A Summer Fling – my new favourite gin, apple and elderflower cocktail

Being able to mix a decent drink is a very useful country skill – it brings a splash of sophistication to life when you don’t live somewhere where you only need to chuck a rock to hit three decent cocktail bars.

Anyway, I had to share this one with you – it was suggested to me by an old school friend (who, fortunately for him, is safely on the other side of the world where I can’t hold him responsible for the consequences!) and it’s such a beautiful, fresh taste of summer, that I’ve fallen rather in love with it.

You will require –

  • Your cocktail ingredientsGin – whichever nice one you usually drink (beggars can’t be choosers at the moment at our house, so it’s Aldi’s London Dry Gin, which is surprisingly decent!)
  • Home-made elderflower cordial (or bought, if you really must – but they’re in full flower right now, so what a perfect excuse to make a batch!)
  • Really good cloudy apple juice, the best you can get, ideally quite a crisp, dry one.
  • Ice

In a tumbler, place three or four cubes of ice. Pour in a measure of gin (or why not a double – go on, you’ve earned it!). Now add a splash of elderflower cordial – only a little one! Finally, top up with apple juice.

Go on, have a sip!

There, how easy was that?

This is absolutely gorgeous (and one to try even if you don’t think you like gin). The apple juice is the star here, and really defines the character, so the better your apple juice, the better the cocktail (anyway, I’m sure it counts as one of your five-a-day). The elderflower adds a subtle sweetness and a gorgeous floral bouquet, and the gin just sits discretely in the background with a delicate waft of juniper and a little citrus zing. Be warned, though, it does go down very easily!

A sinister thought has occurred to me, which is that it might be possible to concoct a related drink, made with Plymouth gin, Cornish cider and hedgerow elderflower cordial, and call it a ‘Westcountry Wrecker’… Some experimentation may be required!

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Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22

No elderflower champagne for me this year (*sob*) but I refuse to miss out completely on the floral bounty of the season. Last year I made a very small experimental batch of elderflower vinegar – just stripped some flowers into a Kilner jar, topped up with cider vinegar, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks before straining it and putting it back into the bottles it came out of. I was delighted with the results, which captured the fresh elderflower fragrance remarkably – even more so, if it’s possible, than cordial or champagne do. It was a tiny batch, so I had very little to share around, but everyone who tried it seemed amazed by it.

So this year, obviously, I had to make a little more. Not as much as I would have liked, because it has to move house with us in a few weeks, but I thought I could just about justify a two litre batch… And then I thought, before diving straight in and just making it up as I went along like last year, I ought to have a look at the cookbooks…

Forager's Kitchen - page I wasn’t really expecting to find anything, but The Forager’s Kitchen came up trumps – it has some remarkable infused vinegar suggestions, including violet vinegar (which is the recipe that first drew me in to this fabulous little book), so I shouldn’t really have been surprised I guess! Fiona’s elderflower vinegar is a fair bit more sophisticated than my efforts last year, with a double-infusion and the addition of a little lime zest. So here goes!

Picked elderflowersFor a two litre batch, you will require –

  • 60 elderflower heads (30 now, 30 later)
  • Two litres of cider vinegar
  • One lime
  • A 2l Kilner jar or similar

Pick 30 your elderflowers on a warm, dry, bright (and ideally sunny!) day.

Shake off any visible insect life, but don’t under any circumstances be tempted to wash them, as you’ll flush away all the beautiful flavour. Now you need to remove the tiny little flowers from the flower heads. Yes, I know it’s a pain, but sit down comfortably, and you’ll be done in about half an hour.

All the little flower heads in a jarMy technique is more like rubbing the flowers between my thumb and fingers than picking individual flowers, and once you’ve got the knack it’s surprising how quickly you can do it. The flowers will probably be crawling with tiny little black insects – if this bothers you, try not to look at them! (We all eat bugs all the time – even veggies and vegans! – you only have to look at the FDA permitted levels of contaminants in food products if you don’t believe me!)

Top up with vinegarTransfer all your tiny little flowers to a clean sterilised 2l jar, and top up with cider vinegar. Put the caps back on the empty bottles and put them safely to one side, you’ll want them again later.

With a vegetable peeler, peel the lime zest in strips, taking as little of the white pith as you can, and add this, too. Seal up the jar and put it somewhere nice and warm, shaking occasionally, for 10 days.

