every song, but that may be unwise! Better, probably, to divide up the performances between the party-goers, either by drawing lots before the contest starts, or drawing straws between the performances, which adds a more immediate sense of peril and means some people might end up amusingly and disproportionately ‘picked on’ (clustering in random distributions is a bitch!).

Obviously, if it’s a very small party, not all songs need to be allocated, and likewise, in a big group, more than one player can play for any given song. (Also see ‘variations’ suggested below.) Non-drinkers & children can still have fun by identifying and shouting out the trigger rules when they appear.

And now, the rules –

Begin any song that you’re playing with a fully-charged glass.

These are the ‘trigger’ features of songs and performances for which the player should drink. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the famous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would be a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions gets a drink on each switch.

Sheet MusicThe song itself –

  • Song is not in an official language of the country being represented
  • Change of language
  • Change of key
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Military 'uniform'The performer, costume and performance –

  • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Flags & banners
  • PyrotechnicsPyrotechnics
  • Costume change
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Fur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes

and, last but not least

  • Performer does not appear to be human – note this rule applies whether the performer *is* human underneath or not! – This is the big forfeit. Down the remains of your drink.

Russian folk-dancersThe half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this one. Use the same forfeit list above, but all penalties are doubled.

Voting –

I haven’t got rules for the voting – in my experience the mood of the assembled party generally doesn’t require any further ‘lifting’ by that stage in the evening!

Variations –

Rather than allocating countries’ songs to players by ballot, the enthusiastic party host could assemble a trivia question for each country in the contest (as simple or as fiendish as they like!). Players getting it wrong would play that country’s song. Of course, this is less fun if the host was planning on playing too, as they’ll know all the answers.

Well, that’s it, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know how you found them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years.

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Under Pressure – this elderflower ‘champagne’ is a lively brew!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making this year’s batch of elderflower champagne, which included my usual warnings (shared with anyone who’ll listen at this time of year!) about the hazards of bottling a rather wild, actively fermenting brew in glass bottles.

Here’s why –

Under Pressure!

The bottle on the right is the ‘donor’ bottle, containing half a litre of sparkling water.  The bottles on the left are my elderflower champagne, about four days after bottling.  They were filled, originally, to about 5mm below the neck of the bottle.  You can see the pressure in the bottles – despite ‘degassing’ daily up to this point – has inflated the bottle like a balloon (it reminds me of one of those cartoon moon rockets!) creating a whole heap of extra headroom in the process. The bottom of the bottle is also noticeably pushed downwards.  Perhaps a passing materials specialist will tell us what internal pressure is required to produce this sort of effect, one of these days!

The little bit of ‘give’ in the plastic has allowed this to happen without catastrophe, which is a luxury that glass doesn’t give you.  So please, please, use plastic bottles for elderflower champagne.  The reinforced sort that have held fizzy drinks (lemonade, tonic water, or sparkling mineral water, like these), not the sort designed for non-carbonated water or drinks.  Yes, I know it looks a bit tatty, but really, why take the risk of a spectacular and dangerous bottle bomb?

And how’s the champagne, you might ask?  Why, very nice, thank you!  For all the hassle involved, I’m really pleased I just managed to make this year’s batch!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

From the Bookshelf – ‘Self-Sufficiency Home Brewing’ by John Parkes

While the internet is always a great source of inspiration and information, I wouldn’t be without my eclectic (and ever growing!) personal collection of reference books.  I’ll put my hand up here and admit to having a book ‘problem’.  I love books.  Having all the basic information on a subject in one place, and arranged logically, does make getting a good solid grounding and basic understanding of a subject a lot more accessible than the scattergun depth-first approach you tend to end up with when following links online.

