Category: Herbs

Dec 31

What 2014 has taught me

 

Here, in no particular order, are some things I’ve discovered in 2014:

1.

That very serviceable lotions and cosmetics can be homemade from nothing more than wild flowers, cooking oil (I used sunflower oil), beeswax and an old enamel bain-marie. Thanks to herbalist Zoe Hawes and Alice Park Community Garden for this revelation. I’m still using the Elderflower and Calendula lip-salve made at your workshop, Zoe, and it’s brilliant stuff. Homemade cosmetics and natural beauty products are definitely the way to go.

Elderflower and Calendula

Elderflower and Calendula

 

 

2.

That you can make yourself a really sturdy plant support from indigenous hazel branches and willow, provided you keep the pre-soaked willow sufficiently damp, and possibly cheat with the judicious application of cable ties. Thanks to Annie Beardsley for this new knowledge, and to APCG again.

Making plant supports at Alice Park Community Garden

Making plant supports at Alice Park Community Garden

 

3.

That you can make a perfectly functional barbecue from a large terracotta pot, a couple of bricks, some chicken wire and a discarded rack from a broken microwave. I had all these things lying around and pressed them into service on my allotment for Midsummer’s Eve. Look! It cooked chicken! 

 

An old flower pot, some bricks and a rack from a broken microwave.

An old flower pot, some bricks and a rack from a broken microwave.

4.

That even I can grow yellow courgettes, ruby chard, tomatoes, leeks, garlic, and sweet dumpling squash from scratch.

Grown on my allotment.

Grown on my allotment.

5.

That if you post a picture of your rear end in inside-out jeans on Twitter for Fashion Revolution Day, the sight might well collect 17,000 views. Blimey…

Rear-end selfie in inside-out jeans - all for a good cause.

Rear-end selfie in inside-out jeans – all for a good cause.

 

6.

That it’s possible to stop traffic on the A4 through central Bath wearing inside-out clothing. Nuff said.

 

7.

I hate to bang on about this, but I’ve found that it’s still possible to attract wolf-whistles when you’re 49. And I mean when not dressed provocatively or in inside-out clothing but, ironically, with minimal grooming: I’m down to an annual haircut, and you’ve already read about those homemade budget-beating cosmetics. This positive attention seems to be happening more of late but I suspect that some people might just need their eyes testing. Though one of my best friends has paid me the compliment of describing me as ‘like a teenager with wrinkles’. Please bear this in mind, all you TV producers; you’ll find my contact details in point 10.

8.

That it’s nice to make people happy, but that you certainly can’t please everyone so may as well stop trying. Do what you feel is right and ignore those who just don’t get it. There will be plenty.

 

9.

That if you require someone to knit a sweater for a real live Jersey cow, I’m a very good person to ask; I may not be able to do it myself but have all kinds of useful connections in the craft and making world. I was delighted to be able to connect the wonderful Send a Cow charity with the equally wonderful knitter Elise Fraser in Bristol (whom I met at the beginning of the year thanks to the Briswool project). And what a glorious jersey Gloria wore!

 

10.

That one might be asked to front a national BBC TV show, to write a book, and also to produce a regular column for a national craft magazine, but none of them may pan out for a host of painful and highly annoying reasons. Happily, I’m currently still available and open to offers, but you’d better get in quick before the rush. You might want to check out my professional website and contact me there to discuss any potential projects. I’d love to hear from you.

 

11.

That I can live without my beloved little car, the cuticle (‘cute’ + ‘vehicle’). Farewell, my little white Fiat! You are gone but not forgotten.

The cuticle always raised a smile.

The cuticle always raised a smile.

12.

That cycling is probably better for keeping me and my legs in shape anyway. And I love it, most of the time (barring uphill, or in horizontal rain, or when carrying very much). Here’s Violet, bought when I was carrying some very precious cargo: my younger son Joe in utero; he turned 15 years old earlier this month, so the old girl ain’t doing so bad.

 

Back to pedal power.

Back to pedal power.

 

13.

That, imho, my youngest son is a rather fine graphic designer already. He was aged just 14 when he sorted out a logo this summer for the Big Mend. Now studying Art GCSE. Anyone need a summer 2015 intern for an art-related opportunity? Do get in touch.

The Big Mend logo plus coffee.

The Big Mend logo plus coffee.