Don’t waste the rest of your lime, slice it up, and put it in a bag in the freezer. It’ll still go a treat in your gin & tonic!

Peel lime zest Slice lime Bag lime for the freezer

After about ten days, pick yourself 30 more flower heads, remove the flowers as before, strain off the vinegar from the elderflowers and lime zest, and replace them with the freshly picked flowers. I wouldn’t worry about really fine filtering at this stage, a normal sieve ought to be fine. Put the jar back somewhere warm and repeat the occasional shaking for several days.

Place in a warm place, shake occasionally

You’ll see that there’s quite a lot of pollen settled at the bottom of the jar. If you want a really clear vinegar, you’ll want to filter it finely before bottling. I suggest initially straining off the flowers, before passing the vinegar through a fine jelly bag or several layers of muslin. Once filtered, return the vinegar to the bottles it came from. I don’t bother to re-sterilise these, by and large, since they shouldn’t have had a chance to become contaminated since the vinegar was poured out, as long as they’ve been kept capped. Fiona advises using sterilised bottles, though, and she’s probably right!

The vinegar will keep in a cool larder cupboard for at least a year, if you can make it last that long!

**
Forager's Kitchen - coverThe Forager’s Kitchen, by Fiona Bird
CICO Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-908862-61-7
Hard cover, 192 pages, full colour. RRP £16.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is such an incredibly beautiful book that it’s easy to forget what a great resource it is for wild eating! It covers a huge range of foraging habitats and seasons, hedgerow to coastline.

There are plenty of foraging handbooks out there (I’ve reviewed a couple in the past) – what makes this book remarkable is the quality, inventiveness and sophistication of the recipes, all of which genuinely seem to respect and require the foraged ingredients. There is a freshness and originality about these recipes that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere and which makes me want to make them all, just as soon as I can wrap my grubby little forager’s mitts around the required ingredients!

If you’re at all interested in wild food (with the proviso that it really is UK-focused, and probably progressively less use the further afield you might be) go and buy this gorgeous little book!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

April Showers Bring May Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chive flower vinegar

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

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

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

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Rhubarb Cocktails, from The River Cottage Year – Cooking the Books, week 15

Against the grain of this blog series, the recipe for this week is actually one that has been a regular pleasure going back all the way to my university days! I remember treating myself to this book, at about this time of year. It was an indulgence on my student budget, and a distraction, I suspect, from upcoming exams!

Love it or hate it (this is a bone of contention in my marriage – Hubby thinks it’s the Devil’s vegetable), it’s rhubarb season! This rhubarb syrup is delicate and fruity with subtle floral notes, and makes a glorious cocktail ingredient. It’s simplicity itself to make, too, and will keep in a jar or bottle in the fridge for longer than it will take you to drink it all (about a month, according to the recipe, but I’ve never managed to test this!).

You will need –

  • Rhubarb syrup ingredients400 – 500g of trimmed rhubarb (the pale pink forced rhubarb is fine, if that’s what’s available locally, and will produce a lovely syrup with a more delicate colour)
  • ~100g of sugar (I used golden granulated, but white sugar would be fine)
  • 2 oranges

Chop your rhubarb into ~1″ chunks and put them in a saucepan. Add the juice of your oranges (I ended up using three because they were disappointingly un-juicy ones) and four tablespoons of sugar.

Stew the rhubarb until soft

Stew the rhubarb gently until soft, then strain it. You can eat the rhubarb after straining if you like – it’s very tasty with ice cream, and waste not want not! Pour the syrup into a clean bottle or jam jar and stick it in the fridge to chill until you’re ready to use it.

Strain the stewed rhubarb  Strained syrup  Store in a jam jar in the fridge

My favourite way of using this syrup is mixed with sparkling wine to make a rhubarb bellini – a ratio of syrup to fizz of about 1:4 seems perfect for me, and makes a fresh, cheerful cocktail with one of the unmistakable tastes of spring. It would make a lovely little aperitif, I think – how about making it this Easter?

Rhubarb Bellini

Through my student years I’ve taken little bottles of this nectar to a few parties, and experimented with some different (and, indeed, ‘different’!) variations. I can report it’s good with almost everything, but do beware, mixed with ice cold vodka, this is glorious, and far more quaffable than is really good for anyone!

