The Last of the Elderflowers

And to think I promised you birthdays. I lied. You will have to wait until tomorrow. Today I have a much more pressing post. Actually, that is not true. The truth is the birthday I want to write about does not actually happen until tomorrow. I do not think for one minute that the person concerned reads this blog but it does not feel quite right to write about it before the event. You know. Just in case I may be trendier than I think. Possibly. OK, not a snowball’s chance, but even so …

Elderflowers. Their days are numbered for 2011. Those of you in more southern climes may have seen the last of them already. Indeed I was doubtful that I would be able to find enough but this weekend I visited the Captain’s ancestral stomping grounds and managed to gather enough to make one more batch of cordial.

These particular blooms were gathered as we walked along the remains of Aylsham Navigations.

The River Bure has now firmly staked its claim to this once thriving canal. There were several trees to choose from but most of the blooms were overblown so it took several trees to gather the quantity I needed. While walking, I spotted plenty of chickweed and was tempted to pick some to make pakora with, but as Norfolk is officially in drought conditions, they were looking a bit stringy and tough. We also spotted some mint growing wild near the mill.

It had a much livelier smell than our garden mint but I don’t think it was water mint. There were so many other plants around that I just couldn’t identify, even with my field guide. What I need to do is go on a course. But more of that another day.

Once home, I got on with making the cordial. I have had a bit of time to experiment with recipes this season, and while I much prefer making it on a boat, I have decided that this recipe is my favourite. It was given to me by my singing teacher while I was an impressionable seventeen year old. She used to start each lesson on sunny days with a long glass of iced elderflower cordial served in the garden while sitting on a rug. So English. So divine.

Elderflower Cordial’s Song

21 elderflower heads

2 lemons

1 tsp citric acid

1 3/4 pints boiling water

3 1/2 lbs sugar

Place all ingredients in a bowl. Pour in boiling water and stir till sugar dissolved. Stir twice a day for give days. Strain and bottle in sterilised bottles.

Triumphing over disaster

My Gooseberry & Elderflower Jam disaster of last week dented my confidence more than a little.  You see I have only just begun to embrace this whole jam making malarkey.  And as for gooseberries, well.  Not sure I have embraced them yet.  Awfully prickly for one thing.  The scratches they left up and down my forearms led one person to remark, ‘Have you taken to self-harming?’

However, I am not one to be beaten easily.  Having consulted a multitude of recipes I decided the best thing to do was combine several recipes and basically invent a new one.  So that is what I did.  I consulted my mother in this process, who is a jam making maestro.  She makes the best strawberry jam In The World.  No, make that The Universe.  Just ask my cousin Carol, she will tell you.  Anyway, between us, we decided on the recipe that follows below.

The key ingredient is elderflower.  I discovered a beautiful Elder tree today in my local park.  It was old, gnarled and twisted about another tree but had the most deliciously fragrant blooms I have yet come across.  Clearly all the local dogs thought so too and I had an unpleasant encounter in the foot department.  How I wish all dog owners would clean up after their dogs!  I digress.  The flowers were perfect.  I picked them in brilliant sunshine, just as the blooms were beginning to open.  There were so many, I helped myself to a bag full and left the tree looking like it had not been touched.

All the way home my head buzzed with ideas for recipes to use them in.  I shall be making Elderflower Jam tomorrow but today I sauntered up the garden to see if my much hated bushes had anything worth picking left on them.  This time I went armed with my new acquisition from Lakeland – a berry picker.

It was marvellous!  Saved me from a multitude of scratches.  It is my new best friend.  Especially as while at the top of the garden I noticed that the recurrent and blackcurrant bushes are ripening rapidly.

My total yield from the bushes dictated the quantities in the recipe I concocted.  I see no reason why it could not be multiplied to cope with greater amounts and when I have the opportunity I shall experiment further.