 

14.

That the ‘free’ coffee for Waitrose customers is a very useful thing indeed, and that people seem to like doing their mending in such public spaces. Thank you, Waitrose, for being so accommodating and allowing us to land on you for World Environment Day! And a big thank you to our happy band of menders! You know who you are. The Big Mend has now been going for almost 3 years, astonishingly. I wonder where it will head next?

Flash mend event

Flash mend event in Waitrose

 

15.

That if you put enough pressure on a carbon life form, it may well become a diamond – eventually. It’s been a very tough year or so and the screws have definitely been on. But I’m wondering if a ‘diamond life’ might possibly be in store for me after all in 2015. I really do hope so.

 

Thanks so much for reading my all-too-infrequent posts here on the subject of mending, thrift, textiles etc. Take care and have yourself a very happy 2015.

 

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Oct 08

Nasturtiums and pauper’s capers

 

 

Looks like it’s going to get colder, so this is my last chance to praise the humble nasturtium before the first frosts do away with it.

Nasturtiums on wicker support

Nasturtiums on wicker support

 

The leaves are already turning yellow on the rampant nasturtiums of my allotment, a sure sign that they’re on their way out. So, a last hoorah for the lovable nasturtium!

Jolly and easy to grow (thriving on poor soil and neglect), nasturtiums were the first flowers that many of us were encouraged to grow as children. I only learned this year that they’re a native of North America, brought to Europe about the time that potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco made landfall. The name comes from Latin: literally ‘twisted nose’ as that’s what the peppery taste was supposed to do to your face.

We’ve been enjoying peppery nasturtium leaves and bright flowers in salads all summer. And I’ve been dying to try a recipe for mock-capers made from the seeds held up in triple-clusters on those succulent, crunchy stalks. To that end, I’ve been collecting the nice plump green ones. If you don’t have many nasturtiums, you can gather seed in batches, storing it in a bag in the salad drawer until you’ve amassed enough to fill a jar.

 

Yellow nasturtium

Yellow nasturtium

 

Pauper’s Capers 

So, this really couldn’t be simpler.

You will need:

a cup of nasturtium seeds. Just the green ones. Avoid any already turning brown; save those to plant next year instead.

a cup of white wine vinegar

5 black peppercorns (approximately)

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First, collect your nasturtium seeds

 

How to:

Wash any dirt or beasties off your seeds and dry them off with paper towel.

Place them in a jar: a preserving jar is great, but any jar will do.

Heat the white wine vinegar with the peppercorns in a small lidded pan. Once hot, pour the vinegar over the nasturtium seeds.

Seal the jar and, once cooled, place in the fridge. Leave for 3 long months, or until Christmas – whichever happens to be the  soonest.

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Pauper’s capers. Left: freshly pickled, and right: a month on.

 

My verdict: they were tested a little prematurely after just a month. Interestingly peppery with that vinegar kick, and still quite crunchy. Not bad, though not really capers. But who cares? It’s more thrifty garden food to add to the winter store cupboard. Farewell, nasturtiums, till next year!

 

End of the nasturtiums

Nasturtiums: all parts are edible, even the seeds! What’s not to love?

 

 

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Aug 29

Upcycled spoon plant labels

 

Spoon garden labels

Upcycled spoon plant labels

 

In my continuing quest to find functional, affordable and aesthetically pleasing plant labels, I’ve been playing with old spoons.

A lick of blackboard paint and a fine white poster pen did the trick. Now I’m looking forward to planting these, handle first, on my allotment.

And planting the garlic which I bought at Hampton Court. I’ve got ‘Garlic’ on the convex side of the spoon’s bowl and the variety on the concave side.

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Garlic label

 

 

 

 

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Jul 14

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

 

I lucked out and won a pair of tickets to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show c/o Country Living magazine. DH and I drove up to London in Thursday’s glorious sunshine, our euphoria tempered only by a determined thrifty agenda: to buy no plants (I’ll admit that I was conflicted on this one), and to view the event mainly through thrifty allotment-holder goggles.

Show entrance

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is really the biggest village fête in the entire world. There are lots of people-of-a-certain-age in straw hats. There is bunting. There are best-in-shows to be voted for (we helped with the best-gerberas-grown-by-schoolchildren competition), and there are big wooden wheels to be spun to win prizes (DH won a pretty mug c/o Clipper Teas).

