Gorgeous Elderflower Fizz

Every year in late May and early June, the hedgerows on the farm are littered with large saucer shaped elder flowers with their distinctive heady scent. Last year I nearly missed the flowers as the hot weather turned them brown very quickly, so this year I’ve been out picking as soon as the tight buds burst into cream coloured flowers.

I used to make several bottles of elderflower cordial and elderflower fizz each summer, which were always drunk fairly quickly (apart from the odd bottle that got forgotten until it blew the lid off in the middle of the night showering everywhere with stickiness). But nowadays we rarely drink sweet cordials, which called for a rethink. The answer is to make infused water (continued throughout the summer using flowers, fruit and herbs) and a batch of elderflower fizz for special summer days.

Elderflowers are abundant across the UK in field hedges, roadside hedges, the fringes of woodland and wasteground. Pick your elderflowers on a sunny morning before they’ve endured the heat of the day and while they’re still heavy with pollen. Pick only the creamy coloured flowers and leave the flower heads that are turning brown to develop into elderberries. Shake out any insects that are lurking but don’t wash them.

Infused water is ridiculously easy to make and the Rose and Elderflower version looks pretty and tastes good. There’s no sugar, so it’s not sweet and cloying like some elderflower cordials and the taste is floral, but subtle. Sometimes the rose dominates, sometimes elderflower.

Strip the elder flowers from the main stem of three large heads – I don’t bother to remove the flowers completely, but you may wish to – and snip seven or eight large, petals from a scented, unsprayed rose into strips. Put the flowers into a jug, or a jar if that’s your thing, top up with 750ml water, cover and stand in the fridge. After a couple of hours, you’ll have delicately flavoured water. Use more flowers if you favour a stronger infusion or wait a bit longer until you start to drink it. I keep the flowers in the water for no more than a day, so if I haven’t finished the jugful, I strain out the flowers and keep the flavoured water in the jug.

Making infused water means foraging each day for your elderflowers, which can be a bit of a pain. Making a batch of Elderflower Fizz gets your foraging done in one day and then you have a few weeks to enjoy the fruits of your labour.


 

elderflowers


There are numerous commercial versions of Elderflower Presse or Sparkling Elderflower available but elderflowers are so widespread and this recipe is so easy, that it seems a shame not to make your own. Making your own also gives you the chance to vary the flavour a little; try adding some scented rose petals or lemon balm leaves. It’s a particularly English summer drink: floral, delicate and immensely quaffable.

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Elderflower Fizz

Floral, delicate and immensely quaffable drink for summer

Ingredients

  • 20 creamy elderflower heads
  • 700g granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
  • 2 lemons

Directions

  • Put the peel (use a potato peeler) and juice from the lemons in a large bowl with the sugar and vinegar.
  • Strip the elderflowers from the main stems. Discard the stems and add the flowers to the bowl.
  • Add 1 gallon of cold water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover the bowl with a tea towel or mesh cover (not cling film as it needs to breathe) and stand for 48 hours in a cool place.
  • Strain into bottles. Use either flip top bottles that can withstand the pressure of a fizzy drink or reuse plastic fizzy drink ones.
  • Keep for a week or two as it builds up some fizz. If too much pressure builds, untwist the lid a little to release the pressure and reseal.
Best drunk within 3 months

If you’ve picked your elderflowers, made your Elderflower Fizz and Infused Water and still have some left over, you might be interested in:

Rose & Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower Syrup & Cordial

Elderflower Creams

Rose & Elderflower Marshmallows

Jelly Printing with elderflowers


Forage, cook, eat

spring undergrowth

If you drive along English country lanes at this time of year, it would be easy to dismiss the green blur of the verges as simply boring grass. But slow down to a walking pace and in amongst the different types of grass you can see so much more. The first leaves of cow parsley, a forerunner of the frothy flowers that will line the roads in a few weeks vie for growing space with the bright green new growth of stinging nettles; a mouse scuttles through the undergrowth to safety and a frog sits motionless, blending into the undergrowth until it suddenly catapults into action; cleavers and speedwell spread outwards beside the first flowering primroses.

jug of wild violets

Best of all, nestled in the undergrowth, are beautiful violets, their colours ranging from white with the merest hint of violet through to a deep, rich purple with the colour offset by their shiny green leaves. Turn off the road and walk along a public footpath and you’ll probably find even more. Just now, there’s enough violets to put in a small jug on the bedside table but before long there’ll be plenty to make a small batch of violet syrup or violet liqueur.

