I have added a new Gallery page to my blog so if you have lovely pictures of things you have made ( or your chickens! ) then email them to me with a little bit about you or the picture and I will put them up.
Something that comes along right now and for the rest of the Summer is Lemon Balm. If you are lucky enough to have this in your garden - you probably have too much! If you don't currently have it then get out and buy a plant or beg one from a friend and plant somewhere where it can grow without invading other precious plants as it spreads like mad.
2000 years ago the Greeks so prized Lemon Balm, Melissa Officinalis, that they dedicated it to the goddess Diana and used it extensively as a medicine. There doesn't seem to be much that the powerful volatile oils can't help - in fact the common name for this herb was Cure All. It is especially beneficial for muscle and stomach cramps, urinary spasm, flatulence and nausea!
Lemon Balm growing under one of my apple trees very happily. It will easily double in size over the next few weeks before bursting into flower. The flowers are very small and quite insignificant, like so many herbs.
I have been making Lemon Vinegar and will carry on making batches of it through the Summer as it is very popular with my customers. I love it mixed with my Lemon & Dill Mustard and melted butter poured over hot new potatoes. Perfect with a barbeque or lunch in the garden. Yum. Bottle the vinegar in pretty bottles and I include a curl of lemon zest as well
The vinegar during the two week soaking stage
Something else that I am going to try this year is Lemon Balm Refresher - it is an old fashioned lemonade, not the over-carbonated sort that we are used to today but I can just taste this on a hot summer's day, sitting somewhere shady. I intended to make it last year but never got around to it . . .
Thinly peel the zest from 4 lemons and place in a heatproof jug with the leaves from 3-4 large stems of lemon balm, and the sugar. Crush the leaves so that they start releasing all of those lovely oils. Pour over the boiling water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Leave to one side while you squeeze the juice from the lemons - add this to your serving jug. Gather a few more small springs of lemon balm and add to this jug before straining over the cooled syrup. Top up with around 600ml/1 pint water of your choice and chill until needed. Add ice if desired. All I need now is a sunny day!
Try making my Pesto recipe substituting lemon balm for the basil and walnuts for the pinenuts - great on pasta with chicken or stirred into a spring vegetable soup, or a lovely fresh cucumber sandwich.
To dry the leaves for making tea - gather a bunch of the stems on a warm sunny morning - better still gather several bunches. Tie a length of string around the stems leaving a loop to hang them up by. Keeping the leaves attached, cover them with a paper bag and twist around to close, securing with some sticky tape if necessary. Hang upside down somewhere warm to dry which will take several weeks. When dry and crumble just detach the leaves and store in an airtight jar ready for use.
Try making the tea with fresh leaves when available, or use a couple of tablespoons of the dried in a pot-for-one . If you are restless or have trouble sleeping this is a wonderfully calming brew - but only have one as it is also a diuretic!
I was out sat in The Chix' run yesterday watching them as they went about their chickenny business - I had opened the gate to the promised land and they were in their own particular heaven. I decided to open up the compost heap and dig it out for their enjoyment but actually I didn't do anything - they were doing the digging. It's actually not much of a compost heap as every time I add something they eat it!
So, while I was sat on my straw bale watching them I noticed that the first of the elderflowers had broken out in the lovely hot sunshine. I looked at this with a mixture of hope and dread. I do love this mark in time of more good things to come, but also it is a bit of 'stop whatever you are doing and make cordial' situation. It is definitely a race against the clock to get the flowers processed while in good condition. Always pick the flowers on a dry day and preferably in the morning. Try to pick away from the roadside to avoid dust and dirt from passing traffic. Try and use them as soon after picking as possible. By the way, you only need to pick the flower heads - on a small length of stem - no need to pick the individual tiny flowers. Give them a good shake to get rid of any passengers and gather into a basket or flat tray so that the blooms don't get crushed. Please pause for a second to take a very close look at one of the flower heads - the arrangement of the flower petals, and the dusting of pollen and natural yeasts is really beautiful.
