Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Straining the elderberry schnapps

As promised, I managed to strain the first batch of elderberry schnapps at the weekend, and I am now pleased to say that I have a lovely 700ml of dark, clear berry schnapps goodness neatly labelled (neatly labelled! again!) and sitting on the alcohol shelf. Provisional taste testing was promising, although not as extensive as I would have liked since not only does the recipe advise that it be left to age for a minimum of two months, but my tolerance of vodka is pretty low at noon on Sundays. The teaspoonful or so that I did try suggested that it is pretty well infused with a soft elderberry flavour, yet still with a good kick of vodka lying underneath. Updates on how it ages will be forthcoming in due course.

For anyone who hasn't tried straining very small berries out of a rather narrow-necked bottled before, I have to say that the arrangement of sieve, muslin square and clothes pegs depicted above was absolutely invaluable, as was a skewer to winkle out the last of the berries. I also had great fun washing out the muslin square afterwards - every time I rinsed it out I would open my hand to reveal shade after shade of first dark purple, then violent and lavender, before a beautiful pale blue finally refused to get any paler.

The only question left is what I do with the tupperware container-full of extremely alcoholic elderberries sitting in my fridge. I'm thinking a vodka-elderberry-and-apple pie, but alternative suggestions will be gratefully received.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

An unexpected squash

A pleasant surprise greeted me in the garden this morning - the flowering of my very first patty pan fruit, definitely a case of better late than never. I decided to grow patty pans this year for K (they are far more common in South Africa than here), but with sadly limited success. The plants themselves absolutely thrived in their pot, and in fact in many ways seemed well suited to container growing - the plants are both smaller than courgettes and distinctly more handsome - but the seed packet only promised a bumper harvest 'in a sunny year', hardly a description that could be applied to this wet and miserable summer. A couple of female flowers have emerged before only to shrivel up and die. I didn't really hold out much hope for this one, but it hung on despite everything and this morning bloomed into a beautiful (and quickly hand-fertilised) orange flower. Fingers crossed for a few more days of sunshine to allow it to ripen!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Elderberry Schnapps

Those with an eagle eye or two may recall a post written a few weeks ago about the gathering of elderberries, in which I alluded to their future as elderberry schnapps the very next day. I’ve been meaning to reveal what actually happened to these berries ever since, but sloes and mini-breaks rather got in the way. Finally, the fate of the elderberries is revealed!

Despite what I promised earlier, I didn’t actually make the schnapps the day after the berries were gathered. After checking that great schnapps resource Danish Schnapps Recipes, I realised that they were supposed to stay in the freezer for a week rather than just overnight in order to temper the slightly bitter taste. In the interested of continuing experimentation with the brewing of odd liqueurs, coupled with my decided taste for the sour and bitter, I decided to leave half in for a week and half for 48 hours. The results will appear in the form of a taste trial in due course.

While the elderberries rested awhile in the freezer, I took myself off to Sainsburies to acquire hefty amounts of booze to match my large haul of berries. My slightly puritanical eyebrow raising at the fact that they include vodka in their el cheapo ‘bare essentials’ range was coupled with irritation that they didn’t make said vodka in one litre bottles. On reflection, being forced to buy slightly more expensive supermarket vodka was probably a good thing, and I'm sure my brain cells with thank me for it in due course.

The recipe used for the schnapps is simple:

- 800ml of elderberries
- Around half a litre of vodka

Place berries in a one-litre bottle and top up with the voddie. This should sit for about four weeks, with occasional shaking. The plan is then to strain the fruit after four weeks and leave the resulting brew to age for a couple of months, or until it seems like a good idea to drink it. I'll probably strain at least one bottle this weekend, so I'll let you know what the results are like. I'm most interested to see how much it still tastes like vodka, since I'm not actually a huge fan of vodka, but if the results are disappointing I suppose I can either leave to it age for a while, or alternatively add some syrup and make it into a liqueur.

What next? Space on the booze shelf permitting, I'm quite keen to try making hawthorn liqueur. I've always thought it a shame that hawthorn berries come in such profusion every autumn yet cannot be used for very much. Unless you are a blackbird.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Mystery patio wildlife

Can anyone identify this little beastie for me? I spied her* the other morning making a fairly sizable hole in an aubergine leaf, and I was quite impressed that she had made it all the way up the stairs to my patio.

*updated. Thanks for Magic Cochin for identifying this as a female bush cricket!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Courgettes and courgette fritters

I finally, finally got a few courgettes last week. Three, to be exact, hardly a good haul from three plants, not least when there are books with titles such as 'What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes'. Still, three was better than the 'none' I was expecting at various points through the summer, given that not a single female flower formed until August (due to the cold and wet), and then most of them subsequently turned yellow and fell off (due to the cold and wet), a tendency that continues to this day. Clearly this 'Verde di Milano 'variety, chosen for its suitability for pot growing, is not a huge fan of the English summer, however much it might like restricted space. I think I'll be searching for a replacement next year, so any suggestions of a small-ish courgette that can also deal with a bit of adverse weather would be very welcome.