River Cottage Year - cover**
The River Cottage Year, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hodder and Stoughton, 2003
ISBN 978-0-340-828212
Hardcover, 256 pages, full colour. RRP £18.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Full of highly seasonal recipes for garden produce and hedgerow ingredients, of course I was going to be drawn to this book. It’s a smaller book than many of the River Cottage tomes, but none the worse for it in my opinion.

River Cottage Year - page viewIf you grow your own, or shop at farmers markets, then this will give you some great inspiration for how to use your produce at it’s best and freshest, month by month. It’s not a vegetarian book, but with veggies the really obvious seasonal ingredients, there’s inevitably a fruit and veggies bias to the recipes, which, in a world where we’re now supposed to be eating seven-a-day, is probably no bad thing!

If you’re vegetarian, or cook for one regularly, I would definitely recommend you give this book a look. An honourable mention for fresh seafood dishes, too, which look stunning – unfortunately, living in the Midlands, these are of limited use to me at the moment. You never know, this may change..!

Really, what’s not to like?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Very Berry – elderberry vinegar

This foraged hedgerow vinegar is just fabulous. Hubby was unconvinced when I first made it last year, but very quickly the simple vinaigrette I made from it, with just the addition of olive oil and a little spoon of wholegrain mustard, was such a favourite he started calling it ‘my dressing’. Success!

It’s a sweet, fruity, unctuous vinegar, and makes a perfect substitute for even the very best balsamic vinegar, at a fraction of the cost – I’ve yet to find an occasion I can’t make the substitution, and find I prefer the elderberry vinegar pretty much universally, which is quite a result given how attached I’ve been to balsamic vinegar in my cooking and salads for many many years now!

ElderberriesThe elderberries are finished now, sadly, so unless like me you had a cache stashed in the deep freeze from earlier in the year, it’s probably too late to make any wonderful elderberry vinegar this year.  That said, I saw dried elderberries the last time I was in my favourite home-brew supplies shop – I have no idea how using dried berries would work out, but it might well be worth a try, at a push!

I pick my elderberries when I get the chance, strip the berries from their stems, wash them, and then freeze them in ziplock bags (I get about 700g per bag). Then, stashed in the freezer, they’re ready for when I eventually get around to using them.  If you happened to pick too many for your elderberry wine or preserve-making plans, then this is a great way to use up any leftovers!

The original recipe and inspiration, incidentally, come from Mark Williams’ Galloway Wild Foods blog, which I can heartily recommend to you!

To make this year’s batch of elderberry vinegar – which I cannot now imagine living without in my store cupboard – I used:

  • A 2l Kilner jar
  • A large stainless steel saucepan
  • 700g of frozen elderberries. If you’ve just picked these fresh, you’ll need to remove them from the stems. I find using a fork to ‘comb’ through the umbels is the easiest approach, but it can be a messy process!
  • 1.4l of white wine vinegar
  • 1.5kg of golden caster sugar

Elderberry vinegar infusingPut the elderberries in the jar and top up to the brim with white wine vinegar.  Keep the vinegar bottles you’ve just emptied – you’ll want them to store the finished vinegar later! Give the jar a good shake and set aside for 5 – 7 days. You can give it a bit of a shake when you think about it during this time. You’ll notice the vinegar almost immediately start to turn the most amazing dark purple colour.

Strain the vinegarAfter about a week, pour the vinegar into a large saucepan, retaining the elderberries using a reasonably fine sieve. Give the elderberries a good squeeze to get as much juice out of them as you can, and then discard the remains.

Roughly measure out the liquid – it will be a bit more than the volume of vinegar than you started with.  Mine was a little over 1.5l (I’ll admit I didn’t try to measure it accurately!).

I’m happy with a vinegar sweetened with about 1kg of sugar per litre of vinegar, but your tastes may be different to mine – perhaps try this the first year and adjust in the future if it turns out too sweet or too tart for your tastes!

Bring to the boilIn a large pan, mix the vinegar and sugar, and slowly bring up to boiling point, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Be aware, this stuff *stains*. My wooden spoon is still purple!