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Yellow bunting, as far as eye can see

But instead of the village green as the backdrop, you have this.

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And, rather than just the one marquee, there are several.

Some say it’s better than RHS Chelsea because you don’t feel quite so much like a sardine, and you have that backdrop.

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Long Water, the rectangular lake extending away from the palace, is wonderfully cooling on a hot day too. Very sensibly, the refreshment areas line the lake.

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The event embraces many contradictions: it somehow feels intimate yet is enormous; rural yet urban; thrifty yet opulent (you can buy anything from a ball of twine to a large garden palace); escapist yet crammed with people; it was hard, for instance, to see the show gardens for the pressing throng.

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Hard to avoid the crowds in the show gardens

And you had to watch your ankles for the little pink plant trolleys being wheeled around. Everyone (but us) seemed to have them! Which possibly explains why the RHS porters were resting on their wheelbarrows when I spotted them.

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RHS porters resting on their laurels

First to catch my eye was Mr. Fothergill’s Seeds . The packets were discounted from the catalogue/shop price, and are brand spanking new, with long plant-by times. Here I could go slightly wild, so half a dozen packets (at just £1 a pop) were snapped up. I am drawn to unusually coloured vegetables, and just about anything purple. But, with great determination, I managed to resist the purple carrots and pea pods, but yellow courgette and rainbow chard came home with me.

Then I spotted Franchi’s/Seeds of Italy; well, I first spotted an eye-catching Roman centurion on their stand – it’s something I’m used to, living in Bath. Franchi’s is the oldest seed producer and seller in the world; the company was established in 1783, the year (their catalogue explains) that Mozart wrote his first mass and the American War of Independence ended. Impressively, Franchi remains in the same family after seven generations. A fellow allotment-holder had recommended their seed to me just the other week, and substantial show-deals made a purchase necessary. I  bought such things as yellow carrots – originally a peasant food, considered no better than forage for cattle, but now served as a novetly in swanky restaurants – artichoke, and winter salad. I hope they translate to northerly latitudes OK. I asked the centurion about borage – whether it had really come over with the Romans – and he produced a great little book all about Roman plants which confirmed borage’s Roman provenance. I was so chuffed.

There was more borage on the Plantlife stall, and a lot of embroidery. More of that in another post.

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More borage! Seeing it everywhere now…

I was really mesmerised by the lavender.

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It’s at this point that I very nearly weakened and wanted to buy a small plant for £2.50 from the lady holding the national collection. But my will-power support app (a.k.a. my husband) reminded me not to wobble. I know it’s edible and the bees and butterflies love it, but it’s a plant. No plants, remember.

But I could indulge in the edible plants marquee, as there was garlic c/o the nice people on the Isle of Wight. Garlic was another Roman import to our shores, and I have fond memories of a tandeming holiday around the Isle of Wight, visiting a Roman villa and catching the scent of garlic growing in the fields. So I bought a head to try on the allotment; the salesman uttered the magic words ‘rust-resistant’ which sounded more realistic on Bath valley clay than something happier with its feet in free-draining Provençal soil. Realism is everything on an allotment, tempered with a light sprinkling of sod-it-I’ll-try-it-anyway.

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This pink shed from made me smile; this pink is the signature colour of Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, as you could probably tell by that banner at the beginning. I liked the ‘raised bed’ – an idea I was going to try on the allotment with an old wooden bedstead, but Hampton Court (not to mention The Archers) got there first.

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We enjoyed speaking to the man on the Hozelock stall. If hoses feature in your life at all, their new non-kinking lightweight hose technology is really impressive. But we didn’t buy.

I have to mention Felco, the Swiss company which produces excellent secateurs for the very serious gardener. They are not cheap but are investment shears which have repair built into their concept: a serious piece of kit which will last a lifetime. It’s good to know that you can take your ailing ones to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, drop them at the Felco stand and (provided you cough up £19) they’ll be returned to you, completely serviced and overhauled with any knackered parts replaced. Nice one, Felco.

The Rose and Floristry Vintage Festival had its own marquee. There were stunning roses in shades I haven’t seen before.

Roses at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

And I spotted a vintage Singer sewing machine (another of my favourite repairable tools) posing next to the very orange Rose of the Year 2014.

