Using Your Bottle – self-watering planter success!

Earlier in the week I wrote about my last batch of bottle cutting experiments.  Just a quick post to update, especially about the self-watering planter which, I had to admit, I had my doubts about!

Self-watering planter

Well, it works!  The compost is staying moist, the water level in the reservoir is very slowly – but visibly – dropping, and the basil seems to be thriving!  There seems to be an added bonus with this design, which is that the glass captures the heat from sunshine much more effectively than traditional pots.  The soil feels quite warm to the touch on a sunny day, which can only do good things for the plants’ growth over the winter, right?

So, many more of these to come, I think!  Hubby not too sure about me filling up our windowsills with recycled wine bottles, but I’m sure he’ll come around!

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Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts

I’ve been wanting to play some more with the bottle cutting jig since my first attempts at bottle cutting a few weeks ago.  This weekend I found a few hours and raided some bottles from the neighbours’ recycling bins, and got to work.

Almost completed bottle cutting projects

My success rate this time stayed stubbornly around the 1:3 mark.  It’s becoming clear that two things are combining to be a problem.  The first is that accuracy in the score mark is absolutely critical – if you don’t get a perfectly straight even score that meets neatly, there’s no chance of the bottle breaking cleanly.  The second is that bottles are *rubbish*.  Of the bottles I’ve cut – and failed to cut – so far, not one is made up of even thickness glass, and most of them aren’t even anywhere near round in section!  This makes getting an even score more challenging, as well as tending to make the bottle break unevenly as a result of the variable thickness of glass.   There are a handful of gadgets on the market (and one interesting looking one, called the Kinkajou, about to come on the market) which might well improve my hit rate on nice reliable score lines, but I’m still trying to keep this a low-cost hobby for now!

Glass cutting jigStill, a couple of hours work (mostly removing labels!) got me three new nicely cut bottles – a 500ml green cider bottle, and two punt-bottled wine bottles, one of which I cut long, and discarded the top to make a vase, and the other cut more centrally to give a top and bottom section.  Sanding down (see my previous post for more details of the cutting process) gave me safe cut edges.

I’ve really wanted to play with etching, because I’ve seen some beautiful glass decorating projects, but hubby really wasn’t very enamoured with the idea of me using concentrated acid paste in the kitchen (and I can kind of see his point!).  I settled on using some frosted-glass effect spray paint made by plastikote.  This slightly offends one of my fundamental design principles, actually, but never mind!

The ideas for using the bottles were mostly gleaned from Pinterest, which is a new and rather addictive time-sink (those of you who’ve also discovered this can have a browse of my boards here).  I used some black sticky-back vinyl as a masking material for two of the pieces.

Masked-off bottle topIsn’t it great when you discover that the bits and bobs you’ve bought for one craft can be pressed into service for another?  I dug out the rotary cutter, ruler and cutting mat I bought for quilting, and got to work cutting strips of vinyl.  Two to wrap around the bottom of the cider bottle, to give a striped finish, and the off-cut with some newspaper to mask off all but the edge of the cut-off top of the wine bottle.

Masked tealight holderThis vinyl is a great masking material for glass, as it adheres tightly, stretches just a little to account for the wonkiness of the bottles, and comes away cleanly without leaving any residue.  The resulting cider bottle makes a very pretty tealight holder which would make a lovely little gift.

Masked vase with rubber bandsFor the bottle destined to be a vase, I borrowed another idea in wide circulation on pinterest and applied rubber bands, some overlapping, rising and falling. The first thing to note about this approach is that the rubber bands don’t arrange themselves  – it actually takes quite a lot of faffing to get a pleasing arrangement of lines.  They’re not an ideal masking material, either.  As you apply the instructed two or three layers of the frosting paint, some will settle on the top edge of the rubber bands (this is much less of a problem with vinyl which is very thin and doesn’t collect ‘overspray’ in this way).

Dave with vaseThe rubber bands came off easily once the paint had dried overnight, but it took quite a lot of delicate trimming away of the extra paint with a scalpel blade to get a reasonable finish.  I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome, and if I try this approach again I’ll try to get away with one, perhaps two layers of paint rather than the three I used.  Still, the result is quite pretty, isn’t it?  Dave said he wanted to be in the photo, and who am I to disappoint him?

Landscape fabric with stringFinally, and perhaps most interesting for me, is the bottle cut in half.  I’ve made a self-watering herb planter, based on a photo I saw – guess where? – that’s right, pinterest again.  The top of the bottle is up-ended inside the bottom.  I lined it with a cut rectangle of landscape fabric about 4″ by 8″, one half of which I threaded through with a bunch of jute string. Fold this in half with the string dangling through the neck of the bottle. Then, fill with compost and plant (in my case, with some rather sorry-looking home-grown basil I always forget to water).