Safely bottledOnce at the boil, turn the heat down and simmer for about 10 minutes. Then, while still piping hot, use a funnel to fill your bottles and seal tightly. My quantities gave a final volume of  about two and a half litres, and filled seven 350ml vinegar bottles (luckily I had extras left over from the pickled chillies I’d made earlier in the day!).

Store in a cool dry place. It will keep for at least year, if you manage to save any that long!

And as if all the cooking substitutions you can think of aren’t exciting enough, you can also enjoy it as a fruity sweet warm cordial, diluted with hot water. Elderberries are even said to be good for seeing off the winter season’s cold and ‘flu bugs, not that you need the excuse when something tastes so very very good!

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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!

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The Key, The Secret? – spicy pickled ash keys

I first came across the idea of pickled ash keys in Adele Nozedar’s lovely book ‘The Hedgerow Handbook, which I reviewed last year. I was intrigued at the time, but it was the wrong time of year to forage nice young ash keys (actually, I think I may have been a little late this year, too, but more of that later).

A lovely veteran ash treeAsh trees have been in the news lately, at least in the UK, with the arrival last year of ash dieback, a fungal disease now threatening some of the great, veteran trees of the British landscape. Historically, oak, elm and ash were the ‘big three’ trees in these parts, majestic and long-lived, our elms sadly disappeared for the most part several decades ago, succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and it seems now as if the ash, too, may be at risk of all but disappearing from our landscape.

Ash keysBefore too long, ash keys (the twisted seeds of the ash tree, which hang in luxurious bunches from the branches of some – but not all – ash trees at this time of year) may be a vanishing treat, the caviar of the forager’s larder. So why not try them now, before it’s too late? Incidentally, don’t confuse the common ash with the mountain ash, or rowan tree, which produces clusters of (also highly forageable!) bright orange or red berries in autumn.

So, you’ve found a local ash tree positively dripping with lovely young, green ash keys. What now?

After pickingWell, first, you’ll need to pick some, obviously. I made rather a large batch of pickled ash keys, starting with about 800g (approximately a mean couple of pounds). The older they get, the tougher and stringier they will become, so pick them as young and tender as you can.

As well as your ash keys, you will require –

  • 1.5l / 3 UK pints of white distilled malt vinegar (spirit vinegar)
  • 3 tbsp of paprika
  • 3 tbsp of curry powder (I used a medium madras powder, because it was what I had on the shelf)
  • 1.5 tbsp of cayenne pepper
  • 4 tbsp sea salt
  • a heaped teaspoon of whole mixed peppercorns
  • a level teaspoon of whole yellow mustard seed
  • 6 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 12 small hot dried red chillies (I used my own home-grown and dried little chillies left over from last year)
  • A large stainless steel or enamel saucepan or stockpot, a smaller pan (also non-reactive), large colander, a fine sieve and a piece of muslin, and enough jam jars for your batch.

Washed ash keysPick all the ash keys free from their bunches, and wash them carefully. The first part of the process involves gently simmering your ash keys for about an hour and a half, in all, in four changes of water.  This process, while irritatingly time consuming and faffy, reduces the bitterness of the ash keys which would otherwise make them rather unpleasant to eat.

Simmering the ash keysThe smell that this process generates is not very promising – it will smell rather like you’re boiling up a pot full of bits of tree, which you are, of course. But this abates each time you change the water, and after the fourth water change the colour of the ash keys is closer to olive green than to the bright green that you started with, and if you have a speculative nibble on one (I couldn’t resist), it’s quite stringy, not particularly strong tasting, but not noticeably bitter.

Spiced vinegar steepingWhile your keys are simmering away gently, you need to make your spiced vinegar. In your smaller saucepan, combine the spirit vinegar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, bring to the boil and then take immediately off the heat.

Strain the spiced vinegarThis smells quite marvellous. Once it’s cooled a bit (you can help it along by sitting the saucepan in a sink full of cold water), strain it through the muslin in the sieve, and if you’re not quite ready to use it, you can use a funnel to put it back inside the vinegar bottles for safekeeping. Incidentally, I’d forgotten I had some muslin and initially tried to strain the vinegar through a paper coffee filter. I can report this was very frustrating and a huge waste of time, effort and coffee filters. So, now you know not to bother!