We . . . dig,dig,dig,dig,dig,dig,dig,dig the whole day long
I find it exciting - and I know I am strange - to find that the flowers and fruits of the Elder were the first herbs to be cultivated by Man over 4000 years ago. The plant has very powerful properties with Vit A, B1, B2, B3 and C, plus all sorts of chemicals making it anti-inflammatory , anti-viral and anti-cancer. It is also a diuretic, laxative and insect repellant! All from such tiny, delicate, lacy flowers. I won't go on and on here but you can read up for yourself on the internet.
Take care not to include too much of the green stems and stalks as they contain a toxic chemical similar to cyanide!
Strip the flowers -gently - and berries using a table fork
Dry the flowers for use in teas by turning the flowerheads upside down on a kitchen paper lined tray and dry overnight. Next day the florets can be gently shaken from the stems and stored for future use.
To make a deliciously refreshing tea put a couple of tablespoons of the flowers in a jug and pour over boiling water. Leave to steep for 10 mins and then strain into your favourite mug. Add some honey if liked. Only have one of these teas a day because of it's diuretic properties.
Right, what to make? Well, cordial, obviously. If you look back at my blog on making Lemon Cordial, it is basically the same method for Elderflower Cordial. Just follow my recipe, and then sterilise the cordial in the bottles to lengthen the shelf life. The citric acid helps with the preservation and reducing the possibility for bugs to grow. However, elderflowers have so much natural yeast and mould it is sometimes difficult to stabilise. I have had the situation where I made a large batch of cordial, sterilised it in a waterbath, and some of the batch grew moulds and some didn't - from the same batch!
The positives far outweigh the negatives though, and I still make plenty every year. It is great if you are having a party or a wedding - a really delicious but cost effective way of providing soft drinks and it can also be mixed with something fizzy like Prosecco to give it a kick. Bottle it in something pretty like the Lucca bottle, and you also have ready-made gifts to hand.The cordial can be used neat over ice-cream, diluted to make ice-lollies for a summer fete or added to icing sugar to make a delicious icing for a summer sponge.
I make Lemon Marmalade with Elderflowers, replacing some of the sugar with cordial. I strip a few of the tiny flowers from the flower head and add to each jar - they look really pretty, like confetti. A really girly preserve!
If you want to make Elderflower Fizz then there are a few ground rules to understand. When you make this fascinating brew at home you have no way of knowing the extreme pressure that will build up from the fermentation. I have already mentioned the huge amounts of natural yeasts and they create a very lively fermentation. So, do yourself a favour and do not bottle into glass bottles. The bottles will most likely shatter under the strain and then you will have a sticky, shark-infested sea to clear up. Even with the PET plastic bottles I have opened a 3 year old brew outside and have the plume of 'champagne' arc across a field about 30 feet!
When you have made your fizz, store in a cool place, away from children, pets, valuable antiques and windows. A cool garage ( as long as the family car isn't nearby ) would be fine, or even somewhere cool outside. If you are transporting to a picnic then pack into the boot and make sure the bottle can't roll around. Don't do as one of our customers did - left it on the back parcel shelf, in the sun, rolling around - it took out the front windscreen and she narrowly escaped serious injury. Really, if you are eating al fresco take the more stable cordial and some sparkling mineral water.
Just a few more flowery thoughts for you. Elderflower Vinegar. Easy. Elderflower Sugar - put a couple of heads into a large jar and cover with caster sugar. Leave for a couple of weeks, remove flowers and then store to use in or on sponge cakes, sorbets etc.
I am going to try Elderflower Butter this year - beat 4 tablespoons butter with 110g/4oz sifted icing sugar until soft, stir in 2-3 tablespoons of the flower petals and use to sandwich a summer sponge cake, top with glace icing made with cordial and scatter with a few more petals.
And finally but no means least, Elderflower Liqueur. Pick around 10-15 flower heads and snip off the florets into a large jar. Pour over 1 x 70cl bottle of vodka - nothing expensive - seal the jar and shake. Make sure that all the flowers are under the liquid, store somewhere dark and shake occasionally. Leave for at least two weeks, strain through muslin and then taste. If you would like it sweeter then add some sugar, to taste, and stir to dissolve. Bottle into pretty bottles, like the Arenzo - how sweet will it taste in the winter reminding you of last summer and anticipating the next?