This is where I admit to being a really neglectful gardner.  I’m full of enthusiasm, but when it comes down to it I have a nasty habit of forgetting to water, to pot on, to plant out…  my garden thrives on it’s own resources more than on my care, and my houseplants have to have a strong will to survive!

Self-watering wine bottle planter

So if this contraption actually works (and the jury is still out on this – it’s early days) then it’s going to change my window-sill gardening forever.  Herbs that will water themselves!  In a planter which is recycled, free, and really pretty, rather than something ugly and plastic and more suited to greenhouse shelving than living room windows.

I’ll update with more photos of the herb planter once it’s clear whether there’s any merit to the design.  In the meantime I suspect there’s quite a bit more mileage in breaking bottles for fun and (perhaps??) profit…

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Bottling It – a first ‘crack’ at recycled glass craft

Some time ago, I came across a blog claiming that you could cut wine bottles with a burning bit of string soaked in acetone.  This sounded hilarious fun, but also a tad more dangerous and unpredictable than I was entirely happy with!  The idea didn’t desert me, though, and as time went by I was thinking of more and more different ways I might use recycled wine bottles, if only I could neatly (and safely!) cut them in half.  Green Glass make some beautiful drinking glasses out of recycled bottles, which were another source of inspiration.  This is a real ‘upcycling’ craft (a word which often seems to be an excuse for selling overpriced old junk on etsy!) creating something pretty and useful out of the contents of your recycling box!

Glass craft - candle holder

So I did what we all do, and broke out a bit of depth-first google searching.  A few idle lunch-breaks worth of reading later, and I eventually decided that I was happy to experiment with a cutting process where hot and cold water are used to ‘crack’ a line scored on the outside of the bottle with a diamond-tip glass cutting tool.

DIY cutting jigOf course, the knack is getting the score line straight.  People will sell you various bottle cutting jigs and devices that work on this principle, but I didn’t want to buy any expensive kit for this, at least to start with.

Jig with cutting toolA bit of thought and collaboration from my lovely husband, and we built this contraption out of leftover wood from the shed.  It’s a v-shaped cradle to hold the bottle with a solid end, and notches cut in the side to stabilise the handle of the cutting tool.  The cutting tool itself came from amazon and cost a couple of pounds.

Give some thought to what you want from your bottle, and whether the traditional bump found in the bottom of most bottles (called a ‘punt’, apparently – here I was thinking a punt was a flat bottomed boat propelled with a pole on shallow rivers in British university cities) is a use or a hindrance.  It might be fine if you want to make a vase, for instance, but not so useful if you want a candle-holder.  Some bottles are tapered or squared-off, and these you probably also want to avoid!  Now, give your bottle a good scrub and remove all the labels. You should to do this first, before there are any sharp edges to work around!

Scoring the bottlePut your bottle in the jig, place the glass cutting tool in an appropriate slot and gently press the scoring head against the side of the bottle.  Now, very slowly, rotate the bottle against the point of the cutting tool.  You’re aiming to complete a perfect full rotation, without leaving a gap or ‘over-writing’ the start of your line at the end.  If the score line isn’t complete and perfectly straight, the bottle isn’t going to crack evenly.

Accuracy is everything, as it’s a one-shot deal and mistakes cannot be corrected later – but on the plus side, the bottles are free and only destined for the recycling bin in any case, so try not to fret about it too much!  My success rate so far for a clean break is about 1 in 3 – not great but it’s early days and I suspect practice will help improve this somewhat.

Once you’ve scored your line, it’s time to get it to crack.  Different approaches are advocated, but I went for the simplest one.  Boil a kettle of water.  Holding the bottle over the sink, pour freshly boiled water gently over the score line, rotating the bottle slowly.  After a few seconds, put the bottle under the cold running tap and repeat the process of rotating it.  I haven’t got any photos of this bit, because both my hands were a bit occupied at the time!

Uneven breakYou’ll have to do this a few times, but you’ll see – and perhaps hear – the score lines start to give way.  If you’re really lucky, the bottle will break cleanly straight along the score line.  This one didn’t!  The fracture line wavered quite dramatically above and below the score line over about 1/3rd of the circumference.  I’m not sure why, whether it was to do with the score line, or the fact the bottle itself which was quite uneven in thickness.  Whichever it was, it’s a dead loss, so throw it away and fetch another one from the recycling bin.