Ash keys mixed with saltOnce the ash keys have done their four turns around the simmer 20 minutes, strain, change water circuit, they’re an olive-green colour and ready to be stewed (yes, some more!). Add the 4 tbsp of sea salt, and plenty of fresh water, and bring to a brisk boil for a quarter of an hour, before turning the heat down, covering, and simmering for another 60 minutes before finally straining again.

At the end of this, they will have softened a fair bit, and have a gently salted taste, and you will probably be royally fed up of boiling up ash keys. Don’t worry, it’s nearly done!

Strained spiced vinegar, set aside  Chillies, peppercorns, garlic & mustard  Ash keys in spiced vinegar with garlic and chillies

Now, add to the strained ash keys the spiced vinegar, along with the whole dried chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds and peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring to a brisk boil for 15 minutes, and take off the heat. That’s it, you’re (essentially!) done, and your house probably smells like a very strange hybrid of a chip shop and a curry house. Set the pickled ash keys aside to cool. I left mine overnight, because it was pretty late by the time I finished them, and my big stock pot holds its heat quite stubbornly.

Fill your jarsWash, dry and sterilise your jam jars in the oven, then allow to cool before filling. I used 13 little ‘dumpy’ jars and two 330ml pickle jars for my batch. Assume you need at least the volume of your vinegar, and probably a bit extra, in jar capacity. Pack the ash keys, along with the chillies, garlic, peppercorns and mustard seeds, evenly but quite tightly into your jars. Once you’ve done this, fill the jars right to the brim with the spiced vinegar, and seal.

Filled jars of pickled ash keys

Don’t they make a pretty little lot? They need to be matured now in a cool, dark place for at least 2 – 3 months. But I did have a taste, and the omens are really promising – there’s a long but gentle heat from the combination of the whole chillies and the spiced vinegar, a little garlic note, and out of nowhere a subtle but noticeably ‘olive’ flavour from the ash keys themselves.  The acidity is not at all harsh, which is unexpected, there’s an almost sweet character which must come from the keys themselves as there’s no sugar in the pickle. They are, though, still a bit stringy (though much less so than earlier in the cooking process) – I think if I’d picked in May rather than leaving it until June, this may have helped! I expect they’ll continue to soften while they steep in their jars of vinegar.

All in all, then, a bit of a revelation, these ash keys! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was much like this! I can’t wait to see what they’re like in a couple of months time, but I think they’ll make a very nice substitute for olives or capers, and will probably go a treat with a nice mature cheddar.

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Life’s A Beach – driftwood decorations – Blog Advent (19)

It feels like a very long time since we were on the beach in Cornwall with Dave, back in October!  Dave adores the beach – the seaside is his favourite ever place.

Dave on the beach

After he was done posing for his portrait (well, doesn’t the backdrop suit him??), I indulged in a spot of beach combing along the strand line, and collected up some pieces of driftwood. Only small lengths, the longest was about 8 inches long.  They had to fit in my pocket!

Driftwood Christmas tree

I put them together into this small driftwood Christmas tree.  It’s lashed together with jute twine, a bit like the twig and twine star decorations I made earlier this month.  If you wanted it a bit more solid, it would be simple to add a blob of hot glue or other adhesive between the ‘stem’ and the ‘branches’ before wrapping with twine or ribbon in whatever decorative way you favour.  It makes a very pretty hanging decoration – I’ve got it on the end of a bookcase in the hall.

The scale is a question only for your imagination and your driftwood supply!  I had visions of making a tree a couple of feet high, possibly hanging, with a thick piece of jute rope threaded through a drilled hole in the centre of each of the driftwood branches.  An idea for the future, perhaps – I need to live a lot closer to the sea!

Advent - day 19

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Warm Fingers Never Felt So Good – mittens from washing machine felt – Blog Advent (10)

A couple of months ago, I shared a bit of a teaser with you about working with washing machine felt, with a simple technique for making a pair of five minute fingerless gloves.

These mittens are slightly more time consuming, but still really really simple and quick, an easy little hand sewing project to do in an evening in front of the TV.  Better still, they’d make a great personal gift!