Nettle, cheese and chive scones

Naturally, there’s no shortage of stinging nettles and this is an excellent time of year to use them. At the weekend, I snipped off the heads of a few nettles to make scones. There were comments around the table that normal people don’t eat nettle scones or, for that matter, the violet infused milk jellies that we ate for supper. But why don’t we eat more nettles? They’re abundant, they’re free and are right on trend as foraged food but without the poisoning worries of foraging for fungi.

Nettles cut for the kitchen

Use the top six or seven leaves of a young plant and cut them straight into a colander so that you don’t have to handle them or wear rubber gloves to avoid stinging your hands. Rinse the leaves, picking out any insects or stray blades of grass you may have inadvertently cut and tip the leaves into a bowl. Pour on enough boiling water to cover the nettles and leave for a couple of minutes. Fish out the wilted leaves, which will no longer sting and squeeze out the excess moisture. Apart from Nettle Soup, which everyone seems to have heard of but I think is slightly overrated, you can use nettles to make a hedgerow pesto, green soda bread or as a replacement for spinach in many recipes. Or try the Nettle Scone recipe below. Eat them warm, spread generously with butter.

Go on, live a little dangerously.

Nettle Scones

 

What do you do with a bag full of nettle leaves? Use this simple recipe to make a batch of delicious Cheese and Nettle Scones. Forage, cook, eat

To make Nettle Scones:

225g plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Pinch of salt

60g butter, cubed

Tops of 7 or 8 nettles wilted and drained as above

1 tablespoon of chopped chives

40g strong cheddar cheese cubed or grated

2 dessertspoons plain yoghurt

Milk

Put the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and rub in the butter.

Chop the nettles and add to the bowl with the chives and cheese.

Stir in the yoghurt and enough milk to bring the mixture together in a soft but not sticky dough. Tip out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly pat into a round about 4 cms thick. Cut into 4 (or 6) wedges and put them close together on a lightly greased baking sheet.

Brush the tops with milk and bake 220C for about 15 minutes when they should be risen and golden. Wrap in a tea towel and transfer to a wire tray.

Best eaten warm.

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Grasping the Nettle

grasping the nettle

One of the best things about the arrival of spring is the chance to forage around the garden and fields for things to pick and eat. Food for free is itself a beguiling prospect, but somehow the very act of finding, picking and eating these leaves, berries, nuts or flowers links back to an ancient way of life.

Now that many of us buy such a high proportion of our food from supermarkets, it’s easy for people to disassociate food from its origins. It pains me to see people buying expensive little plastic punnets of blackberries in August when they only need to cross the road from our local supermarket to reach the country park, which has blackberries in abundance.

Picking food from the wild not only has economic advantages but you become aware of the ebb and flow of the seasons and get to explore and learn about your local area. After a few years, you know where the earliest blackberries ripen and where the most accessible sloes can be reached. With luck, you’ll share this with your friends and family, so that they too can reap the benefits and in turn pass on their knowledge of seasonality and locality.

One of the fears with foraging is that you’ll pick something poisonous, which is one of the reasons to use shared knowledge, so that you only pick what you know to be safe. If you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask someone who knows, rather than look at a blurry photograph from a website that may or may not give accurate information. So, why not start with stinging nettles, which most people can identify and know where to find a few to cut.

Once you’ve gathered your stinging nettles, what use should you put them to? Nettle tea apparently tastes very tea-like and works as a spring medicine and blood purifier while nettle hair rinse is said to make the hair soft and glossy and allegedly prevent baldness. The fibrous nature of stinging nettle stalks allows them to be used for textiles and paper in the same way as other plant fibres such as flax.