This is a PS to the blog below - I forgot to give you an update on SicChic - she is so much better today! I really thought she wouldn't make it through the night but she had some breakfast and has been out and about scratting with the rest of them. A few standing-up naps in the sunshine but sooooo much better. ( I hope it isn't a last rally . . . .)
I was thinking, like you do, that while we are waiting for the eldeflowers to er, flower, then it might be good to make some wholegrain mustard ready for all of those summer barbeques. It is very easy to make, as it requires zero cooking but what actually is it?
Strictly speaking, wholegrain mustard is a condiment made from a combination of seeds, both yellow and brown/black, and any number of other ingredients, including the preservatives, vinegar, sugar and salt. However,that description doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of flavours that develop and the depth of the pungency.
Wholegrain mustard as we know it was almost certainly brought to these shores by the Romans although their sophisticated approach far outweighs the remnant we produce today. With upwards of twenty five ingredients the seeds and spices were mixed with red wine must to form a paste which was rolled into balls and dried in the sun. These power-packed mustard balls would be carried by the individual in a leather pouch and then crumbled and sprinkled onto food or mixed with the red wine must again.
As well as leaving a legacy on their travels through France, which ultimately led to the development of the mustard industry in Dijon, the Romans also deposited their expertise in Tewkesbury in UK which is still renowned for mustard today. Part of its appeal in Northern Europe was, of course, that it could be grown locally, when all other spices had to be shipped from the West Indies or beyond.
It is a cool season broadleaf crop, with bright yellow flowers and the majority of the modern UK crop is grown in East Anglia. Although popular as a rotation crop as it enhances the yields of wheat and barley, it is also useful to break the disease cycles in cereal crops.
Now for the scientific bit - it turns out that as well as all of those other benefits mustard is also very nutritious. It contains between 28-36% protein, and its oil also makes up 38-36% of the seed and is as nutritious as other similar vegetable oils. It contains something called Tocopherols which helps to prevent rancidity which means mustard has a long shelf life.
Mustard oils are the characteristic flavour of mustard whether whole seed, ground seed, or mustard flour. The essentials oils naturally inhibit the growth of the main spoilers - yeasts, moulds and bacteria which explains the powerful preservative properties of mustard. Every time I make it I am astonished all over again that it keeps indefinitely without cooking and without refrigeration.
Now, when my friend Kev came to The Old Smithy, together with Sarah Lyon from our local county magazine, we had a playschool day - making mustard balls, just like the Romans. I put the placcy cloth on the table, got out every single herb and spice that we have, plus some more things bought in specially like fish oil and anchovies, and we got mixing. We made some excellent concoctions and they smelled wonderful - mine were like the best pizza you have ever had. So its a great little experiment on a rainy day, an exploration of tastes and flavours using your senses and common sense to cook up something truly original. ( I say cook, there was no heat involved )
So, back to making some wholegrain mustard with beer - use a bottle or can of your favourite tipple or something unusual. Put the seeds into a large bowl, pour on the beer and leave to soak overnight. Next day, add in all of the other ingredients and whizz in the goblet of a liquidiser until the consistency that you like. Best to do this bit in small batches and then combine for jarring up - I like the Orcio jar best for this. Keep for a couple of weeks before using - if you can. There you are, no cooking, keeps indefinitely. Make several different varieties once you are confident and then make sure you use them as an ingredient, not just a condiment.
Gosh - I feel as though I've been in a cave for a week and just come out, blinking, into the sunshine. ( Not literally now, as it's dark!) I have finished as much as I can do of the order for the local nurseries - I ran out of jars in the end which is as perfect example of irony if ever there was one. Delivery tomorrow and then normal - or what passes for normal service will be resumed.