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Lady Marmalade, Rose of the Year 2014

There was a giant bee upcycled from Ecover bottles

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Ecover’s giant upcycled bee

And Purbeck ice creams came along just when I needed some refreshing lemon sorbet.

Lemon sorbet

Alliums were everywhere. I reassured myself that I am satisfied with the packet of ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs bought for a couple of pounds and planted several years ago, now spreading itself gently in drifts across my garden (which I like rather better than regimented rows, I must admit). I hope to transplant some to my allotment.

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Alliums standing to attention

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And the spectacle went on and on. A hay windmill banded with dried flowers.

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A large bed planted entirely with basil.

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Basil bed

And a giant glove made of roses for a thornproof gardening-glove company whose name escapes me. But they deserve a big hand.

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Rose glove

My phone (and camera) battery died before I could snap the Country Living marquee. If I’d wanted to dress like a  lady gardener, there would have been ample opportunity to try gardening hats, linen smocks, wellies, aprons and gloves with giant gauntlets. I didn’t manage to snap the butterfly dome either, erected in a fortnight by the Eden Project.

We drifted home, tired, happy and clutching our seed packets, with our heads full of what we’d seen and dreams of crops to come. I’ll bring your more news about Plantlife’s embroidery project soon.

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Jul 08

Crystallised rose petals

 

Everything’s coming up roses just now, so let me show you something magical to try with roses from your garden. Yes, more thrifty edible flowers! I’ll get back to textiles again soon, honestly, but you have to make hay when the sun shines.

I worked on Claire Kelsey‘s ice cream book Melt last year (more of that to come in another post) ensuring that all the recipes were put through their paces. My task was to assign them to a happy band of volunteer testers and collate feedback. Some recipes were harder to place than others, perhaps because they seemed time-consuming and/or fiddly, required expensive/hard-to-find ingredients, or the testers just didn’t fancy them.

In the time-consuming/fiddly group was a recipe for Raspberry and Rose Pavlova which involved making a meringue nest, and crystallising some rose petals. Time-pressed testers spotted a time-sink and declined, so I tried it myself. We were well into autumn, but I still had some late-blooming roses in the garden. I found a couple with good fragrance. If you’re trying this at home, just be wary of using roses which have been sprayed with anything noxious, or are growing close to a main road.

Garden roses

The process really wasn’t so hard, or that time-consuming. All I had to do was detach the petals from the roses…

Red and white rose petals

…dip them in lightly beaten egg white, then into caster sugar, then lay them on an oven tray lined with baking parchment…

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…and bake them in a very low oven for less than an hour before allowing them to cool completely.

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It was really surprising to see those bright orangey-red petals turn a deep rose in the oven — not what I expected at all.  Mine tasted of rose too and the final frozen pavlova won over my family completely. Crystallised roses will keep for about 3 months too if you pop them in an airtight tin, separating the layers with greaseproof paper or baking parchment. You can use them to decorate cakes, desserts and confectionary, or (might I humbly suggest) nibble them decadently during a long soak in the bath. Because you’re worth it.

I tested a handful of recipes but this frozen pavlova was definitely the crowd-pleaser of the bunch. It didn’t hang around long.

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We all agreed that it would make the perfect summer wedding dessert; the final dish, topped with crystallized rose petals and ice-frosted raspberries was quite spectacular to look at: as if Titania herself had sprinkled it with fairy dust. And, best of all, it was heavenly to eat.

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Melt by Claire Kelsey is published by Simon & Schuster, RRP £18. It may also be available in your local supermarket.

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Jul 05

Borage

 

The sprigs of borage in wine are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student. – John Evelyn, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, 1699

 

Warming to my emerging ‘thrifty edible flowers’ theme, borage (Borago officinalis) is just a small garnish after those bagfuls of havested elderflowers, but it punches above its weight in the list of summer essentials. Wimbledon would be lost without it as no self-respecting Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is complete without a borage flower or two.

I didn’t realise until this week that the entire borage plant is edible, with leaves and flowers tasting faintly of cucumber. Mediterranean in origin, it has been plopped in wine from antiquity as a remedy for mood disorders: for the nervously exhausted, the melancholic, and those simply requiring an energy boost. Crusaders added it in their stirrup cups to aid the action of their Dutch courage. But it was probably brought here by the Romans as our word originates from the Celtic borrach (meaning ‘courage’).