You can cook nettles to make a pale green soup or layer them with potatoes in a baked dish but my favourite way to eat nettles is to make a simple green bread. This bread uses bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent rather than yeast, making it quick to make with no kneading or hanging around while it proves. Whenever we demonstrate bread making on Open Farm Sunday, this green bread is always a favourite.

stinging nettles

You need a colander half filled with nettles, which takes little time to gather. Bearing in mind the stringy, fibrous quality of nettle stalks, either choose small tender shoots or snip off the top few tender leaves and leave the coarse lower leaves and stalk. I don’t like wearing gloves so find it easiest to take a colander and snip the tops straight into it, which means I don’t need to hold the plants. If you’re of a more cautious nature, then just wear a pair of rubber or leather gloves to avoid stinging your hands.

The recipe for the cheesy green bread is below. Cut into wedges while still warm and butter generously. Enjoy!

 

NETTLE BREAD


stinging nettle bread

Small colander of nettle leaves (the tops of 6 – 8 plants)

250g strong wholemeal flour

200g plain white flour

50g medium oatmeal

1 teasp salt

1 level teasp bicarbonate of soda

1 teasp honey

100ml yoghurt

350ml milk

100g strong English cheddar cheese, grated

 

Roughly snip the nettle leaves with scissors in the colander and then pour boiling water over them, which will let you handle them without getting stung. Leave to cool.

Put the flours, oatmeal, salt and bicarb in a bowl and then add the honey, yoghurt and milk, using a large spoon or your hands to mix them together. To this sticky dough, add the drained nettles and the grated cheese making sure they’re evenly distributed.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and quickly shape into a round. Don’t knead. Place on a greased baking sheet, slash a deep cross in the top and bake 30 minutes at 220C (or in AGA roasting oven).

Leave to cool, but I think this is best eaten while still warm. This loaf won’t keep overnight, so is best frozen if you don’t eat it all on the first day


the edible hedge in September

autumn fruits

In September, the edible hedge and all the other hedges around the fields are filled with berries and fruits. It is certainly one of the best months of all for foraging. The blackberries are in their prime just now, the rosehips and hawthorn berries are ripe, wild pears and crab apples are ready to use and the sloes are almost soft enough to pick.

edible hedge jelly print

Even the foliage can be used for jelly printing.


Mostly though, I’ve been picking blackberries. They’ll only be usable for another couple of weeks so I’m making the most of them. We’ve finished picking blackberries for Slamseys Gin, so now I can just wander along the hedgerow with a couple of containers, picking as I please. We eat them fresh and unadorned by the handful, mix them with autumn fruiting raspberries or throw them in a saucepan with a sprinkling of sugar and heat them long enough for the juices to run but not so long that they cook and fall apart. A dash of Blackberry Gin is added sometimes or a little cream. We’ve feasted on Blackberry Ice Cream, Blackberry Fool, cocktails with Blackberry Gin, a Blackberry Slice (from The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook) that’s like a Bakewell Tart made with a meltingly soft shortbread base, used them for Uncooked Porridge (sometimes in a jar and sometimes not)  and there are a few jars of Blackberry & Crab Apple Jelly (always preferable to jam with its pesky blackberry pips) lined up on the pantry shelf ready to spread on warm scones and pancakes on dark winter evenings.

My favourite preserve though is Bramble Spread. A delicious, utterly blackberry intense spread. Not solid and sliceable like a Quince Cheese, but half way between a butter and a cheese; more concentrated than jam and jelly because it’s little more than a sweet puree. Glorious on toast or scones. There’s no faffing around with jam thermometers or testing for set, no worrying whether I’ve made a super firm set jam that can be prised from the jar in one rubbery mass or whether I didn’t boil it for long enough and have a sauce to pour straight from the jar. Even if the Bramble Spread sets too firmly, I just call it Bramble Cheese and slice it to eat with cold meat or cheese.