Machine felt mittens

You’ll need the following –

  • A washing machine felted sweater.  See here for details on the (easy!) process.
  • Some scrap cardboard, a pencil and scissors for the mitten template.  A tailor’s chalk pencil is useful but not essential.
  • Some thick thread for assembling your gloves.  I used some multicoloured scrap knitting yarn in contrasting / coordinating colours.  Knitting yarn, incidentally, makes really really *rubbish* sewing thread, so see if you have something better – embroidery floss would be great, or how about some really thin (3mm) ribbon? Decorative and contrasting is good – I like the effect – but you could go for something to blend into your sweater felt if you prefer.
  • A really chunky hand sewing needle.  I used one intended for use on sacking fabric with a bit of a spade-end, which makes a nice big hole in the thick felt so that the double thickness of thread passes through more easily.

TemplateTo start creating your template, draw around your hand on the cardboard.  This is the time to decide how long you want the cuffs of your mittens.  Also, I suggest you have your fingers in a relaxed position slightly apart, not all cramped together – this should make the mittens more comfy later!

Next, I measured around the knuckles on my hand and compared the measurement to the appropriate part of the flat silhouette drawing on the card.  You’ll find the circumference is more than twice the silhouette measure – your hand has depth! – for me this was about an extra 2cm.  I don’t need a seam allowance for these mittens (more on this later) so I added about 5mm all the way around the hand silhouette.  Smooth the shape off at this stage to make it nice and pleasing.  [Those of you who have ever drawn a glove or mitten patten will spot my deliberate mistake here – if you haven’t, then I suggest you read the rest of the post *before* you go ahead and cut out your template!]

Mark up feltCut out your cardboard pattern, and using tailors chalk if you have it (or anything else that will draw on your felt, if you don’t) mark up four copies onto the felt.  Arrange the cuff end against the waistband of your felted jumper – this way, you get to cheat and use the waistband detail from the jumper for the cuff of your mittens.

Mitten halvesThe great thing about washing machine felt is that you’ve taken a knit fabric that would unravel, and solved this problem.  You can slice it up just as you like and it behaves very much like polar fleece (and actually, if you have some scrap polar fleece – or you’re allergic to wool – it would make a great substitute fabric for this project). Now cut out your four mitten shapes and assemble them in pairs.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t including a seam allowance in the template.  This is because the felt is really quite bulky fabric – great for nice warm toasty fingers in your mittens, but it would be really very cumbersome if you had it doubled – or more – at the seams. I’d guessed there must be edge-to-edge stitches, though I hadn’t used them before, and a bit of googling turned up a perfect solution for this project, which is called ‘Old German stitch’.

Old German stitchHopefully this image illustrates it usefully, but briefly, you assemble the two edges to each other, with the thread emerging on top of one edge, passing into the gap, and going into the other piece from below, emerging on top, passing back through the gap, and so on.  This produces an edge to edge seam without overlap which, because the thread crosses through the gap every time, is protected from the problem of the edges overriding which you’d likely get if you used a slip stitch.

Sewing around to thumb, with insert pieceNow, you can start to sew.  I started at the wristband on the little-finger side of the pattern, and worked around progressively until I reached the tip of the thumb.  I’ve mentioned that knitting yarn makes horrible sewing thread.  This particular yarn tended to shred itself, after a while, and had hideous knot-holding properties which made it really challenging to start, finish, and join.  Don’t say I haven’t warned you!

It’s at this point that my rookie pattern-cutting mistake becomes painfully obvious.  The mitten is the perfect size on the palm and fingers, but far far too narrow on the wrist.  A quick bit of wrist and mitten measuring confirmed that at the cuff, we were going to be about 5cm short.  The only solution – other than starting again with a new sweater! – was to add an insert piece – a triangle, 5cm across the short edge, and as tall as the distance from thumb-tip to cuff.  You can see this in the photo just above.

Three pieces, assembledIf you don’t want to make this as a three-piece pattern, then you should get this wrist circumference incorporated properly into your pattern template in the first place, adding an extra ~2.5cm to the cuff end below the thumb.  Actually, I really like the three part shape, though it was a complete accident.  I think it adds a nice detail, and gives proper ‘depth’ to the thumb construction.

Finished mittensYou’re done at this stage, if you want to be.  I decided I wasn’t bored of hand sewing yet, so I went on to add a row of blanket stitch along the cuff.

These are really great, warm, practical mitts. I’ve been wearing them loads over the past few weeks.  They’re not waterproof, but they’re warm and cozy and have stood up really well so far to plenty of use.