Other approaches I’ve seen advocated include candle flame followed by ice cube, and tapping the bottle from the inside near the score line, though this requires a crank-headed tapping tool. I have no idea if these approaches might result in a better success rate – certainly tapping may give a different, more controlled break than hot/cold shock.

Fortunately, my first try (when I wasn’t taking photographs – typical eh?) did break cleanly, giving me a goblet about four inches high which I wanted for a candle holder.  It broke with a very slight ‘notch’, which I was able to crack off using the glass cutting tool to give essentially a clean cut.  A very *sharp* clean cut.

Sandpaper to grind the edgesSuccess!  But that’s not it, of course, since you’d have a candle holder specifically designed to maim the unwary, which is a silly enough thing to keep around your own house, never mind consider giving as a gift.  Those sharp sheared glass edges are going to have to go.  My approach is low tech – wet, fine grade silicon carbide sandpaper.  I used a slightly coarser grade to take the edges down initially, and then finished with some really fine paper.

Working wet greatly reduces the production of glass dust, which is nasty dangerous stuff that you should not be inhaling.  Work in a well ventilated area (outside, for me!) and ideally wear a dust mask.  Feel the edge *very* gently and tentatively with a fingertip to check the sharp edges are gone to your satisfaction.

Carefully work on the edges as well as the flat cut surface.  A little piece of sand paper wrapped around a pencil or something similar is good for the inside edge without scratching the glass.  I’ve seen the use of a dremel advocated – I can see how that would work really well but you’d want to be really careful about dust, probably dipping the grinding head in water every few seconds to keep it wet.  You’ll want to do much more careful and comprehensive smoothing work on the rim if you want to use your cut bottle as a drinking glass – but your extra efforts may well be worth it!

Finished candle holderThe result is really pleasing, the cut edge after sanding has a mostly-frosted appearance but still shows some evidence of the manner of its birth.   It’s not a perfect, machined straight line, but just has that little bit of hand-crafted variability.  You could etch the glass now (something I’m looking into!) or paint it if you liked, but you’re the proud owner of a hand-made recycled glass candle holder.

I used this with a tea light for a test burn, as much as anything to check that the heating from a candle wasn’t going to cause  unexpected cracking or breakage after the bottle’s relatively rough treatment!  And to get photographs, of course.  I expect this will look even better with a votive candle, but I didn’t have one to hand.

Finished candle holder

This was just a first attempt – but I had a lot of fun and will certainly be doing some more bottle cutting in time for Christmas!  I love that the detail of the bottle is still very much part of the finished piece too.  Definitely something to try – though probably a craft for grown-ups!

For a few ideas, try my next post on bottle cutting – ‘Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts’.

Finally, an apology to those of you who were emailed a part-finished version of this blog post yesterday – a mistake on my part, I’m afraid!  I’ll try to restrain my itchy mouse-finger from wandering over the ‘Publish’ button so enthusiastically!

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From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ 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!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

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Getting In A Pickle – gorgeous spiced plum chutney

Accidents in the kitchen always seem to happen when everything’s just at that critical point… and any cook worth their salt, when scalded by a volcanic eruption of boiling sugar and vinegar, is likely to think ‘never mind my arm, have to save the chutney!’

So it was Thursday evening.  The chutney is fine, incidentally, thank you for asking!

Red plumsAs well as bringing some beautiful French apricots back from their holidays, my lovely in-laws also arrived with a couple of kilos of fabulous red plums.  This put me in a real quandary, let me tell you.  Plum jam is one of my favourite things in the whole world.  But then this spiced plum chutney (originally Delia’s, credit where credit’s due!) is my very very favourite chutney.  It has a lovely fruity character topped with just a subtle hint of Christmas spices, and is wonderful with a lovely sharp mature cheddar, or a slice of home-cooked ham.

What eventually made my mind up was my jam jar situation.  I’ve done a lot of preserving in the last few weeks – it is that time of year after all! – and the jars I have left are a motley bunch.  Quite a lot of them have held things like sauces, curry pastes, and even pickles and chutneys.  The sorts of aromas that ‘hang around’ jars and lids, despite your best cleaning and sterilisation efforts.  It’s not really the flavour sensation you want with your breakfast jam!

This chutney is full of big flavours, and will swamp any faint ‘eau de korma’ residue it might have to deal with!

My well thumbed 'bible'The recipe is somewhat modified from the one in my very well thumbed copy of the Delia Smith ‘Complete Cookery Course’, reprinted from the 1982 edition.  Conveniently, it’s also available at ‘Delia Online’, here.  I’m not going to duplicate the recipe, since it’s freely available for you to read, but I changed the quantities and slightly modified some of the ingredients to suit my 2kg batch of plums, and what I had in the cupboard.

