It’s that time of year when walks in the countryside are filled with the sweet aroma of elderflowers and honeysuckle. Like many others I seem to have a heightened awareness of the natural world this spring – enjoying the countryside and my garden, the birds, bees and butterflies.
I often stop and ponder is it an unusually abundant year or have I just a bit more time to observe and contemplate?
For the first time I have noticed the beautiful common blue damselflies resting like shining jewels on the lacy white elder blooms!
Time to forage, with basket in hand I set off to pick elderflowers to make two of my favourite summer drinks – elderflower cordial and elderflower fizz.
It didn’t take long to gather the 30 large flowerheads needed to make a gallon of elderflower fizz and about 2 pints of elderflower cordial.
Before going indoors I gave every flowerhead a little shake to make sure there were no tiny insects lurking. The main ingredients for both drinks are the same – elderflowers, water, sugar, and lemons. It is the differing concentrations of sugar and elderflowers that make the difference.
Elderflower cordial is sweet and syrupy when diluted with tap or sparkling water it is a really refreshing drink or is for something special add it to a gin and tonic! It’s also a useful addition to puddings and one of my favourites is Sophie Grigson’s recipe for lime and elderflower jellies – simple but delicious.
The Elderflower fizz recipe I use was given to me by my mother-on-law over 30 years ago and she was given it from a lady of over 80 who had been given it by an old lady!! So I am guessing this recipe goes back a long way. For years I was perplexed by one of the ingredients 6d (old pence) white wine vinegar. Last year I was really pleased to discover a reference to 1d as a measuremen so I now know that 1d =1 tablespoon!
In these challenging times, being very aware of my limited shopping excursions I had the bright idea of using the strained elderflowers from the cordial and the quarter lemons from the fizz to make an elderflower and lemon drizzle cake. I simply lined the bottom of the cake tin with the elderflowers before adding the cake mixture. While it was baking I squeezed the juice from the quartered lemons into some elderflower cordial. Immediately the cake was out of the oven I made little holes over the top of it with a skewer and gently drizzled the lemon and elderflower cordial over the top. Delicious the delicate flavour of the elderflower with the sharp tang of the lemon – will definitely try that one again !!
So here are the recipes – I hope you will enjoy !
Elderflower cordial Ingredients: 25 large freshly picked elderflower heads (check to make sure no insects are hiding in them!) 4lb (1.8kg) granulated sugar 2 3/4 oz (75g) citric acid (usually found in homebrewing section of shop) 2 lemons ( best to use unwaxed if you can) 2 pt (0.5 litre) water
Place elderflowers in a large clean bowl add the zest of the lemons and then slice the lemons and add. Place water and sugar in a pan on the stove and bring to the boil stirring to ensure the sugar dissolves. Pour the water and sugar over the elderflowers and lemons and add the citric acid. Cover and leave to stand for 24 hours. Next day strain through muslin or a jelly bag and bottles. Make sure that your bottles have been sterilised. The cordial will keep for a month or two if stored in a cool dark place however I tend to freeze it in small batches so that we can enjoy it throughout the year.
Elderflower fizz Ingredients 1 gallon (4.5 litre) of water 2 tablespoons (6d) white wine vinegar 1 1/2lb (680g) sugar 1 lemon (unwaxed) cut into quarters 5 larger elderflower heads
Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover and leave for 24 hours stirring occasionally. Strain through muslin or a jelly bag. Bottle in sterilised screw or clip topped bottles. Stand upright for 2 weeks then lie on their side. Take care when opening as it can be quite champagne like!!
My first leisurely start to the day for a while so I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and checking my stocks of dried fruit as it almost time to start the preparations for Christmas – sweet mincemeat and plum pudding are on the list to be made this weekend. The Christmas cake is a mid December job as this household prefers a light glacé fruit cake rather than the traditional rich fruit cake.
As the morning progressed and the sun fought its way through the rain and grey skies I was lured away from the much needed domestic chores to take the dog for a walk. What a beautiful mild sunny day. The grey sky gone just clear blue and many trees still holding their leaves in a multitude of autumnal shades – a good to be alive day!