[Full disclosure – I bought this book, myself, with my own money, a couple of years ago. I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

Cover‘Self-sufficiency Home Brewing’, John Parkes.
New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 2009.
ISBN 978 184773 460 0.  RRP £7.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

This was one of the first brewing books I bought, and I would thoroughly recommend it as a basic guide to taking up brewing at home.  It’s a beer book, though it does cover all the basics of sterilisation / sanitisation, equipment, and so forth which would be relevant to brewing other drinks such as ciders, wines and meads.  It’s a convenient paperback format at a really good price, too (with handy folded-back covers for stashing bits and bobs of paperwork in, no less!).  It’s clearly and concisely written, and pleasantly produced & illustrated.

The first part of the book introduces your ingredients – grains, hops, yeasts and of course water – and the different styles of beer you can make with them.  This may be of interest to you if you want to learn more about beers and brewing, even if you’re not planning to make any of your own.

Inside page viewLater sections cover equipment – without suggesting that the first-time home brewer needs to acquire the proverbial ‘moon-onna-stick’ – and techniques for brewing from kits, from extract, and more advanced traditional all-grain techniques.

Finally, there are a good variety of recipes for extract & grain brewing to give you inspiration for creating your very own.  John explains the science behind the brewing processes clearly and logically, which is great if, like me, you feel the need to understand the ‘why’ of a process as well as the ‘what’!

With all my clutterIn summary, this is a great, accessible little book to take you from no home brewing experience at all, well into experimenting with a range of recipes and styles, before you’ll need to buy anything else.  I would heartily recommend it to newbie home-brewers, or simply the beer-positve / beer-curious, it will really expand your understanding and appreciation of your favourite tipple!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Last of the Harvest – elderflower ‘champagne’

Elderflower champagne is one of the tastes of summer for me.  It’s quite unlike anything else, and doesn’t keep well, so it’s there, and then it’s gone.  This a really feisty brew which breaks all the rules of home-brewing.  Please, whatever you do, don’t try and generalise from this brew to any other country wines you might like to make!

For a batch of elderflower champagne, you’ll need the following ingredients and equipment –

  • 30-40 good quality elderflowers (depending on the size of the blooms)
  • 2.5kg of unrefined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 5 lemons (unwaxed if possible, otherwise carefully washed in detergent and rinsed before use)
  • 1 lime (as above)
  • 2 tbsp of white wine or cider vinegar
  • 3 – 4 litres of boiling water, plus extra cold
  • Wine yeast & nutrient (optional)
  • Brewing bucket, at least 12l in volume (and a second is very useful – this can double with your spare vessel for the cordial, though!) with lid, or a clean muslin to cover
  • Enough screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles to contain your brew (10 – 12 litres in total).  Don’t even think about using glass bottles for this brew.

The first rule that gets broken here is sterilisation.  I don’t sterilise my buckets for elderflower brews – I figure I’m about to throw half a hedgerow into it, so sterility is a bit moot!  But do wash and rinse it very very carefully, and if you have any doubt about contamination from a previous dodgy brew then definitely break out the steriliser!

Put all the sugar in the bucket and add enough boiling water from the kettle to dissolve it fully.  Then top the bucket up to about 8l with cold water.  The result should be a blood-warm sugar solution.

Zested citrus & elderflowers

Peel the zest from the lemons and lime with a potato peeler, as thinly as possible (leaving the bitter white pith behind).  Then juice them, and add the zest and juice to the bucket.  Add the two tablespoons of vinegar.

What's left behindNow to the elderflowers.  You’ve selected them carefully, so they’re all lovely and full of nectar and pollen.  You want to add the flowers – but, unlike the elderflower cordial, you don’t just get to shake the bugs off and throw them in, I’m afraid!  This time, you want to add as little of the green stems as you can.  There are several ways of doing this.  I favour just plucking the flowers off pretty roughly with my fingertips.  You could use a fork to ‘comb’ through the little sprigs and pull the flowers off, but you will tend to take quite a lot of fine stem with you.  Or you could snip the flowers off with scissors.

The reason for this bit of faff is to do with a nasty bitter flavour that the stems can impart to your brew, which is what will make it undrinkable, eventually, with storage.  If you’re planning to drink all your elderflower champagne within a couple of weeks of bottling, you probably needn’t bother, but if you’re hoping to get a month or so of drinking out of them, some of the compounds extracted during brewing from the green stems will eventually be converted (by the yeast?  By oxidation? I don’t really know I’m afraid!) into an overpowering bitter note that will make your champagne entirely undrinkable.  If you minimise the stem, you should minimise the taint.