To make Bramble Spread

800 g blackberries
800 g sugar

In a large pan, slowly heat the blackberries with 300 grammes of sugar and 120 ml of cold water and gently cook until the berries are soft.

Push through a sieve to get rid of the pips, then put the juice and pulp back in the (clean) pan with the remaining 500 grammes of sugar.

Over a low heat, stir to dissolve the sugar and simmer (not rapidly boil) for 20 minutes, still stirring.

Pour into ramekins or small jars, cover and label. Best eaten after two or three months during which time it will thicken a little more.


hedgerow foraging

Down by the pond in the corner of Gardeners Field, tucked into the corner behind the stinging nettles, stands an elder bush dripping with elderberries; tiny, deep purple coloured beads that burst with juice and stain your fingers as you pick them. I don’t usually pick many elderberries, partly because there aren’t many near to home (that I can reach) because we’ve picked the elder flowers earlier in the year and partly because we’re in the middle of blackberry picking for Slamseys Gin and another hour of picking is sometimes too much to contemplate.

 

 

hedge Slamseys Farm

 

But last weekend the sun was out, the ground underfoot was dry and an hour mindlessly stripping berries from a bush in a quiet place seemed a good idea. On the way home I picked a few blackberries and sloes too because it’s very difficult to just walk by when there’s an empty container still in the backpack.
Back in the kitchen the first thing made was a small batch of Elderberry Syrup with a spoonful of Hedgerow Gin spooned into the top of the bottle for “keeping” properties as I shall only store it for a few weeks and so haven’t sterilised the filled bottle. Elizabeth has a delicious recipe here for Elderberry Syrup and her inspired suggestion of making a layered jelly using Elderflower Syrup and Elderberry Syrup was one I couldn’t resist, especially as I had a small jugful of syrup that wouldn’t fit into the bottle. My downfall was that finding the right dilution for the jelly meant tasting, more tasting, then just a little more because it tasted so good until there was too little left to make jelly. Reluctant to break open my freshly bottled Elderberry Syrup, I used the rather more plentiful blackberries to make a big batch of Blackberry Syrup and made a Blackberry and Crab Apple Jelly instead. Elderflower and elderberry jelly will have to wait for another day.

 

blackberries, elderberries and sloes

 

A mix of elderberries, sloes and blackberries were made into Hedgerow Syrup and the last elderberries made into a piquant, spiced elderberry sauce called Pontack Sauce. This isn’t a thick ketchup type sauce, but more like Worcester Sauce and indeed it’s used in the same way as Worcester Sauce to spice up stews or in marinades. Some recipes recommend that the sauce reaches its peak at seven years old but even though there are some ancient things in my pantry, I’ve never made enough Pontack Sauce to keep that long.

 

pontack sauce

 

By the end of the weekend, I had a tray filled with syrups, vinegars, cordials and sauce ready to store away for the winter. The syrups and cordials can be diluted with hot water (and maybe a little tot of something alcoholic) for a warming winter drink or with soda water and a good squeeze of lemon juice in the summer. The Raspberry Vinegar makes a good dressing for salads, adds a little something to nondescript stews or can be diluted with hot water and gargled to ease a sore throat (it’s so throat rasping that it seems to work).

September is a wonderful month for foraging. Have you been out and about picking and making?

 

 

To make Pontack Sauce

Into a large pan, tip

500g elderberries stripped from the stalks
150g crab apples, roughly chopped *
1 onion, chopped
½ litre vinegar *
1 teasp cinnamon
1 teasp ground ginger
8 cloves

Simmer on a low heat (or in the simmering oven of the AGA) for an hour and then strain.
Put the liquid back into the pan and add

300g sugar (I use half and half soft brown and granulated)

Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and then boil for about ten minutes until the mixture has reduced slightly.
Bottle.

 

* In the foraging spirit, I use crab apples and cider vinegar, but there’s no reason why cooking apples and distilled malt vinegar shouldn’t work just as well.