A Taste of Summer – strawberry and lavender jam

The last of the Scottish strawberries are in the shops right now, at bargain prices.  I saw some yesterday and couldn’t help myself – jam making was really not on my list of things to do this weekend (which is dedicated to sitting in a field listening to folk music!) but my timing is impeccable as usual – and they won’t be there next week.  So, 2kg of fresh ripe strawberries came home with me.  My garden is full of lavender, so the match was too good to ignore.  Why make something that you can buy anywhere, when you can make something really special and a bit unique just as easily?

Strawberries & lavender flowers

To make this jam, you will require –

  • 2kg of fresh ripe strawberries
  • Two dozen (freshly picked!) lavender flowers.  You could substitute dry lavender, the quantity will be a matter of guesswork though!
  • Juice of two lemons and one orange.  Also some of the grated zest if you wish.
  • About 700g of sugar (I prefer unrefined golden sugar)
  • Pectin (optional – but will improve the set)
  • A large mixing bowl, big enough to contain all your fruit
  • Large saucepan
  • Enough jars to contain your jam

Ideally, start this in the evening before you want to cook your jam.  If you haven’t got the luxury of time, though, starting four hours or so ahead will still make a big difference.

Layering lavender with sugar and strawberries.Wash and prepare your strawberries, removing the little green ‘hat’ (I use a finger nail to dig these out – but the tip of a knife or the point of a potato peeler do very well) and halving or quartering to a consistent sized piece.  You can leave the smallest fruits whole. Layer these in a large bowl, sprinkling sugar over each layer as you go.  Every couple of layers add a few sprigs of your lavender, you’re aiming to add about half of them to the bowl at this stage.

Filled bowl of strawberriesCarry on until you’ve added all the strawberries, about a dozen lavender sprigs, and nearly all the sugar (hold a few tablespoons back if you’re planning on using pectin powder).  Squeeze your lemons and orange and add the juice to the bowl. Grate some lemon zest, too, if you fancy it.  Then cover your bowl with cling film and place it in the fridge overnight (or at least for a few hours) to macerate.

After four hoursAfter a few hours you can see the sugar has already started drawing liquid from the fruit, and is essentially all dissolved.  Our aim here is to somewhat dehydrate the strawberries, increasing the chance of them holding together through the jam-making process rather than collapsing into mush, while providing ourselves with a cooking liquor without having to add liquid, which would ‘water down’ the flavour of the finished jam.

Strawberries in syrup, next morning.By morning, this syrup will cover the strawberries.  Just on it’s own, this would make a gorgeous desert, with ice cream and perhaps some meringue?

Before you start to cook your jam, prepare all your jars.  I sterilise my jam jars by running them through the dishwasher for a good wash (you could wash by hand instead) before placing the jars and lids in a cold oven and bringing it up to 150C.

Mini kilner-type jarsFor this batch of jam I was using a few small kilner-type jars for giving as gifts, as well as some from my usual recycled stock for personal consumption!  The little kilner jars were disassembled for washing, and then put back together before sterilising in the oven.

Once your jam jars are all ready in the oven, it’s time to start cooking the jam.  Pour all the strawberries and syrup into a generously sized pan (avoid aluminium – my ‘jam pan’ is stainless steel, and is actually a big stock pot, one of these days I’ll get my hands on a lovely traditional copper preserving pan, but that day hasn’t come yet!).

Strawberries & syrup, in the preserving panFish out the sprigs of lavender that have been marinading in the syrup overnight, and throw these away.  Add your pectin powder, if you’re using it.  It helps to combine it well with a few tablespoons of sugar first, as this will help it dissolve evenly in the jam and not form clumps.  I only had one sachet of pectin in the cupboard, which was a bit under half the recommended amount for the batch size, but decided to chuck it in anyway.  Strawberries are notoriously poor in pectin and if you’re going to use extra (or preserving sugar, to which it’s already added – often also with some citric acid) this is the jam to do it with.

Lavender 'bouquet garni'Now, go and cut another dozen lavender flowers, and tie them together with string in a little posy like a bouquet garni.  If you’re not using fresh lavender, you’ll want to tie a couple of teaspoons of dried lavender flowers in a muslin bag – or I tend to use a tea ball.  Using fresh flowers rather than dry sprigs will greatly increase the chance the flower heads will stay attached to the stem, rather than breaking off and floating around in your jam.