This is a BIG batch of chutney, producing 9 jars about 1lb in size, and a further eight small kilner-type jars, plus a bit extra which wasn’t quite a full pound jar.  I estimate in total it makes about 12lb, or 6kg.  It needs a very big pan – my large stock pot was over half filled, before reducing, and has a capacity of about 15l.  Unless you’re planning on eating an awful lot of chutney, giving lots of it away, or selling it (I think it would go really well at a farmer’s market!) I’d probably suggest scaling these quantities down to half or even a third (Delia’s original quantities are for 1.3kg of plums, which is still a very big batch).

I used the following –

  • 2kg of dark red / purple plums.  The tart / acid ‘cooking’ sort are probably better than sweet eating plums for this recipe.
  • Four smallish Bramley apples, totalling about 800g in weight.
  • 5 large-ish onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • 750g of seedless raisins
  • 750g each of soft brown and demerera sugar
  • 3 pints of malt vinegar (excuse the switch to imperial measures – this is about 1.7 litres, malt vinegar comes in pint-bottles in these parts, so it’s a measure of convenience).
  • 3 desert spoons of salt
  • a large cinnamon stick, 15g of whole allspice berries, and 20g of mixed peppercorns (the mix was about 1/3rd allspice berries, oddly), and a tablespoon of whole cloves, all tied up in a muslin parcel.
  • A giant stock-pot, food processor, and enough jam jars to contain your chutney (lots, and lots, of jam jars!), which should have plastic-lined lids to help resist the vinegar.

Whole spices with muslin

First wash, then stone and quarter all your plums. I find the quickest way to do this is to first slice along the line of the plum, down the visible ‘seam’, and divide the plum in two. The stone will cling to one of the halves, and especially with the smaller firm-textured cooking plums, won’t want to come out easily.

Stoning plums - 1   Stoning plums - 2   Stoning plums - 3

Take this half, and slice in half again, across the sort axis of the stone this time. The stone will now be sticking conveniently out of one of your quarters, and can easily be pushed free.  Cut your other half into quarters, too, and you’re done.  Incidentally, stoning plums can stain your fingers and fingernails a rather attractive nicotine brown colour, I think as a result of the tannins, so if you care about this, consider wearing gloves!

Chopped apple in food processorThe recipe calls for minced onion and apple.  I put mine through my food processor in batches, but left some nice texture in both.  The first time I made this recipe I didn’t have a decent food processor and diced all the apples and onions very finely by hand.  It works, but I can’t say I can recommend it!

Mixed ingredients in panAfter your fresh ingredient preparation, it’s very simple really.   Add all the other fresh, dry, and liquid ingredients, and toss in your spice bundle (Delia recommends tying your bundle of spices to the pan handle, but I really can’t see any benefit to this!).  Bring everything to a simmer, stirring to mix as it all comes up to temperature.  Your kitchen will smell rather like Christmas-gone-wrong about now – festive spices mixed inexplicably with onion and vinegar.

Cooking away nicelyThen let it bubble, stirring occasionally, for about three hours (my mixture was about six inches deep in my very big stock pot – a wider pan, or a smaller batch, which would allow the mix to sit in a shallower layer will reduce noticeably faster) until the mixture is reduced, glutinous, and the vinegar mixture has thickened so that it doesn’t immediately flow back into a channel cleared with a spoon.  I had to ladle out a couple of spoon-fulls into a bowl to check this.

As it starts to reach this stage, it will tend to ‘glob’ with really big bubbles, particularly when stirred, so learn from my experience and take care to protect your hands and arms from scalding!  This is the point that it’s at risk of sticking and burning, too, so keep stirring when you think you’re getting close.  Once it’s ready, fish out the spice bag, and bottle straight away into your hot sterilised jars.

Bottled chutney

It will be at it’s best if you allow it to mature for at least three months before eating – just in time for Christmas, then! – though I had some of the ‘extra’ today with some bread and cheese, and it’s already very good!  It will keep very well, too – I’ve eaten this chutney after at least four years’ storage.

Now, I wonder if I can get hold of some more plums to make some jam, too …

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This Is My Jam – French apricot with kirsch

We had a visit from my in-laws this week, on their way back from holidaying in France.  It’s always lovely to see them, but this time was particularly special – they brought with them 2kg each of beautiful French apricots and plums.  So today, my day off, was always going to be about preserving!

I wanted to make some really nice authentic French apricot jam, so this is as simple as it comes – apricots, sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice… and just a little ‘twist’!