Ready to ferment - elderflower champagne in the bucket

Add all your flowers, then, and you should have an amazing smelling bucket full of flowers & citrus peel.  Top it up to about 11l.  Now add a teaspoon each of yeast and nutrient (if you have some).  Traditionally elderflower champagne is allowed to go on it’s own with the wild yeasts that are expected to be present on the flowers.  I find this unreliable, and want a good predictable outcome.  Loosely cover it with its lid or a double layer of muslin. This is home-brew faux-pas 2 – sorry, no airlock for me!

Signs of fermentation should be evident within a day or so, in the form of bubbles visibly rising to the surface (you may also get a froth, depending on how vigorous your fermentation is).  Watch for a bit, you’ll keep missing them and catching just a little movement in your peripheral vision.  You may also notice the slightly sharp smell of the carbon dioxide.

Leave your champagne to ferment for about five to seven days.  As if we haven’t broken enough rules already, this is where the whole process goes horribly ‘wrong’.  We’re going to make no effort to wait until our brew has ‘fermented out’ (see this cider-making post for discussion if you’re interested), so the brew is still actively fermenting, with the yeasts consuming sugars and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, when it goes into the bottles.  This ‘quick and dirty’ short cut allows us to go from flowers-into-bucket to drinkable-brew in about a fortnight, which is quite remarkable.  It does however carry a pretty serious risk of producing ‘bottle bombs’ – a quick google for ‘elderflower champagne exploding bottles’ will illustrate how widespread a problem this is.

For this reason, I only use screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles for my elderflower champagne.  Make sure they’re fizzy drink bottles – the 1 litre and half litre bottles seem most ‘stable’ though you can use the 2l cola or lemonade bottles if you like.  Don’t use bottles from non-sparkling water or fruit juices.  Do sterilise these with home-brew steriliser or milton solution, and rinse carefully before use.

After your brew’s been frothing for a week, filter it through a jelly bag or muslin-lined sieve into the second bucket to remove the solids, and syphon into your bottles (or use a jug and funnel, though this is another breach of ‘protocol’!) and screw the lids down tightly.  I was reminded when doing this this year that the filtration process is can be slow and frustrating – the yeast and pollens clog the jelly bag to a remarkable degree – and in future I suspect I’m going to use a much more open filter – I may even experiment with a nylon sieve (the sort you’d use to sift flour for baking) or something similar.  Using the jelly bag to filter my ~10kg batch took well over two hours, which frankly I could have done without!

Bottled elderflower champagneOnce your champagne is *finally* in your bottles, put them at room temperature somewhere secure where you can keep an eye on them (I tend to store the filled bottles in the washed and dried brewing buckets).

Every day or so, give the bottles a squeeze.  As the brew continues to ferment, the bottles will become harder and harder, and may even start to bulge alarmingly.  If you notice this starting to happen, release the pressure by very gently opening the lid a crack to let the carbon dioxide escape.  You may need to do this about once a day for the first week or so!

Under Pressure!You can see from the photo on the right the extent to which pressure can build up in these bottles – for comparison, the ‘donor’ bottle in it’s original state – the elderflower champagne bottles were filled to just below the neck, and the gas produced has inflated the bottles like balloons, producing a really large volume of extra head-room in the process.  Really, folks, don’t risk glass bottles with this brew!

As soon as you have pressure in the bottles, you can start drinking it – though I suggest waiting a week from bottling before taking your first sip.  As time goes by, the champagne will become ‘drier’ in flavour, and higher in alcohol as the sugars are consumed.  Don’t try to store this brew long-term – once you like the flavour of it, drink it and enjoy it!  I find that even with care, after four or five weeks the flavour is starting to deteriorate.

Ready to drink!