Anyway, back to my three courgettes. There I was, admiring them on a daily basis, when suddenly I realised that one in particular was threatening to turn into a marrow, as is their wont, and suddenly we were having courgettes for dinner. We had been eating a fair number of courgettes and so I was quite keen to try something new. A quick rummage in the recipe books later and I had dug a recipe for courgette fritters, which was such a success that I thought I would share it with you lucky people who have managed a small glut this year. We ate the fritters as a side dish with borscht and freshly made bread, but I imagine they could be placed on any number of menus.

You need:
- 2-3 courgettes
- 50g freshly grated parmesan
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 6-8 tsp unbleached flour (the recipe wanted 4, which turned out to be woefully little, so keep adding slowly until the right consistency is reached)
- veg oil for frying
- salt and pepper

Grate the courgettes and squeeze them in cloth or kitchen roll to reduce excess water. Then quite simply combine them with all the other ingredients, shape to a desired size and fry until cooked. The recipe suggested eating them with chili jam, which I suspect would offset the fried-eggy flavours nicely, as would any other chutney-of-choice.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Latte Knitter

Please don't hate me, but I spent most of last week 'working' in various cafes around Cambridge and drinking innumerable lattes. My rather paltry justification for indulging in this particular humanities PhD student perk was that I haven't had a great deal of holiday this year (spending a week in a wood in Dorset with 80 plus Boy Scouts does not count) and so I came back from out brief and wet sojourn in the Lake District with an appetite for more. Spending time working in cafes in one way to try and capture something of a holiday mood while still actually doing work. As part of this 'holiday', I spent Friday learning to read and knit at the same time (if you saw a blonde girl knitting in Caffe Nero on King's Parade in Cambridge, that was me), I might add with some success. Apart from the rather impressive length of Herdwick-wool scarf produced in the process (and 100 pages of medieval history tome digested), I was utterly delighted when a random middle-aged man actually came up to me simply to say how lovely it was to see someone knitting, exactly as my new and shiny 'Stitch 'n' Bitch' book assured me people would do if one knitted in cafes.

The only problem was that I rather foolishly forgot to bring a pen with me, even though I knew that I was doing a pattern that required a certain amount of row counting and that my ability to keep track of rows in my head is really not that good. In case you should find yourself in a similar position, let me assure you that it is perfectly possible to improvise an effective stitch counter through the careful arrangement of crumbs from a recently consumed almond croissant.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Where were you..?

Gracchii tagged me in a politics meme, so I thought I'd comply. It's quite interesting to reflect on this, although a pattern definitely emerges. Plus it enables me to get up another post this morning and leave for the library fairly promptly. So here goes.

Where were you when you heard about…

The Death of Princess Diana: I was at home with my parents (this will be a bit of running theme, since all these events happened before or very shortly after my eighteenth birthday). I was vaguely waking up when it started to dawn on my mother that all was not as it usually was on Radio 4. Like many people I suppose, we assumed at first that the Queen Mother must have died and were terribly surprised when it turned out to be Diana. I remember being very relieved that it hadn’t happened the day before, because that would have been on my father’s birthday, and equally relieved that the funeral was on the 6th September and not the 5th, because that would have been my birthday. That probably makes me sound rather selfish, but my thirteen-year old self quickly became tired of the extent to which the nation poured out its grief on a woman most of them had never met, and never would have met. To be honest, I suspect my twenty-four year old self would have the same reaction. Whether the nation would or not is perhaps a more interesting question.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation 22nd November 1990: I was at home, since I was only seven at the time. I do remember it though, in fact it was probably one the first major political events of which I was aware. I sometimes think how odd it is that people of my age have one of a couple of big 'end of an era' landmarks as their first political memory, usually either Thatcher to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Attack on the Twin Towers 11th September 2001: Again, at home, only a few weeks before I left for Cambridge for the very first time. I think I had just come home from work (I was selling ice cream at a Stately Home that summer, the long summer after I finished school) and I was talking to a friend on the phone. My mother came home from the supermarket and had heard about it on the radio in the car, so she just walked through the door and turned the television on. I wouldn’t say this event politicised me, but coming only a week after my eighteenth birthday it was certainly heralded the start of the era in which I tried to think properly about what happens in the world. Even though I used to read the newspaper every day, I don’t think I’d even been properly aware before that Bush was a Republican President and what that meant for America and for the rest of the world.

England vs Germany World Cup Semi-Final 1990: This was the first football match I ever watched. Come to think about it, it is one of only about three that I have ever watched, and most of those seem to have been England vs Germany World Cup/Euro. I was too young to stay up the end so I had to go to bed at half time. I don't think I missed much.