Jam, coming to the boilAdd your bunch of lavender to your strawberries in the pan and bring the mix up to the boil, making sure all the sugar is fully dissolved.  I simmered mine gently for about ten minutes before brining the heat up to get a hard rolling boil.  How long you leave your lavender in is to some degree a matter of personal taste – and tasting is exactly what you need to be doing here!  I took my bunch out after the initial simmer, but then decided I didn’t have the flavour I wanted and threw it back in for another ten minutes or so of the hard boil.

Stir gently, trying to avoid breaking up the strawberries any more than necessary.  Now you’re trying to find the setting point, which you’re expecting to start to arrive after about ten to fifteen minutes of hard rolling boil.  Use your preferred method (mine is usually the cold-saucer approach), there’s a useful little ‘how to’ here.  As I mentioned, strawberry jam can be difficult to set without additional pectin, and I was struggling to get a set – rather than risk over-boiling my jam and ruining the fresh flavour, colour and texture of the strawberries, I decided to go ahead and bottle, expecting I would get a jam that would come out of the jar with a spoon, rather than a knife… not going to win any prizes at the show with these, but these are the crosses we bear!

Jam, in jarsOnce you’re happy that your jam has reached setting point – or not! – pour it boiling hot into the piping hot sterilised jars fresh from your oven, and seal the lids down immediately.  I don’t feel post-bottling steps are necessary for jams, whose acidity & sugar level should produce really good preserving qualities.

I had a taste on lovely freshly baked bread for breakfast yesterday.  It’s a runny jam, but the pieces of whole strawberry give it a really lovely texture.  The lavender flavour is clearly perceptible, but subtle and not intrusive.  All in all, it’s a really great preserve that I fully intend to make again in years to come (though I may go the whole hog with the pectin to get a set next time) – highly recommended!

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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!

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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!

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Last of the Harvest – bonus ‘accidental’ elderflower-infused marmalade

Today, I was planning to bottle my elderflower cordial, and make a couple of sourdough loaves for next week.  As if that wasn’t enough for a Sunday, we also had a load of rock to collect.  So of course, I had to find something *else* that needed doing, too!

Elderflower cordial, steeping

After separating the cordial from the fruit and flowers, I was about to chuck them, but suddenly couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I could almost hear my grandmother sighing, ‘all that lovely fruit…’  All that lovely fruit – four whole lemons and oranges.  It was too good to waste, and had been soaking in a sugar syrup of utter deliciousness for three days, which surely had to be a good thing?

It’s been a very long time since I made marmalade, but there’s a long family tradition of doing it – my Mum makes it every year, and Grandma did, before her.  Our ‘family’ marmalade is dark, and rich, and often has hit of whisky or rum in it.  This ‘accidental’ marmalade is nothing like it!  I dug out Pam Corbin’s ‘Preserves’ (in the River Cottage Handbooks series) and realised neither of her recipes really did what I wanted, but perhaps, by using aspects of both, I could get something sensible!

Finely sliced citrus fruitI sliced my rescued fruit slices up quite finely, removing all the pips.  The three days soaking in the sugar syrup had got them some way towards being candied – the skins already a little bit softened and less juice in the flesh than a fresh orange or lemon.

Coming up to the boil

The total weight of sliced up citrus fruit was about 1.3kg (made up of four lemons, and four large sweet oranges), to which I added 2kg of mixed sugar (mostly golden caster & granulated sugars, but with a bit of refined caster sugar to make up the volume) and 1.5l of water.  I also gave the big handful of elderflowers a good squeeze to extract the last of their flavour, before throwing these away.

Return all the ingredients into the big pan they’d been steeping in for the cordial, and bring up to a nice simmer, covered, for about an hour until the peels are nice and tender.   While this is happening, assemble your jam jars and lids (I ended up with ten, mixed sizes, scavenged from my ‘saved jars’ pile) give them a careful wash, and place them in a cold oven ready for sterilising.  I bring mine to 150C and keep them there for ten minutes before I turn the oven off.

At a nice rolling boilWhen you’re happy with the texture of your citrus peel, take the lid off, turn the heat up, and boil it all as hard as you can for about 15 minutes, until it gets to setting point (I favour the cold saucer approach to checking for set – though interestingly for this particular marmalade there was a dramatic increase in the amount of foam produced as setting point was reached, which was a bit of a give away).