For now though, may I present:

Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam

170g small young gooseberries

10 heads elderflowers

500g Jam Sugar (with added pectin)

250mls water

Shake/tap elderflowers and check for insects before tying in a muslin bag.  Top and tail gooseberries then put into a pan with the water.  Add the elderflower bag and submerge.  Cook gently until the gooseberries are soft but still hold their shape.  Remove elderflower bag and squeeze before discarding.  Add the sugar, stirring carefully until dissolved.  Bring to the boil.  Boil rapidly for 4 mins.  Remove from heat then pour into sterilized jars and seal.  Use within 12 months.

Boaters’ Elderflower Cordial

Yesterday was a very productive day as I made use of the fruits of my foraging. The elderflowers that had infused overnight were turned into cordial. It was a proud, if sticky, occasion. I have to say that I think cooking with elderflowers and boating were made for each other. Inside a house, one has the laborious task of picking over each flower head to remove insects – of which I found masses. On board, one can simply tap the heads over the side of the boat the shake the creatures loose. Marvellous.

There were times when combining the boiling, the bottling and the labelling with locking was tricky, even a tad precarious. But I still say it beats doing it in a house every time.

I also managed to whip up a batch of Dandelion Marmalade, though the dandelions were becoming increasingly allusive. My advice? Stick to making it in early Spring, when the first crop of flowers are abundant.

Boaters’ Elderflower Cordial

Makes about 2 litres

About 25 elderflower heads

Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)

1kg sugar

1 heaped tsp citric acid

Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and tap on the side of the boat to remove any insects. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the orange and lemon zest. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse. You may need to remove infusion to under the cratch cover or some equally nearly outdoor spot to placate any hayfever sufferers on board – the scent can be overwhelming.

Starin the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a sauce pan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw tops or corks.

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Wild Flower Syrup

Yesterday we began our journey proper. The Captain always gets up first, keen to get cracking while I lounge in bed a while longer. We’d not been going more than fifteen minutes when his hand thrust through the back hatch and threw a spray of elderflower at me. Don’t knock it, as ways of starting the day go, it’s not the worst.

Besides, he knew it would cause me great joy. Indeed, I was besides myself with excitement. Especially after I’d checked with Joy. my personal guru, for confirmation. After my near miss with the very-likely-to-be-Rowan-trees I really did not want to get it wrong.

So, I shot out of bed. Well, ok, heaved my sorry ass out of bed, donned what I thought to be suitable attire (see earlier post for just how wrong I was) and joined him for the Wolverhampton 21. My job was meant to driving. I am excused locking. On account of being an invalid. Tis an arrangement I am quite keen on. Only I got distracted.

We’d only done two locks when I spotted Dog Roses. And then Japanese Roses. “Rose Petal Jelly!”, I squealed as I leapt off the boat, grabbing my trusty foraging kit as I did. I have a feeling there some ancient maritime laws about abandoning ships but what care I of that? The hedgerows were ripe unto harvest and oh, this labourer was ready to answer the call.

Pretty soon I was swamped with an abundance of Hawthorn and Elderflower too so my plans changed to make use of the mix of flowers available on the same day and Wild Flower Syrup was born.

Just after I’d finished bottling it we met Richard & Sue of Indigo Dreams.

They have a wonderful blog (http://indigodream.wordpress.com/) which is a regular on the Captain’s Blogroll and will be added forthwith to mine. They kindly invited us to join them for a delicious lunch that was washed down with one of their famous coffees. Quite heavenly. Seemed only fair to force one of my so newly bottled Wild Flower Syrups upon them. Let’s hope it’s to their liking.

It was twenty four hours in the making but I hope it was worth it. The Captain & I had some on pancakes and the sweetness of sugar perfectly matched the flowery taste of early summer. Appropriately enough, as we munched we boated past the first cricket game of the season: Elderflower, Hawthorn, Roses and leather on willow – it doesn’t come much more English than that.

Wild Flower Syrup by John Wright

Makes about 1 litre

About 1 litre of freshly picked blossoms (Dog Rose, Japenese Rose, Elderflower, Hawthorn, Dandelion)

About 1 kg granulated sugar

About 550ml boiling water

Put a 2cm layer of blossoms in the bottom of a large jug, minimum 2 litres capacity. Pack the blossoms down, then spinkle on a 1 cm layer of sugar – don’t worry if things get mixed up. Continue these alternate layers of sugar and blossoms until the jug is full, keeping a note of the amount of sugar used. Cover the jug and leave to stand for 24 hours.