Pour, and enjoy this beautiful ephemeral effervescent flavour of summer!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Last of the Harvest – finally foraged the elderflowers!

I nearly missed this year’s elderflower season!  We’ve been having mad weather in the UK this year – a late, cold Spring and then so much rain in the past three months.  The elderflowers started late, and then meteorology managed to conspire with work and family commitments to leave me without a warm sunny day to go picking until today.  We’ve had a few heavy downpours in the past few days, with another one yesterday evening, and I was a bit worried there would be nothing left for me to pick.  A 5 mile, two hour foraging walk around the local lanes and byways eventually yielded the hundred good elderflower heads I needed.  They have never been so hard won!

I can’t remember when I started making elderflower cordial – it’s been well over a decade certainly (and before that – elderflower drinks are one of the things I really did learn from my grandmother!).  The desire to make my own elderflower champagne a couple of years ago drove the acquisition of my first small set of home-brew equipment – and what a great hobby (or can of worms, depending on your point of view!) that turned out to be.  Brewing came before curing and smoking and put me on the path to wanting to learn as much as I could about country skills – and hence, in the end, this blog.  So elderflowers and I go way back – they’ve had quite an influence on my life, one way and another!

Elderflowers and citrus fruit

These days I make a batch each of elderflower cordial and champagne, at the same time.  In a good year I’ll do this a couple or three times, but sadly this year it’s a one-shot deal, so I’d better make the best of it!  To make both, in the quantities I make, you need about 100 good blooms.

Different quality elderflowersAn ideal quality elderflower is one where all the little flower heads are open, the petals pure white with a lovely buttery-yellow bloom of pollen on it.  As the blooms age, the pollen (and nectar, and the best of the flavour and scent) dissipates.  The flowers then start to appear whiter – still ok to use, but not quite as flavoursome.  Then they start to brown.  Browning blooms will not contribute the flavour you want, and should not be used.  The photo to the left shows great quality blooms at the back, adequate to front left and sub-standard (discard) to the front right.   There were too many adequate and poor flowers today – earlier in the flowering season it’s much easier to get nice flowers!

Now you’ve picked your flowers, you’ll want the recipes.  Here they are –

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Sinfully Simple Cider – yes, you really can brew this at home!

Home-brew has a bit of a mixed reputation, it’s fair to say!  This is my method for making great, simple, real cider (hard cider, for those of you West of the Atlantic!) with almost no investment in special equipment.  Sounds too good to be true? Follow these instructions, and in just a few weeks time you can be drinking great cider (at least as good as most commercial bottled ciders you can buy!) that you’ve made yourself, and all for only a few pence more than the cost of cheap retail apple juice.  I just wish I’d known how to do this when I was a student – it would have saved me a fortune and quite possibly made me rather popular, too!

Chilled and ready to drink!

Last autumn, I made real ‘Real Cider’ from fresh apples.  I promised then I’d post quicker and simpler instructions for a short-cut brew.  Well, rather belatedly, here they are!

First a brief note on the law – I have no idea if home brewing is legal in your country or jurisdiction, or what restrictions might apply.  If you’re restricted (by age, local religious observance, or otherwise!) from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, it’s very likely local law enforcement may take an interest in you brewing it yourself, so please take appropriate advice!  In the UK, I believe home brewing is legal for personal consumption, however sale and distilling are tightly restricted.  

The minimum set of ingredients and equipment you require are –

  • The necessary parts5 litres of ‘pure apple juice’ (the clear, cheap, from concentrate variety from your local discount supermarket is fine, but it should contain no additives or preservatives)
  • Half a mug of very strong tea (use two tea bags – plain ones unless you fancy an unusual experimental flavour sensation!)
  • Wine yeast (this is widely available online or from your local friendly home-brew shop, and is cheapest in small pots rather than individual sachets – you could use bakers yeast as an emergency substitute, but it’s prone to producing strange flavours!)
  • A glass demijohn, or an empty 5l mineral water bottle
  • Home-brew steriliser (you could use Milton fluid as an alternative)