The Welsh name Llawenlys means ‘herb of gladness’. I‘m all for Welsh flower names and for more gladness, wherever it can be found. And, in my continuing gladness quest, I have attained a new allotment. The waiting list was long, but well worth hanging on. I’m discovering a lot of things growing there without very much help from me; besides some rather antagonising perennial weeds, there is the delightful borage.

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Borage gladdening the allotment

 

Borage naturalised in Britain long, long ago and can quite easily be found gladdening waysides and waste places. Almost a weed, it self-seeds readily, and one of my allotment neighbours said I might find it cropping up on its own. Lo and behold, some oval-pointed prickly leaves appeared a few weeks ago, quickly followed by a stem bearing reddish tassely clusters. From downy buds, the most beautiful pure blue flowers emerged. They are star-shaped, giving rise to another name for borage, starflower. Dickens, famed for his showmanship and theatricality, favoured borage punch, and I can imagine how those vivid blue flowers might have bowled him over. His high energy levels and productivity were legendary, so perhaps borage beverages should be required drinking at all literary parties.

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A cluster of borage

 

Often prescribed by herbalists to relieve stress and anxiety, borage is also reputed to cleanse the kidneys. Modern research indicates that it may also work on the adrenal gland, which would explain that association with enhanced courage. It is high in calcium, potassium and mineral salts. Its other major benefit is that it’s an abundant source of GLA (gamma-linoleic acid), useful to treat PMT, menopausal symptoms, eczema etc But watch out, because it does contain some toxins, though in very small amounts; you’d have to eat an awful lot to do you any harm.

What to do with it:

  • Freeze flowers in ice cubes to plop prettily into your Pimm’s. You might want to remove the purply-black stamens from the petals first by giving them a gentle pull. I don’t bother.
  • Use leaves in salads
  • Use flowers in salads (looks stunning with scarlet nasturtiums) or to decorate desserts
  • Crystallize flowers for cake decorations
  • Chop leaves finely and eat in a sandwich with cream cheese 
  • Use leaves as an alternative to salt (rich in mineral salts) for those on a salt-free diet
  • Use it as a good plant companion: it’s reputed to be beneficial near strawberries, legumes and brassicas, and will do very nicely under roses. Sow it at intervals throughout the summer.
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Red currants and borage flower

 

And finally, there’s Claret Cup, another traditional way to float your borage on alcohol, though the idea of it doesn’t really float my boat. What do you think? Here’s an authentic recipe which appeared in a Victorian magazine:

1 large teaspoonful of white sugar dissolved in boiling water, 1 glass of sherry, 1/2 glass maraschino, a thin rind of lemon and a strip of cucumber rind, 1 large bottle of claret. Let all stand for an hour. Carry to the picnic, packed in ice, and laying a sprig of borage in the cup, add seltzer water when serving. The borage should not be allowed to remain in the cup, but it will impart an aroma that nothing else can. On this account the pretty blue flowers can be had of every gardener during the picnic season, and it is grown under glass all the year round for the express purpose of flavouring claret cup.

If you want something a little lighter (maybe with fizz) there are some more appealing borage drinks over here.

I’ve donated some of my allotment borage seedlings to the new Bath WI edible garden which is currently being planted in the beautiful Bath Botanical Gardens in Royal Victoria Park. If you’re local to Bath, do go along and feast your eyes.

 

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Jul 03

Elderflower cordial

 

Making your own elderflower cordial might seem an unnecessary faff when commercial varieties are so widely available. But it’s really not the same animal. Homemade looks completely different, for a start; it’s a translucent gold.  And the taste is different too: much fresher and citrusy than the shop can offer.  Then there’s the lemon-tinged aroma that fills your kitchen.

There are various ways to go about it, but all involve hot water, sugar, lemon and (of course) elderflowers. Some add other citrus fruits (orange, for example) and some boost the keeping qualities up to a year with additives such as citric acid or tartaric acid. I’ve experimented with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which I happened to have in the cupboard; it certainly helped keep the mixture bright gold instead of the oxidised brown I’ve disappointingly achieved without it. Without the added acid, your cordial will only keep for a few weeks in the fridge. Another option is to freeze it in plastic tubs for later use.

I’ll assume you’ve already harvested your elderflowers. If not, take a look at yesterday’s blog post.