Better still, the world is your oyster in terms of colours (so go on, raid that pile of old sweaters in the back of your wardrobe!) and detailing.  You could even embroider the back of the hands, if you were feeling especially keen!

So, if you want to create a special, warming handmade gift this Christmas, you still have plenty of time to make these.  Go on, you know you want to!

Advent - day 10

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Star of Wonder – simple twig and twine decorations – Blog Advent (4)

Blogging on work nights is a bit of a challenge – but here’s what I’ve been up to the past few days, in bits and pieces, finished off during my lunch break today – some really pretty, simple, twig and twine Christmas star decorations (I wrongly described these as Star of David decorations – they’re not of course, but you could easily make those if you prefer them!).

Hazel stars

Preparing your twigsMine use some thin hazel ‘whips’ we pruned from our hedge a few weeks ago, but anything would do – willow or ash would be particularly suitable as they tend to grow nice and straight, but a quick scavenge around the garden, park or woods should yield something you can use.  The only other things you need are some string (I used jute twine because I think it’s pretty, but raffia or plain cotton or linen string will do just fine), and some fabric glue (I’ll get to this later).

Arrange your piecesCut your twigs into even lengths using garden cutters – I wanted different sized stars, so I cut the thicker ends of the twigs into longer pieces than thinner bits.

Now, I’m going to pause the how-to quickly to teach you a little trick you really need to know, and it’s a knot known (to me anyway) as a ‘packer’s hitch’ – I’m informed by my sister, who knows better, that it’s properly called a clove hitch!  It’s a self-tightening double loop, so is ideal for this sort of job – or any other situation when you’d otherwise be calling out for someone’s finger to hold the knot for you!  I’ve illustrated it below, but basically you form two loops in the same direction, then take the second and pass it behind the first.  Anything you pass through the centre of the two loops is caught in your noose, pulling the ends tightens it but because the way the knot is constructed, it’s very unlikely to loosen itself again.  Tying a second throw over the top, as in a reef knot, secures the hitch permanently.

How to tie a packer's hitch

Points of star, tiedForm a packers hitch, and use it to tie the tips of two of the twigs together.  Don’t complete the knot with a second throw at this point, you’re just loosely securing the ends.  Work your way around all five points of your star.

Now, have a bit of a play with your twigs to make sure you’re happy with the shape, the more even the better, but twigs are an organic thing, so the aren’t always straight or completely even!  That’s part of the beauty of these little decorations.

Knots placedOnce you’re happy with the shape, start tying the twigs together where they cross over in the centre. I use a knot which crosses over to stabilise the joint.  Make sure you arrange these so that the knots are on the same side as those from the packer’s hitches!  Just like these hitches, don’t complete the knots, just tie the first throw.

This is the time to decide which point of your star is the top, if you’re planning to hang it.  If so, replace the packers hitch on the top point with one made with a much longer piece of twine, so there’ll be plenty of length to work with.  If you want a string of stars, do the same thing with the centre point at the bottom, letting a long tail hang down.

With centre knots completeNow, go around all of these knots and put a blob of glue on the knot – I used fabric glue, because it was what I had to hand, but anything which goes on or dries to clear should be fine.  Now tie your knots nice and tight, and add an extra throw, if you like.  The glue is to stop the knots unravelling when you cut the tails off really short, which is what you’re going to do next.  Now do the same with the packers hitches at the points, making sure that you tie everything as tight as possible before securing the knots down with a blob of glue.

Finished starsIncidentally, I apologise for the classy ‘Costcutter’ bag, it was protecting my table at work from the consequences of my lunchtime activities!

That’s it, you’re done, if you want to be.  I think they look great ‘au naturel’, but I’m planning to get out my gold spray paint and just add a slight ‘burnish’ which I think will really add that final detail to the finish.  You could spray them any colour (or combination of colours!) to suit your decor.  Also consider adding glitter, beads… whatever takes your fancy!

This would make a really good kid’s Christmas craft, I think – no dangerous parts (assuming a grown up cuts the twigs up!), fiddly enough to be challenging without being overwhelming, with a pretty end product, and knot-tying skills to boot!  Perhaps one to try with a group of children at a Christmas party, club or youth group?

Advent - day 4

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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