Filling jarsOnce you’ve reached a set, take the pan off the heat, and just wait for the bubbles to stop, give it a stir to re-incorporate any froth from the surface, and then ladle into your hot jars fresh from the oven.  I’m really messy at ladling, so I love my wide-mouthed jar funnel. Fit the lid tightly, and up-end the jars a couple of times to make sure the boiling hot jam comes into contact with all the surfaces.

If you’re American, at this point in proceedings you’ll probably feel compelled to do something with a water bath.  I’m afraid our friends over the Atlantic don’t like this way of filling jars, they seem to regard it with great suspicion as being likely to kill you with botulism or other similar nasties.  All I can say is, it’s the only way I, or anyone else in my family, has *ever* filled jam jars, and so far we’ve all lived to tell the tale!  (More seriously, this is a nice sweet, acid concoction, and consequently pretty un-friendly to clostridial species, so you should have very little to worry about!)

Filled marlalade jarsI’m really pleased with these little beauties!  The colour is gorgeous, a real bright rich orange, and the flavour is beautifully balanced.  I’d love to say I can taste the elderflower – if it’s there it’s very subtle – but the mix of oranges and lemons gives a really nice clean crisp flavour.

It’s not an overpoweringly bitter marmalade like some of the Seville orange marmalades can be, but instead has a lovely three way balance between the acidity of the citrus flesh, the sugar sweetness, and a bitter note imparted by the pith and peel.

'Accidental' marmalade

I wish I could offer you a taste – all I can do is encourage you to make your own!  I’m so looking forward to this on a lovely thick slice of my fresh sourdough loaf for tomorrow’s breakfast.

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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!

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Last of the Harvest – home-made elderflower cordial

After you’ve picked your elderflowers, it’s time to make some gorgeous drinks with them.  Give them a good look over, and sort through.  Throw out any browning flowers.  Shake out any bugs but do not be tempted to wash them – you’ll wash all the flavour away!  You’ll be straining the ‘bits’ out later anyway, so don’t worry about the odd aphid making it through!

Freshly picked elderflowers

These are the ingredients and equipment you’ll need for the elderflower cordial.  You can scale these quantities up or down to suit yourself, but when I’ve gone to the effort of harvesting the flowers I can’t see the point in making much less than this at a time. –

  • About 70 nice elderflowers
  • 6lb (2.7kg) of un-refined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 6 UK pints (3.4l) of boiling water
  • 4 lemons (ideally unwaxed, failing that washed carefully in detergent & rinsed)
  • 4 oranges (likewise)
  • 4oz / 100g of citric acid (get this from a home-brew supplier, or a chemist’s)
  • Large stainless steel pan or food-grade plastic bucket big enough to hold all the ingredients (if you have a second one of these, this will also come in useful), with lid
  • Jug, jelly bag / fine strainer and muslin
  • Enough bottles to hold your cordial – I use recycled screw-top wine bottles, plastic bottles are also fine and you can freeze cordial in them.
  • Campden tablets / powder (optional – if you’re a wine-maker you probably have these anyway – they’ll allow you to store your cordial for long periods at room temperature, which is very useful!)

3lb of golden granulated sugarWeigh out all your sugar – I know there’s a lot of it, on the plus side you’ll be drinking this watered down so it’s not quite as bad as it looks (hey, who am I kidding?).  I’ve seen it asserted you can make this with ‘Splenda’ rather than sugar if you insist, but I haven’t tried it so can’t vouch for the results!

Dissolve your sugar in the boiling water, and add the citric acid.  Stir until it’s all fully dissolved.  Now wait until it’s cooled down (immersing your pan or bucket carefully in a sink full of cold water can speed this process up greatly).

Sliced lemons and orangesSlice up your citrus fruit into thick slices (about 1cm thick), and add these to the cool sugar syrup.  Then add the elderflowers, one at a time so you can give them a good shake to dislodge any debris or creepy crawlies and discard any substandard flowers.

The smell will be amazing.  Steep for two or three days, covered, at room temperature.

Elderflower cordial, steeping

Straining the cordialOnce all the flavours have infused, it’s time to strain and bottle.  First, strain the cordial through the jelly bag or sieve lined with a layer of muslin.  I was about to discard the fruit with the elderflowers but couldn’t bring myself to do it – instead, I made a batch of ‘accidental’ marmalade, which is really very good!