 Ingredients:

  • 25 elderflower heads
  • 4 lemons 
  • 1- 1.5 kgs sugar
  • a heaped tspn ascorbic acid (or alternative)
  • 1.5-2 litres freshly boiled water

 

Method: 

Gently shake the flowers, holding them by the stalks, to remove any bugs. No need to wash them.

Pare the rind from the lemons (you can do this with a potato peeler).

Place this in a large bowl with the elderflowers.

Cut the lemons in half, squeeze out the juice and set the juice aside in the fridge, covered. Throw the lemon shells in with the elderflowers.

Add the ascorbic acid.

Pour on enough hot water to cover the flowers completely, cover with cling-film and leave the mixture to cool. This will take several hours. You can leave it  to steep overnight or for up to 48 hours.

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Soaking elderflowers

Strain through a muslin-lined sieve (though, in this case, I used an old linen napkin), compressing the elderflower debris with a saucer topped with a weight (a tin of beans will do nicely) to squeeze out all the liquid. Leave to drain for half an hour or so.

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Straining out elderflowers

Measure the resulting liquid and place it in a large saucepan. For every 500 ml, add 350g sugar and 50 ml of lemon juice (50 ml is roughly one lemon’s worth).

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Strained golden liquid

 

Heat gently till the sugar dissolves. Then turn up the heat till the mixture barely simmers. Remove from heat.

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Stirring till the sugar dissolves

 

Sticklers may re-strain their mixture at this point to remove any debris. But mere mortals can simply allow the mixture to cool before pouring into spanking clean bottles with the aid of a funnel. Corks in and you’re done.

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Elderflower cordial, bottled

Yield: about 5 bottles.

To drink: dilute to taste or with at least 5 parts water. Ice and sparkling water make it particularly refreshing.

And there are so many other ways you can use elderflower cordial: diluted with hot water to treat a cold; a glug added to any dessert containing gooseberries. But don’t get me started on the gooseberries!

 

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Jul 02

Elderflowers

 

In the tops of the branches and twigs, there springeth sweet and crisped umbels, swelling with white sweet-smelling flowers (in June before St John’s Eve)…

– Dr Martin Blochwich, The Anatomy of Elder, 1670

 

Compared with most other thrifty activities, making things from elderflowers is the tops. From gathering the abundant, creamy-white, sweet-scented flower heads (preferably in mid-summer sunshine) to consuming the fruits of your labour, you don’t feel like you’re slumming it one bit. And all that’s needed to get started is a large bag of sugar, some lemons, a couple of old shopping bags and a brief walk. It couldn’t be simpler.

 

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Elderflower head

 

You can usually expect to find these frothy flower heads in your nearest hedgerow for a few short weeks between late May and early June in the UK. The end of the elderflower season, St John’s Eve (mentioned in the seventeenth century quotation above), falls on 23rd June. But our harsh spring set back this year’s blossoms; they have been spectacularly late, delayed by 3 or 4 weeks in our neck of the woods. Happily, there’s still time to nip out to your local park,  wasteland or country lane and find an elder tree more than ready to share it’s bounty. Just add sugar, lemon and hot water and you’re all set to preserve the essence of summer for later enjoyment.

 

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My 18-year-old son took a bike ride along our local canal at the weekend and brought back two shopping bags brimming with elderflowers. Luxuriating in post-A-level leisure, he proposed to make some elderflower sorbet and cordial (he really loves the sorbet – see recipe below) but it rapidly became a case of mum doing the making while the young people found better things to do.  So this seemed like a golden opportunity to share an extended elderflower how-to with you.

 

Identifying and gathering your blossoms

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is more of a wayside shrub than a woodland tree. When happy on loamy soil (it doesn’t like sand) in sun or partial shade it can grow to twenty feet. But don’t worry: most elders are not as majestic as this so harvesting should be easy. A few tips:

Look out for the distinctive flat umbels of flowers; don’t get confused by other plants with parasols of white florets such as herbaceous perennials Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) or cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris).

If in doubt, sniff the flowers: a heady muscat aroma confirms that you’ve found the right one.

Pick on a dry day.  Rain will knock off some of the scent-bearing yellow pollen.

Select flower heads carefully, ensuring that most of the florets are open; those on the outside of the head open first. Pass over those with any florets turning brown.