In another couple of weeks, you’ll also need to have gathered together –

  • A length of syphon tubing (between 1m and 1.5m or 4ft to 6ft in length)
  • Bottles, sufficient to contain your cider.  These must be able to take pressure.  Empty plastic screw-top fizzy drinks bottles are great for a first effort, and free.  The plastic will be somewhat gas permeable, so the cider won’t keep terribly well in them, but I doubt you’ll be laying down your first brew long-term!  Beer or champagne bottles are fine, but require special capping tools and equipment.  Please note that SCREW TOP GLASS WINE BOTTLES ARE COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE and are very likely to result in dangerously explosive bottles.
  • A few teaspoons each of sugar, and of a non-fermentable sweetener such as ‘Splenda’.

You might also like to add the following, which are not essential but will make the process simpler or more reliable –

  • A drilled rubber bung (or grommet) & bubbler airlock, to fit your bottle or demijohn.  If you don’t have these, you’ll need enough cotton wool to firmly plug the neck of your fermenter. [How to set up and use a bubbler airlock]
  • Yeast nutrient (This contains all the trace elements and minerals required for healthy yeast growth.  Apple juice is already pretty good for these, however, so it shouldn’t be necessary.)
  • A kitchen funnel
  • Bottle brush
  • Hydrometer [How to use a hydrometer]
  • Racking cane and tap or bottler attachment for your syphon tubing.
  • Capping device and / or appropriate caps, gaskets, stoppers and closures, if you prefer to use recycled beer or champagne bottles.

If you’re lucky enough still to have a local home-brew shop, now is the time to go and make friends!  You’ll get tons of helpful advice and guidance, and while the item costs are likely to be higher than from web retailers, you save on postage which can be a big consideration with small purchases.  There are also lots of home-brew suppliers on the Internet, of course.  I tend to use http://www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk/ for most of my home-brew purchases, Amazon and eBay are also full of useful retailers for odd bits and bobs.  Freecycle is the best source I can find for old-fashioned glass demijohns, and people are often giving away bottles, buckets, and other unwanted brewing items, it’s well worth posting a ‘wanted’ notice, these have served me very well for supplies in the past.

A quick totting up suggests you can get all you need for less than a tenner, and nearly everything except the apple juice is re-usable over and over (or at least, in the case of yeast and steriliser, for a good few batches!).

The process is really very straightforward, and divides neatly into four –

  1. Fermentation
  2. Bottling
  3. Secondary fermentation, and
  4. Drinking!

Stage 1 – Fermentation

First, wash out your demijohn very carefully, and sterilise it following the instructions on your steriliser solution.  Second hand glass demijohns have often been abandonned in a slightly grubby state and will need a little TLC to get back into a usable state (a cranked bottle brush will be helpful if so).  Pay close attention to the instructions that come with your steriliser solution, particularly where it comes to strength, contact time, and rinsing, since lack of attention to sterilisation and rinsing are responsible for most home-brew failures.  While you’re at it, sterilise anything else you’re going to be using – including the bung, bubbler airlock, and a funnel if you think you’ll need it.  Don’t neglect cleanliness, it’s critical to the success of any home-brewing enterprise.  Sometimes I think home-brewing is really just washing up with benefits!

Now I just need my finite improbability generator!Pour four litres of the apple juice carefully into your demijohn.  There will be some bubbly froth on top, this is fine (the juice will be nicely oxygenated).   The demijohn will not be full – this is intentional!  Add your half mug of very strong luke-warm tea, which provides some tannin for the cider, as apple juice intended for drinking will generally be quite poor in tannin.

Apple juice in the demijohn

Add a teaspoon of yeast, and one of yeast nutrient if you have it to hand, and fit the bung and airlock or stopper the bottle with your cotton wool, tightly enough to stop bugs getting in.