Empty the mixture into a saucepan and pour on 55ml of boiling water for every 100g sugar used. Heat the mixture gently, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, then strain into a clean jug.

Pour any syrup that you are not using straight away into sterilised bottles and seal. Stored in a cool, dark cupboard, it will keep for up to a year.

Delicious on pancakes, ice cream, waffles. Drizzle over cakes. Use in drink mixes. Be inventive. Be adventurous!

In search of elderflowers

She may well have her hand in a searching posture.  She will be looking to avoid me.  I was not best pleased with her today!

The Captain and I are about to head off for a week on Wand’ring Bark and I am excited about the possibilities for foraging and wild food that this should present.  But clearly the excitement was all a bit much because at 3:30am I was still wide awake and pondering.  May begins to get really exciting as far as I’m concerned as there’s Elderflower, Hawthorn, Dog Rose,  as well as Dandelions and various bits of greenery that I’m still a bit scared of.  Well, ok, quite a lot scared.

However, because nettles are on my agenda for this coming week (shh, I’m not sure the Captain is keen on this plan!) I needed to invest in some gloves.  Without telling him why, I mentioned to the Captain that I needed gloves.  He handed me my M&S Autograph collection black leather ones.  I’m glad he thinks I have style but these are not quite what I was after.  Another friend suggested Marigolds.  At first I believed I was being given a suggestion for a new culinary experience of the flowery.  However, this was not the case and while it is true that Marigolds would be perfect for nettles, I would like something a little more robust as the gooseberries are about to fruit and they have lethal thorns that would make short work of Marigolds.  So off I trotted to the garden centre.

I got distracted by the herbs.  They had Horseradish, Sorrel and Comfrey!  It’s not often I’ve seen those.  Obviously I bought them.  I am no gardener and I do not know what to do with them.  I did wonder about putting them in a hanging basket but then I remembered that it is the root of Horseradish that is used and I thought that might not be such a good plan.  But then again, maybe it would make for easy access?  A hanging basket with a trap door even?  Perhaps not.  Anyway, they are now sitting on the wall by my herb garden.  I am hoping that they might transfer themselves.  If not, I expect the Captain will take pity on them.  He is good with plants.

On my way home, I decided to do a spot of last-minute land based foraging prior to our departure tomorrow.  It is now over a week since my last operation and as I feel so much better I decided a bit of crashing about hedgerows in the park was in order.  I wanted to make Pam Corbin’s Green Gooseberry Jam with Elderflower as our bushes are just at the right point.  I hadn’t yet seen any elderflower blooms but figured the park would have them if any were to be had.

I parked.  Took my foraging ‘kit’, which currently consists of: 1 canvas bag, large; 1 pair kitchen scissors.  I’m hoping to add a sturdy stick with hook/crook at the end partly to add to my image of local mad woman, partly to make it appear that I am emulating Little Bo Peep, but mainly to help me reach over-hanging branches.  I know, I know, a six-foot tall woman who can not reach high enough.  But you would be amazed how often it happens.  I digress.

I found the Elder trees.  Lots of them in fact.  Good distance from the roads.  Well established, mature specimens with heavily laden branches.  Heavily laden branches of dead flowers.

Yes, dead ones.  I have missed the boat.  The horse has bolted.  The bird flown.  And every other cliché imaginable.  Flippin’ erratic seasonal changes.  It will have been the fantastically hot April we had wot done it.  I am not best pleased.  I am only hoping these particular specimens were unusually advanced.  Precocious even.  I went back home and checked my books.  Pam Corbin says May; John Wright says late May to early July; and Richard Mabey says end of June.  Someone needs to get these trees to read and be quick about it.

Perhaps the trees that line the route Wand’ring Bark is taking to Stratford will be a little more backward.  Let us hope so.  I have a tea party planned for Tuesday of next week and I am wanting to make cake using elderflower cordial.  Someone please arrange some trees in bloom, ok?  Thank you.