Check your volume, then crush and add your campden (if using) at the doseage given on the pack – usually 1 tablet per gallon.  For me, the ingredients yielded just over a gallon (or 4.5l) of cordial, which was convenient for bottles, at a smidgen over six full wine bottles worth.

Stir well to dissolve, then allow your strained cordial to settle for at least 3 – 4 hours (or overnight) so that some of the sediment that’s survived the filtering – this will mostly be pollen, which is very small – will settle to the bottom of the bucket.  If you use a good fine jelly bag, there’ll be very little sediment to worry about.

Filling bottlesSterilise your bottles using home-brew steriliser (or in the oven like jam jars, but if so make sure you let them cool completely before filling – cold liquid into hot bottles is a recipe for disaster!).  Then fill them using a jug & funnel – you could use a syphon, and this might reduce your sediment a little, but it seems a lot of faff to me!

Filled bottlesWith campden, the bottles should store for a long while at room temperature (at least until next year’s elderflowers are ready – though I challenge you to save any that long!).  Without, they should keep in the fridge for a month or two, without refrigeration, there’s a significant risk that they start to ferment!  If you’re using plastic bottles, you can always stash them in the bottom of the deep freeze – they’ll keep for ages like that.

It looks lovely in a clear glass bottle, like fresh bottled sunshine (and we’ve had precious little of that this year!).  My favourite way to enjoy this cordial is with plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime, and sparkling water, in a tall glass on a hot summer’s afternoon.  But I also cherish it as an amazing taste of summer to remind you of the warmer, brighter days in the depths of a cold damp dark winter!

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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 –

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 5 – how to look after your starter

Imagine, if you will, someone arriving at your house for a party, and bringing with them as a gift a rather odd looking jar with a label on it which says ‘Feeeeeed meee!’… Congratulations on being the new owner of a bouncing baby sourdough starter.  It’s rather a rude hostess present, I suppose, a bit like giving someone a puppy without asking them first (ok, maybe not *quite* that bad!).  But now you have this living thing someone’s entrusted you with, and you’re stuck having to look after it.

What sort of person would do such a thing, you might ask? Guess what I took to my little sister and her husband yesterday…

Feeeeed mee!

Isn’t it pretty?  I had to promise her a full set of care instructions, so here they are!

I keep my starter in the fridge between uses.  So far I’ve been feeding & baking once a week, so I haven’t tried to extend the gap between feedings more than this, though I believe it may be possible to go two or three weeks.  My starter is a wholemeal starter, but you could convert it to white flour, progressively, if you prefer.

Assuming you’re planning to bake on a Sunday, this would be my schedule –

  • On Friday morning, take your starter out of the fridge, stir in a couple of teaspoons of wholemeal flour, and leave it on the countertop (I like to think the beasties would appreciate a small breakfast snack as they come up to an active temperature).
  • Friday evening, once you’re home from work, it’s time to feed your starter.  In a bowl on your kitchen scales, weigh out equal weights of wholemeal flour and warm water (about blood heat) and combine to form a loose paste.  The starter has been started and fed on cheap bottled water so far, filtered water would be absolutely fine, if you have it, and converting my starters to tap water has also been successful (but might be a bit of a gamble if your water is particularly high in chlorine / chloramine).  I use locally stoneground wholemeal flour – avoid anything bleached or treated.
  • The total weight of the feed should be about equal to the starter that’s in your jar.  I’ve written the weight of the empty jar on the lid for you to simplify working this out!
  • Combine the feed with the starter (you could do this in the jar but I prefer to tip it all out into the bowl to give it a really good energetic mix) and put it back in the jar.  Leave the jar on the countertop for the next 24 hours.
  • Watch in wonder as the whole thing fills with bubbles and doubles in size over about the first 12 – 18 hours, before it settles back down a little.
  • On Saturday evening, take a good ladle-full or two of your starter (about half the total volume) and use it to start your overnight sponge.  Return the rest of the starter to its spot in the fridge.
  • On Sunday morning, let the baking begin!

If you’re not baking this week, do all of this but then discard the ladle-full of active fed starter (or better still, use it to start a new jar of starter to give to a friend?).