Can you see the family resemblance?Now put your demijohn somewhere safe at room temperature (18 – 21 degrees is ideal, warmer temperatures such you’d have in an airing cupboard will certainly speed the process up, but are likely to be too warm and can produce ‘off’ flavours) and wait for the magic.  If you’re lucky, this should start within as little as six hours or so, though this depends on how active your yeasty beasties are, and the prevailing temperature.  While you could put it in a dark cupboard, I think you’ll want to keep it out somewhere where you can see it!

Yeast added and bung & airlock fittedThe first thing you’re likely to notice is the pellets of yeast starting to float around in the juice. Within 24 hours, there will probably be bubbles coming through the airlock.  You can see the meniscus of the airlock water is pushed around in the photo on the left.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to stand around and watch it go ‘glug’.  The apple juice will become more and more cloudy, ending up rather a murky muddy brown colour, and will form a thick layer of frothy foam on top, which may also include some visible yeasty ‘crud’ – this is why we’ve under-filled the demijohn for now, you don’t want the froth trying to force its way out of the airlock!

Froth and yeast crud on the surface of fermenting ciderIf you’re using an airlock, timing the bubbles as they escape is a great way of gauging how fast your cider is fermenting.  The rate of fermentation will speed up as the yeast population multiplies, and then will start to fall again as the sugars in the mix get used up.  At peak activity, you can expect a bubble every two seconds or possibly even slightly faster.  For me this usually happens about a week after fermentation starts, though it depends on temperature, the sugar content of your apple juice, and how viable your yeast was in the first place.  You will notice a layer of yeast forming on the bottom of the demijohn, too, which is quite normal.

If you’re not using an airlock then you’ll have to rely more on appearances to judge when peak fermentation has passed.  As things start to slow down a little, you’ll notice the frothy crud on the surface reducing and being replaced by a layer of much ‘cleaner’ looking bubbles, and the contents of the demijohn will appear to be ‘fizzing’.

'Cleaner' bubbles on the surface, after topping-upOnce this has happened (and the rate of bubbles through your airlock has reduced to one every four or five seconds) carefully remove the stopper, without contaminating it, and top up with the rest of your apple juice, to half an inch or so below where the shoulder of the demijohn meets the neck, before re-stoppering.  You’re adding a nice dollop of extra sugar, so expect the fermentation to speed up again for a bit, but hopefully it shouldn’t foam the way it did to start with.

Apart from providing a useful gauge of fermentation rate, the airlock serves another important purpose – it allows the waste gas from fermentation out, so that the demijohn doesn’t pressurise (which would be extremely hazardous!), but prevents exchange with the oxygen in the atmosphere.  This keeps the cider bathed in carbon dioxide, which prevents oxidation of your cider – oxidation leads to spoilage, and even allows the accidental creation of cider vinegar if appropriate microorganisms are present.

Why, then, have I suggested you could go ahead without one?  Carbon dioxide, conveniently, is heavier than air, so while the cider is actively fermenting, it will form a protective blanket over the cider and should prevent oxidation.  The key detail here is ‘actively fermenting’.  With an airlock fitted, there’s no rush to do anything once fermentation finishes, as the blanket of carbon dioxide is retained in the demijohn.  This gives the option of a longer period ‘resting’ in the demijohn, either for convenience or maturation, once fermentation is finished.   The cotton wool plug will keep bugs out (at least it will if it’s fitted properly!), but won’t stop the progressive exchange of gasses from the atmosphere once there’s no active CO2 production forcing the air out, so accurate identification of the end of fermentation and rapid bottling at this stage is particularly important.

Fermented outNow you just need to wait for it to finish fermenting.  The rate of bubbles (and fizzing in the cider) should slow down progressively, and eventually stop.  When it does, there should be no visible bubbles rising in the demijohn, no layer of bubbles on the surface, and no activity in the airlock.  The cider will start to ‘drop clear’, that’s to say the yeast in suspension will settle to the bottom and the liquid will be clear again – and look surprisingly like it did in the very beginning. From topping up to dropping clear, in a 4.5 to 5 litre volume, tends to take about a fortnight to three weeks. Be patient here and don’t rush it, but also don’t leave things too long if you’re using a cotton wool plug (if you’re ‘under lock’, you can ignore it for as long as you like – I’ve left cider at this stage for several months before bottling with no ill-effect).  If the end of fermentation coincides with a particularly chilly day, maybe give it a day or two to see if it re-starts when things warm up a little again.