Snap off or cut the entire umbel. And if you don’t mind consuming a few tiny insects, you can munch elderflowers as soon as you’ve picked them; their instant edibility gave rise to the country name ‘slices of bread’.  

To gather for later, pop them into a plastic bag (an old plastic shopping bag is ideal) bearing in mind that you’ll need 25 flower heads or so for a batch of cordial, and only 5 will be enough to make a tub of sorbet.

 

How so use your elderflowers

The lovely aroma of elderflowers is so strong that just popping the blossoms into hot water or hot syrup and leaving it to cool will infuse the liquid with their delicate scent.

Process your flowers as soon as you can, though they’ll be OK in a bag (tied at the top) for a day or so.

First, grab each flower head by the stalk and gently shake it to dislodge any insects. Don’t wash the flowers as you’ll lose the pollen which carries the scent.

To drylay the umbels flat on baking trays in a low oven. Or on a wire rack covered in a clean tea towel in a dry shady place. The time it’ll take for them to dry depends on factors such as local humidity, but we’re talking days to weeks. Once completely dry, store in a Kilner-style jar. They make a tea that’s celebrated for its cold-fighting properties.

To steep in hot water: if you have little time and want to start getting them processed as quickly as possibly for eventual use in cordials and sorbets, count/weigh out the amount of elderflowers you need (some recipes quote numbers of elderflower heads, others go by weight, but don’t get bogged down in too much precision) and place in a large bowl. Add some parings of lemon rind and just-boiled water to cover.  Cover bowl with cling-film and set aside to cool completely: this will take several hours or overnight. Strain and refrigerate (covered) until ready to use. This method tends to yield a slightly brownish liquid; it tastes fine, but if you’re picky about your presentation, choose the hot syrup method (below) or add some citric acid or ascorbic acid to your elderflower mixture. You could freeze it at this stage, but otherwise make it into something else (which will likely involved adding sugar as a preservative) within a few days.

To steep in hot syrup: if you have a more time, make up a simple syrup with water and sugar (see method below for sorbet for suggested quantities) and pour it over your flower heads while it’s still hot. This is better than the boiled water method as it gives a much cleaner, more golden.

IMG_3886

Elderflower-infused syrup

 

Elderflower sorbet

I love this delicious water ice. It makes a perfect palate cleanser or light dessert. It’s the first thing I feel the urge to make when elderflowers appear, and if you can dissuade the family from guzzling it straight away (which is unlikely) it keeps really well for months. Nothing beats pulling elderflower sorbet from your freezer when the days shorten and a nip is in the air; it’s the cheapest way to experience intoxicating summer in a chillier season without the help of a budget airline.

IMG_3892

Refreshing elderflower sorbet

Ingredients:

  • 1 pint (600ml) water
  • 8 0z (200g) granulated sugar
  • 3 lemons
  • 5 heads elderflower

Method:

Place elderflowers and the pared lemon rinds in a fairly large bowl.

Heat the sugar and water gently in a pan, stirring while the sugar dissolves. Then boil for 5 minutes to make a syrup. Pour this over the elderflower/lemon rind mixture. Cover with cling-film and leave to infuse for several hours or overnight.

Strain mixture, preferably through a muslin-lined sieve.

Add lemon juice to taste.

Pour into an ice-cream maker* and churn for half an hour. You may still have a slightly watery mix. Don’t worry. Just pour it into a plastic container and pop it in the freezer. Remove from the freezer 2o minutes before you want to serve it. Et voila!

IMG_3893

Um, just another spoonful?

This should be enough to serve up to 6 people (or two very greedy ones).

 

Tomorrow: please join me for elderflower cordial!

*If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pop this into a plastic container the freezer and beat every half-hour or so, drawing the edges into the middle. Once the whole lot is frozen solid, process in a food processor or beat till light and soft. Turn into a new container and re-freeze.

 

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Aug 10

Bees

The English city riots this week have been disturbing and depressing. I’m not sure how to process any of it. I certainly don’t feel like pointing the finger, but it makes me ask myself questions. Have we all (actively or passively) approved a culture of greed? Have we judged people by what they have rather than who they really are? Have we made an effort to connect with those of a different generation, class or ethnicity? Or have we contributed to social exclusion? I wonder if each of us can resolve to make a difference going forward, rather than seeking to cast blame.

If I want to think, this is one of my favourite spots for contemplation and soul-searching.