President Kennedy's assassination 22nd November 1963: As I am sure you will have realised by now, this happened twenty years before I was born. Actually, it kind of comes as a surprise to realise it is only twenty years, since it seems to belong to a much more distant era – I suspect as a result of the combination of black and white television and because I don’t remember much until the mid-1990s. I do, however, remember my mother telling me several times that she had as a twelve-year old heard about it from a neighbour walking home from school with her twin sister, and I remember being surprised that something political could happen that had people telling each other about it in the streets. Then of course September 11th happened and provided the same moment for my generation.

I tag Doug to continue this further, largely because I want to see if any of these have any resonance for an Australian, plus anyone else who feels so inclined.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A success story of the tomato variety?

Yesterday evening was the first time that there were (just) enough ripe fruit on the tomato plants on my patio to form the exclusive base for a tomato-y dinner. As you can see, I've been growing three varieties, all of which seem to have been pretty happy in pots on my patio. The large ribbed ones are 'Costoluto Florentino', the smaller red ones tumbling toms and the small yellow ones are 'millefleur' centiflor tomatoes. The tumbling toms and the centiflors have already been providing us with ample tomatoes for salads and sandwiches for the last week or so, overall there has been a general reluctance to ripen, hardly surprising given the truly dire weather.

I’m really pleased about this, not only for the simple reason that even self-sufficiency in cheese-and-tomato-sandwich tomatoes is a step along the self-sufficient road, but because these are the self same plants which were showing every sign of blight a couple of weeks ago. In general, things are looking quite good on the blight front right now - one plant was beyond help, and I've had to pick leaves off all the others every now and then, but there's been plenty of new growth and the fruit has hardly been affected at all. The only real problem is that new buds on some plants are showing a tendency to turn brown and drop off, but to be honest I'll be happy enough if the current greenies are the only crop I get, given that at one point I thought I'd get precisely nothing. I’ve been spraying assiduously with my organic blight remedy once a week, and while I can’t know for sure whether it does actually work, something is clearly helping. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it helps for long enough for the rest of the crop to brave the miserable weather and actually start showing some colour.

I’m sure that I’m largely preaching to the converted here, but I can’t help but go on again about what wonderful plants tomatoes are for those with little space. I can heartily recommend the centiflor varieties, which up to now have indeed produced something approaching a hundred flowers and seem to do just fine outside in the wet and cool conditions of this summer. Space-wise, I’m even prouder of my tumbling toms, a variety which are intended for hanging baskets,but which I have arrayed in really rather small pots along the low wall which divides my patio from my next-door neighbour (fortunately, he thinks my rooftop vegetable garden is wonderful, to the point of once offering me a fiver in exchange for the pleasure of looking at the flowers). Despite undoubtedly cramped conditions and an occasional propensity to tumble right off the wall and into the lettuce, they have produced a remarkably heavy crop of quite good-sized small tomatoes (I should probably add that this photo was taken as an afterthought right after all the really ripe ones had been picked).

In case you’re wondering what I actually did with all these goodies, they were roasted at 100 degrees celcius for about an hour and a half with four garlic cloves, a sprinkling of salt and sugar, some oregano and rosemary (the herbs that happened to be to hand) and lashings of olive oil. The garlic was crushed after roasting and the whole lot mixed up with pasta. Serve with a fresh loaf of bread and a mostly-home-grown salad. Yum!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Herdwick sheep and scratchy wool

We have just got back a four-day escape to the Lake District. The idea was to celebrate mine and K's birthdays (which, believe it or not, were on Friday and Saturday respectively) at the top of some large mountain or other, but as I'm sure you all will have worked out by now, it rained. And then it rained some more. Finally, there was some rain, and all thoughts of climbing even fairly small mountains were shelved in favour of rather more modest rambles.

Being the intrepid lasses we are, we did manage a few smaller walks despite the endless downpours. I reckoned that it was an important step on K's path to genuine Britishness that she was heard to utter the words 'I think it might be getting brighter' on beholding a patch of sky that was a slightly lighter shade of grey and that she donned waterproofs and set out on a two hour walk even though it was already raining and showed absolutely no signs of letting up. Who needs a citizenship test? While we we on these slightly soggy walks, we met quite a lot of sheep.

These sheep are Herdwicks, the traditional breed of the Cumberland and Westmorland fells. Uk readers may remember that they were hit particularly hard by the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, not only because Cumbria was badly affected but because each flock is 'heafed' to a particular patch of mountainside, meaning that the farmers can allow them to graze freely after they have lambed in the Spring without having to worrying that they will end up somewhere they shouldn't be. Personally, I am incredibly glad that Herdwicks are still prevalent in Cumbria. Those who complain about British farmers (and I'm not saying that such complaints are always unreasonable) should still remember that they do a lot of invisible work in keeping the landscape looking the way it does - I for one do not especially want a Lake District covered in birch scrub. In any case, they are an attractive breed and very much part of traditional Cumbrian heritage. And I'm told they taste nice.