The only cast-iron way of knowing whether your cider has finished fermenting fully (or is ‘fermented out’ in the jargon of brewing, that’s to say, fermented until there are no fermentable sugars left) is with a hydrometer.  In any case hydrometers are really cool-looking, delicate pieces of laboratory glassware and it’s almost worth buying one just because they’re so neat!  Rarely, fermentation can stop before this point, a situation known as a ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving sugars behind that could let fermentation re-start in an unpredictable way in the bottle.  The risk here is that you could accidentally create ‘bottle bombs’ which pressurise excessively during storage and risk exploding (please don’t dismiss the potential hazard of flying shards of glass shrapnel!).  For this same reason, do not under any circumstances be tempted to bottle early in an attempt to achieve a sweeter cider – the only safe approach is to ferment out to get a completely dry cider, and then correct this ‘issue’ (if, that is, a bone-dry cider isn’t to your taste!) later on in the process.

Your finishing gravity, if using a hydrometer, should be near enough 1.000, and be stable for at least 24 hours.  It goes without saying that the hydrometer and jar, like everything you allow into contact with your cider, must be carefully sterilised and rinsed before every use!  For extra brewing-geek credit, if you also take the starting gravity of the apple juice before you start fermenting it, you can work out the alcohol content of your final brew.  There are calculators on various websites to help you with the maths!  To be quite honest, I tend not to bother with the  hydrometer when I’m making this cider – so it’s a bit of ‘do as I say and not as I do’!

When you’re confident your cider has fermented out fully, and it’s dropped clear in the demijohn, it’s time to bottle.

Stage 2 – Bottling

Sterilise all your bottles and caps following the directions with your steriliser, and rinse very carefully.  Also sterilise and rinse your syphon tube and any associated nick-nacks (racking cane, tap / bottling stick etc).  Place your demijohn on the table or kitchen work top, and your bottles on the floor below them.

Into each of the bottles, you want to have added a small amount of sugar, this is to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle – but just a small controlled amount.  This process is known as ‘priming’.  This will produce a little carbon dioxide – in a pressurised container this time – and make your cider sparkling, which is how most people like it!  You can also add some non-fermentable sweetener if you want your cider slightly sweeter.  I favour ‘Splenda’, which seems to lack the bitter back-taste you get with some artificial sweeteners.   If you’re going to use something else check carefully that it really *is* non-ferementable.

I add one teaspoon of sugar per litre of cider (half a teaspoon in a pint bottle, about 3/4rs of a teaspoon in a 750ml).  These should be safe quantities and shouldn’t create any bottle bombs, while providing a nice sparkle.  Do not be tempted to exceed them!  I enjoy quite a dry cider, so I add a matching amount of Splenda – you can adjust this to your taste, though, so experiment.  Put the sugar and sweetener, if using, into your bottles before you start to syphon, since adding it afterwards tends to make everything fizz over (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mentos-in-cola trick, but a bit less dramatic!).  If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners but don’t enjoy a dry cider, you can top up your cider with a splash of apple juice in the glass at serving time.

Ready for bottlingIf you can secure the use of a glamorous assistant, they will come in very handy for bottling, since you can leave them in control of the top bit of the syphon tube.  [How to syphon your home-brew.]  If you have a racking cane, siphoning can be a one-handed job, as the ‘u-bend’ attachment should stop the yeast sediment being drawn into the syphon.  Without one you’ll need some way of keeping the tube out of the bottom of the demijohn.  In the absence of an assistant, you can rig something up with string and tie the syphon tube to the neck of the demijohn at an appropriate depth.  A spare pair of hands is more reliable, though!