Bee Central

It looks better than it is. I remade that bench a decade ago from junk-shop cast-iron supports. The slats bend when I sit down (and I’m not the biggest person). But if I tentatively position my rear, the cat usually decides she’ll join me, and we remain for a few moments in companionable silence. Except for the buzzing of the bees.

And just look at those bees! I had to share them with you.

Busy bees

They love the globe thistles on one side of the bench, and the marjoram on the other. I didn’t have to wait long to find two bees together; sometimes there are many more on each flower, easing peaceably round each other on their pollen-collecting mission. Their purposeful presence reminds me that something surprising is thriving in our cities, for bees are apparently doing well now in our urban gardens; I heard that on the early morning news recently, but can’t find reference to the story. Did you hear it too?

Here are some more restful garden pictures as I think we could all do with a little soothing this week. If you’d like to share your thoughts on what soothes you, or what you do to make a positive difference in your neck of the woods (however big or small) do spill them here. Seems we’re in need of a little wisdom.

Echinacea & sea holly

Globe thistle

Echinacea & allium seedhead

Globe thistle

White echinacea

Sweet pea

Ripening grapes

Prostrate rosemary tips

 

 

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May 04

Larkhall Festival

I had a very busy time on Saturday afternoon showing the Eastern fringe of Bath how to make little lavender hearts from what began as an old blanket. This was one of the larks of the Larkhall Festival.

Larkhall Festival - Scrap Heart Workshop

Larkhall Festival larks - scrap blanket workshop

Preparing on the Friday was fun; I was able to watch the royal wedding from behind a pair of scissors, cutting out 150 little individual hearts. Can you see how it influenced me as I compiled my groups of ten? No, neither can I.

Blanket hearts a la royale

Cutting out materials for the scrap blanket hearts

And I didn’t shed any tears. That was just blanket fluff in my eye, honest.

Then I grabbed a load of lavender.

Lavender jar

Big jar of lavender

And a few embroidery threads and balls of mohair (which I like to use for the blanket-stitching, though the latter’s not so very good for beginners as it tends not to behave). I took my trusty bunting (made twenty whole years ago for my very own wedding and loaned out since to a gazillion garden parties & fetes), and Mimi’s fish, just for the company and inspiration (“One day, small child, you could upcycle something like THIS!”)

Thanks to the very capable Polly for helping me out. And to everyone for being so patient while I made my way round to you to help thread needles, tie knots and finish off loose ends. Teaching sewing is fun. It’s such an eye-opener, for one thing. Polly asked one very small boy if he knew how to thread a needle. Yes, he replied. A couple of minutes later she looked back at his needle to find he’d meticulously wrapped his thread ever so neatly around the full length of it. Hmmm. I guess that would be one way to legitimately ‘thread a needle’, just not the one we were looking for. She could hardly bear to disappoint him by unfurling it again. That brought me up short as I realised that sewing terms, like any other technical jargon, are fraught with confusion for the complete novice. We quickly forget the strangeness of language, once we’ve digested and understood it.

I was aiming for this type of thing, but the results were more vibrant and various. Blanket stitch wasn’t always the stitch of choice for participants (even if they started out doing it, they frequently ended up producing something else, even if not intentionally) but there was plenty of personality, and I was delighted to see lots of personalising and initialising going on. The lavender seemed to be loved by all, and children were witnessed ‘losing their needles’ in the lavender box just so they could scrunch their fingers through it again and again. And why not? We were chilling. The needles were reassuringly blunt, by the way.

Though tolerant of irregularities and differences of approach (there’s usually more than one legitimate way of doing something) I find myself driven to correct one thing: tying a knot in the thread behind the needle. This one makes me twitch. I don’t know but assume (can anyone confirm?) that this is how sewing is taught in primary schools when kids work with Binca and yarn. I feel that this makes the yarn and needle behave a little oddly and try to encourage simply leaving a longer thread-tail. Am I alone in having this aversion?

I’ve decided I should get off my derriere and offer sewing upcycling classes. Venue tba, but somewhere in Bath. Do leave a comment or get in touch with me via my email (eirlysATscrapianaDOTcom) if you’d like information about these. Be sure to mention if you’d be interested in children’s or adults’ classes, and if daytimes, evenings or weekends suit you best. And don’t forget to leave a means of contacting you.

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