When you get your starter out of the fridge next week, you may find a layer of greyish liquid has formed on top, and the smell isn’t quite what you expect.  This doesn’t seem to be a problem, I’ve just been pouring the liquid off the top before going ahead and feeding the starter in the normal way.  I imagine this would be more marked if you went longer between feedings.

I hope you sourdough starter gives you as much baking pleasure as I’ve already had from mine!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Adventures in Quilting – my first jelly roll, and baby steps in a new craft

A couple of weeks ago, friends introduced me to a wonderful local quilting shop, The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants.  All those beautiful fabrics made an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about possible projects ever since.  Today I was back for a return visit, and whereas last time I escaped with five pretty fat quarters and a relatively small hole in my wallet, today’s visit was a bit more costly!

Jelly roll, fabrics & batting

I came home with a jelly roll – my first *ever* jelly roll – ‘Reunion’ by Moda, a metre of quilt batting, a metre and a half of a matching fabric from the Reunion collection to use as backing, as well as a couple of necessary bits and bobs.  I love the idea of jelly rolls – little strips of lots and lots of co-ordinating fabrics.  I would never buy even fat quarters of such a wide range of fabrics, and the diminutive size of the strips (just 2 1/2 inches wide) is its own challenge.  This collection is particularly lovely – in turns fresh and colourful, classic and muted.

Reunion by Moda fabric collection

My project, after consideration, is a set of six place mats and a co-ordinating table runner. I hope that the small size of the working pieces and the limited scope of the project should make it one I can pull off without too much stress or anxiety!  In deference to my complete lack of prior quilting experience, and relative lack of sophisticated general sewing skills, I’ve chosen the simplest possible pattern – just stripes of colour laid next to one another, edged by turning the backing fabric to the front side.  It’s such a pretty fabric and it saves a lot of faff with binding!

Finished place mat - front     Finished place mat - back

This is my first place mat – the size was chosen with my narrow dining table in mind and is about 22 x 36cm.  The more observant among you will notice one doubled seam where I messed up slightly – this just adds to the cosy hand-made feeling, in my opinion, and in any case is only visible from the back.  I’ll post a full how-to in due course once I’ve finished making it up as I go along – although talk about the blind leading the blind!  The backing fabric was folded over and the corners mitred by hand before being sewn down in a single row close to the edge.  I’m quite pleased with the final result, not bad for a first effort, eh?

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Feedback on Country Skills – hyacinths, candles and chickens

I love hearing from my blog readers, especially if you’ve tried out something I’ve written about!

After I wrote my butchery tutorial ‘how to portion a chicken’, blog reader asciiqwerty contacted me to me to let me know how she’d got on following my instructions, and sent me this photo of her finished portioned chicken.

Portioned, skinned and boned out chicken

This time the portions have all been skinned, and the thigh portions have the bones removed – this would make them great for using in a stir-fry or a curry.  She commented particularly on the size of the chicken breasts – which weighed in at about 200g each.  A supermarket pack of two chicken breasts will usually be about 250g in total, so you can see how much more you get for our money.  Well done asciiqwerty, and I hope it was as tasty!

Moving away from food, back at Christmas I made hyacinth bulbs with hydrogel beads, in recycled jam-jars, as gifts for friends and relatives.  I kept one for myself, of course, and thought you might like to see how it all worked out when it came into flower a few weeks ago.

Hyacinth bulb in flower, with hydrogel beads

The smell was amazing, and after this flowerhead died back and I cut it down, the bulb produced a second unexpected bonus flower!  The hyacinth stayed nice and compact and didn’t fall over despite not being secured by anything other than the roots in the jar of beads, which I was very pleased with.

Finally, the recycled chunk candle I made a few weeks back.  I was amazed with this, it turned out so much better than I’d anticipated.

Recycled wax chunk candle

After looking initially as if the melt pool would be a bit pathetic in the centre, it actually burned down very nearly edge-to-edge leaving a thin shell which the candlelight flickered through like stained glass.  I burned it every night for several hours after work, and it lasted a whole fortnight – I’d estimate around 45 hours burn time.

I’d love to hear about any successes (or otherwise!) you might have had trying out country skills – either in the comments, @countryskills on twitter, or by email at countryskillsblog@gmail.com.   Or perhaps there’s something you do that you think I should try – I’m always happy to hear new ideas, so please get in touch!

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