Racking cane in the demijohnYou may well be wondering why the faff with a syphon tube when you could just pour the cider into the bottles with a funnel.  There are two reasons, really – the first is to reduce the amount of yeast sediment disturbed, which in turn will reduce the amount of sediment in your bottles, and in your finished drink.  The second is our old friend oxidation – correctly performed, siphoning minimises the contact between the air and your precious cider.

Filling bottles using a bottling stickSo, carefully syphon your cider into your bottles, leaving about a 1″ space at the top.  A ‘bottling stick’ or a tap in your syphon tube makes controlling the flow a lot easier.  You want to fill the bottles with the end of your syphon tube right at the bottom of your bottle, so that it stays under the fluid level and minimises exposure of the cider to the air.  There’s a bit of a knack to syphon-filling bottles, but you’ll get there eventually.  Do put newspaper or something absorbent down on the floor if it’s not easy to clean!  Try to avoid drawing yeast sediment or crud into your bottles from the demijohn as much as you can, but don’t worry too much about it, it’s not a disaster!  Any extra cider that isn’t a full bottle’s worth?  Drink it – it’s your first taste of your brew, and while it’s not ‘finished’ yet, it’s definitely cider, in a flat, old-fashionned-scrumpy kind of way!

Sanitised bottlesAbout my bottles, incidentally – they’re old lucozade-type inner-threaded fizzy drink bottles with rubber-gasket stoppers, which I was given by a lovely chap on Freecycle.  They’re more or less the perfect home-brew bottles as they’ll take some pressure but don’t require capping equipment, and aren’t gas-porous like plastic, so if you’re offered any, snap them up, even if they need a bit of TLC, new stoppers and gaskets remain available from home-brew suppliers.  Obviously, discard any chipped or cracked bottles, since these are at high risk of explosion!

Stage 3 – Secondary fermentation

Filled bottles ready for conditioningNow seal your bottles tightly, up-end them a few times to dissolve the sugars, and then stash them somewhere, upright, for a couple of weeks for the secondary fermentation to complete.  If they’re clear bottles, you can monitor this – the contents will go slightly cloudy, before clearing again, ‘throwing’ a thin layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. Once they’re clear, they’re ready to drink (though they will keep for at least a year – I bet you won’t wait that long though!).

Stage 4 – Drinking!

Chill in the fridge door (keeping the bottle upright will minimise disturbance of the yeast sediment) and then open on a suitable occasion to share with good friends – let’s face it, they’ll *have* to be good friends to be willing to be guinea-pigs for sampling your first home-brew experiment!  The bottle should open with a gentle ‘pssssst!’.  Pour your cider gently, but all in one go, leaving as much of the sediment behind as you can.  Don’t worry if you get some yeast in the glass, though, it looks quite traditional and won’t spoil the flavour – and contains lots of lovely B vitamins!

Share and enjoy!

Sit back and enjoy – your care and patience has hopefully been richly rewarded with a perfect crisp cold glass of home-brewed cider.  Get going now, and you’ll be all set when summer finally arrives!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Signs of Summer – if you can believe it!

No one in the UK (or probably elsewhere!) can have missed the fact that today marks the peak of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Dear Queen Lizzie.  It’s June!  The British weather is a vexatious, tricky beast at the best of times (why else would we all spend so much time talking about it?), and of course it’s done its thing and provided the cold grey drizzle to put the lie to the gorgeous hot sunny spell we were enjoying not a week ago.  But despite all of this (10 degrees centigrade!  In June! I ask you?) and the cheerful, if slightly damp collection of people crowded into the village hall this lunchtime for beer, bunting, and a cracking hog roast, I know summer’s here.  How?

Elderflower buds, just breaking

That’s how!  The elderflowers are opening!

Elderflowers in the hedgerowSome of you will have some sense of how exciting this is, perhaps.  The scent of them is just so glorious, and the excitement starts to build towards the elderflower cordial and champagne brewing that the next few weeks will hopefully bring!

Keep your eyes open for these now, and look forward to a couple of great recipes over the next few weeks!  In the meantime, I hope the bad-weather plans in place have allowed everyone with jubilee parties to get a bit of fun, despite the grotty conditions!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>