For this jam, you will require –Fresh French apricots

  • 2kg of French apricots (well, OK, anyone’s apricots will do, I suppose!) not too ripe.
  • 2kg of golden caster sugar (as a general rule, I prefer to use the least-refined sugar that I can get away with in any given situation)
  • 3 slightly sorry-looking lemons from the fruit bowl (the sorry state is not compulsory, and two nice big fresh juicy lemons will do well here!)
  • Half a pint of water
  • A couple of tablespoon measures of kirsch (or other eau-de-vie of your preference)
  • Generous sized preserving pan, not aluminium
  • Enough jam jars to contain your batch.  I always wash and sterilise more than I think I’ll need, as it doesn’t do to run out at bottling time!

IngredientsObviously you can scale the quantities to suit your apricot supply – they’re very nice convenient multiples!  I find 2kg of fruit is a good useful batch size, easily manageable with the equipment I’ve got, and makes enough jam to generously repay the investment in time and effort.

Apricot halvesWash your apricots, then halve them and remove the stones.  Don’t throw the stones away just yet!  Put all your half apricots into your pan, and add the half pint of water, and bring this to a gentle simmer.  Stew the apricots very gently until they’re just soft, and the juice has run.

Apricot kernelsWhile your apricots are stewing, take your nutcracker (if you have one) and gently crack about a dozen of the reserved apricot stones.  Inside you’ll find the kernels – they look like little almonds, and this is no coincidence, as almonds and apricots are closely related, so closely in fact that you shouldn’t grow apricot and almond trees nearby one another!  You can add these to the jars of jam at bottling time (about one per jar), which will infuse a lovely subtle bitter-almond flavour into your jam – this is completely optional, of course, if you can’t be bothered with the faff (or can’t lay your hands on a nutcracker!).

Gently stewed apricotsPut your clean jam jars and lids into a cold oven and set it to 150C.  Now add the sugar and heat gently until it’s all dissolved – you might find adding it in portions is easier and results in less trauma to the apricot pieces.

At a rolling boilNow turn up the heat and boil the jam until it reaches a set.  This didn’t seem to take very long at all for me (though I have to admit to being distracted by sorting and cleaning out the *next* batch of jars at this point) and the natural pectin in the apricots seemed to be adequate.

Cold saucerI tested the set using the cold-saucer technique (I often forget to freeze the saucer, so this is my usual approach – placing a saucer on top of a freezer block, the sort you’d use to keep a chill bag cool).  I’m not after a firm set for this jam so I was satisfied as soon as I got a bit of a wrinkle on top of the sample.   Once it looks like you’re getting there, juice the lemons and stir the juice into the jam.  Get the first batch of jars out of the oven ready to go.  Finally add the kirsch and stir in briskly.

Bubbles at bottling timeNow start bottling your jam immediately, using a large-aperture funnel if you have one.  If you’re doing this right, you’ll be able to see bubbles rising in your jam as it hits the hot glass of the jam jar.

In the jar with the apricot kernelsFill a small number of jars at a time (2 or 3), don’t forget to add a kernel or two to each jar before adding a wax disk (if you like).  Secure the lids down tightly, before getting the next few jars out of the oven.

I was pleased with the yield of this batch, five good big jars with about a half litre capacity, five little mini-kilner-alikes (it would have been six, but one developed an alarming crack during sterilising!), and a cruet-worth for my breakfast over the next few days.

Finished batch

It’s gorgeous jam, too, with the subtle note of the kirsch just evident against the lovely deep rich apricot.  The balance of sweet and acid is very pleasing.  The set seems to have come out as I wanted – not a firm set, but not runny either, just like a traditional French apricot jam should be!

Now all I want is a crusty baguette, some unsalted butter, and an excuse to really tuck in!

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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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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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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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With Apologies for the Hiatus – it’s been a busy month!

There’s been a lot going on the past few weeks – my little sister’s wedding, the reason for the wedding bunting I’ve been making since Christmas, beginning a new job, and finally, now that we’re home from a much needed holiday, spring is well under way and we’re seriously behind on our garden preparations!

Congratulations to the bride and groom on a gorgeous wedding – very much their personal style and lots of beautiful handmade touches to the ceremony and reception. I was particularly taken by the home-grown baskets of bulbs as table centres, and the handmade pyrography favours.  The bunting was pleasingly well-recieved!

At the wedding

Normal service on the Country Skills blog will be resumed very shortly – including a round-up of my volunteers’ thoughts on their big bacon challenge results, more foraging tips, and how to make your very own home-cured ham!

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