There is only one problem; they are completely uneconomical to keep. They are bred mostly for their meat, but since they only have one lamb, it is hard for them to compete with other upland breeds like Swaledales which reliably have two lambs even in fairly harsh conditions. Their wool, although extremely hardy and warm, is practically unused, to the extent a few years ago, the British Wool association offered to pay farmers a penny a kilo for their wool 'as a goodwill gesture'. People want mohair and cashmere, apparently, and the only reason that Herdwicks ultimate survive as a commercial breed is because of government grants and because many of the farms are owned by the National Trust and are obliged, thanks to Beatrix Potter (a well-known Cumbrian sheep-farmer), to keep Herdwicks on their land.

But what about people who like scratchy, smelly wool? I admit that this is not to everyone's taste, but as readers of earlier posts might have noticed, I actually like the kind of wool that still looks and smells like it once belonged to a sheep, and there's nothing like a slightly scratchy and hard-wearing jumper for a day in the garden, a Sunday afternoon welly walk or just an afternoon curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea. I was therefore extremely pleased to discover another new range of 'plain' wools on a rainy Saturday morning in Keswick. To my mind, these are even better than Sirdar's eco-wool, because they are produced from exactly those British breeds that struggle to find a market for their wool - including Herdwicks!

So for anyone else out there who doesn't mind a few tickles in their jumpers, allow me to recommend these to you. Not only these yarns plain, simple and hard-wearing, but they help Cumbrian farmers keep their beautiful landscape exactly as it is known and loved.

Now all I need to do is to find a decently plain knitting pattern to match...

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Recipe: Tarte aux pommes à la Normande

K and I were paid for helping with the harvest on Saturday as you might expect - with a huge bag of home-grown organic apples and half a dozen freshly-laid eggs. 'Eat them soon', we were warned, 'they don't keep well'. It occurs to me that a glut of eggs and apples might be increasingly common at this time of year, so I thought I would share my solution to this dreadful burden. It uses three eggs, around five apples and tastes absolutely delicious.

*In an ideal world, I would include here a proud photo of the finished product. Unfortunately I managed to drop the finished product on the floor during a distracted moment in the kitchen. Taste survived intact, appearance alas did not*

So without further ado:

Tarte aux pommes à la Normande
(recipe based on that on allrecipes.com, subject to adaptation and British 'translation')

You need:
180g of plain white flour
225g butter
3 eggs (2 yolks and 1 beaten egg)
115g ground almonds
80g apricot jam
Just over 100g castor sugar
15ml brandy
Somewhere in the region of five average-sized apples. I used eating apples, but I imagine three or four cooking apples would also do well.

First, make the pastry by stirring together 165g of flour and a pinch of salt, then adding 115g of butter and one egg yolk. Add cold water one teaspoon at a time until the mixture forms large crumbs. This will probably not require much water and indeed it may be necessary to add a bit more flour in order to avoid an overly sloppy texture (can you spot where I disagreed with my recipe?). The desired consistency is that of typical pastry, i.e. such that it can be rolled together into a ball without being either too sticky or too crumbly. When this has been achieved, wrap in cling film and put in fridge.

Next, make the frangipane filling by creaming together 115g of butter and 100g castor sugar until white and fluffy. A wooden spoon will do for this. So will an electric mixture, but the whisks are harder to wash up. Gradually mix in the beaten egg and the second egg yolk one at a time. Remember that raw eggs may not be terribly healthy, so resist the temptation to lick the spoon, however appetising it looks. Stir in the brandy (it's OK to lick this spoon). Stir two tablespoons of flour into the ground almonds and mix into the tasty buttery, sugary, eggy goodness. Set to one side.

Retrieve pastry from fridge and roll out of a lightly floured surface. Use to line a ten-inch flan dish and trim edges. Place back in fridge for about half an hour, or until firm.

While you are waiting, peel and core the apples, then cut into very thin slices. Preheat the over to about 200 degrees celcius.

Spoon the filling into the chilled pastry and spread with the back of a knife until even. Arrange the apples in a spiral on top of the mixture. It's easiest to start at the outside and work inwards.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 175 degrees. Bake for another ten minutes, then sprinkle castor sugar on the apples. Return to the oven until the filling is firm. According to my recipe, this should take ten minutes. According to my experience, about half an hour is more realistic (in other words, I would advise checking every ten minutes or so with a knife). When done, cool on a wire tray.

Before serving, warm the apricot jam and brush on to the tart.

Try not to drop it on the kitchen floor.