I haven’t been home much in the daylight recently so hadn’t really had a good look in the polytunnel or veg garden probably for 2 weeks. I expected mildewy tomato and cucumber plants and was amazed to find they are still looking relatively healthy and the tomatoes are still ripening. I picked 6 tomatoes and a cucumber which will add a bit more variety to the cheese on toast I was planning for lunch (food shopping is the final chore for today!). I checked in on the hens who are enjoying a temporary stay in the soft fruit area and there above their heads, and out of reach, were two ripe raspberries which were delicious.
So a morning that started off with wintery, grey and full of Christmas planning has developed into an autumnal day and I’m off to eat my cheese on toast topped with tomato and cucumber in the sunshine in the greenhouse!
It’s always hard coming home after a lovely holiday. There is the thought of work, routine and things to be done, But as soon as the house appears and we enter the drive there is that feeling of homecoming and familiarity and then there is the excitement of seeing what has happened in the garden – always the first thing before unloading the car or checking the house.
When we got back today I was amazed at how things had grown in eight days. Yes the weeds have done well but so has the garden.
Roses, delphiniums, hollyhock,sweet peas on long stems and mesembryanthemum which bring back childhood memories of lying on my tummy watching the flowers open as the rays of the sun warmed them only to close again when a cloud passed by.
Next stop is to check the vegetable garden and greenhouse to see how things have fared. And as usual there are the successes this time- lettuce, radish, cucumbers, courgettes and potatoes. The french, broad and runner beans are looking hopeful but where are the parsnips? They are usually one of our best crops and as for the peas it will be a meagre crop.
But after unpacking there was a real sense of satisfaction and living the good life when we picked and harvested and then we sat in the evening sunshine and ate a completely home produced meal (well except for the mayonnaise). We enjoyed an egg salad with lettuce, radish, basil, rocket and potatoes. Finely chopped courgettes with a tiny red onion and slivers of freshly picked cucumber. Maybe coming home from holiday is not too bad!
There are certain plants in our garden which evoke memories of people of places and of points in life. What prompted this thought was the sight of ‘Auntie Iris’ peony’ which is laden with highly scented white blossoms at the minute. I have never been able to accurately name the plant but I have childhood memories of the peony in the wonderful formal garden Auntie Iris had on the shores of Strangford Lough near Killyleagh. When she moved from the garden she lifted the peony and I think it is at that point that my Dad had a cutting and I took a cutting from his plant for our first little garden in Nottingham.
Since then whenever I move I take part of my original peony and have grown Auntie Iris’ peony at over 600ft in Lancashire and now it is happily established in Shropshire. I like to think that people who now live in our previous houses are enjoying the fragrance and beauty of the flowers and perhaps wonder about the origins of the plant,
Having come over to County Down for a holiday with my family it is good to know that the flowers that we picked from Mum and Dad’s garden and are scenting our holiday house in Strangford are only about 8 miles ‘as the crow flies’ from their original home in Auntie Iris’ garden.
How many gardeners spend their time waging war on ‘pests’ ?- slugs, snails, birds, mice, squirrels, grazing children…
We have tried growing strawberries with little success for a number of years no matter what we do someone gets to the strawberries just as they ripen, We’ve tried nets to protect the fruit from birds and squirrels only to feed our numerous shrew and mouse population. We’ve tied them up to make it harder for the mice to climb up for a feast. Last year I tried hanging strawberry bags and got the watering wrong – failure.
This spring all the strawberry plants which had overwintered in a corner of the vegetable garden were dug up. about half were put in large black plastic pots in a lovely rich leaf mould compost. The other half were planted in the a new bed in the ‘big polytunnel’. Needless to say there is a bit of a his and hers competition in the strawberry department. His were looking very healthy in the polytunnel obviously growing in a large bed. but I persevered watering, feeding and generally loving ‘my’ strawberries in the glorious greenhouse.
Almost too good to eat!
So imagine my delight to be able to serve up ‘my’ mouse free ripe strawberries as part of his special birthday pudding this week. His strawberries are ripening and feeding the lovely little shrew that seems to have set up residence in the tunnel!
And the verdict – sweet, juicy and just delicious!