Had an interesting chat with one of the catering tutors from Stamford College who called in just to see what was in my funny little building - taking the jampot sign outside as a clue. It always astonishes me each time I am reminded that the safe preservation of food is not something that most of the catering colleges cover - it seems a "bear necessity of life" ( cue for a song) to me. Once we lose our fundamental understanding of food and how to grow it, cook it, and keep it, we're doomed. We can't always rely on 24/7 shopping.
Anyway, it's late and tomorrow is another - beautiful we hope - day.
PS I notice the elderflowers are forming up nicely so if we get a few fine days and some sunshine they will soon be out - start sorting out your bottles!
PPS all through this hectic week one of The Chix has been poorly and apparently at death's door. It's very stressful to watch her fade, but she won't let us near her s we are just trying to keep her comfy, clean and warm hoping she'll pull through but I don't think she will. The trouble is the vet said that by the time they display sickness they are too bad to help - its their natural survival kicking in. We'll see.
We still have my brilliant Rosie Loves a Bargain! Budget jars on offer until midnight tonight, all ready for the fruit season . . .only because we haven't taken it off!
Nanny and Grandad were on duty this morning at 9.30 - yes, 9.30 - to look after Samuel aged 2.
Of course, it has been pouring with rain so we didn't think we would go out and anyway, his parents were due back at lunchtime. Big brother Oscar had gone to play with some of his friends so it was up to Samuel and Nanny to keep Grandad occupied.
Luckily Nanny had a bag of her Magic Sand with her and we all spent a happy morning making pies, and castles, monsters, anything, in fact that a 2 year old can dream up. Mummy and Daddy found it hard to believe that we had been busy at it for two hours!
I love Magic Sand. It is very satisfying to work with as it holds it shape so you can make great sand pies with it - even move them - and very satisfying if you are busy cutting up 'pies'. If you have a little one to amuse it is very easy to make. In a large bowl mix around 500g/1lb flour with about half a 'normal' size bottle baby oil. Mix as though you are making pastry to coat the flour with the oil. It will resemble pale sand grains - add more flour, or oil if needed. Keep in a sealed plastic box after use and renew regularly. Great for Grandads!!!
Samuel occupying Grandad
It was still pouring once we had handed over to Mum & Dad so we bolted to the American Diner nearby for some lunch and to recover!
I noticed when we got back home, that the lemon balm has shot up with this recent rain and sunny spells. Right, now is the time to get some Lemon Vinegar, all ready for summer salads. It couldn't be easier - peel the zest from 2 lemons, in strips, and put into a large jar with 1 litre/2 pints white wine vinegar. If you have lemon balm in the garden - or lemon thyme, then put a small handful in the jar as well. Put on the lid, and give the jar a good shake. Leave in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain through a piece of muslin, kitchen paper or a coffee filter paper and bottle in pretty bottles. I like to add a fresh curl of lemon zest to each bottle to make it look extra special.
You can use this versatile vinegar all through the summer in salad dressings and to sprinkle on fish before cooking. My favourite use though, is to make a Lemon Vinaigrette with a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard, Lemon & Dill if possible, Lemon Vinegar and some melted butter, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour over small hot new potatoes, finished with a sprinkle of chopped parsley, to serve with summer lunches - or just eat on their own! It truly has the most amazing flavour.
Lemon Vinegar soaking
What a change - very cold and blustery today - The Chix are hating it. They have their beaks to the hedge huddled together for warmth and comfort. So we've cheered them up with a few treats to break up the day a bit.
One of the things going on at Grand Designs Live was something that is very close to our hearts - a straw bale build. For some years we have had a hankering to build a place out of straw bales - unlikely to happen. However, at the end of this month we shall be constructing a new Palais de Poulet - out of straw, for The Chix. Will they appreciate it? I doubt it. I spent time today in this rough weather weeding the brick path. I say no more.
Part of my jam making session yesterday, for Barnsdale, was a Gooseberry Jam. It is a standard recipe of equal fruit to sugar but as I was using gooseberries from my freezer I had to make sure that they were thoroughly cooked before adding the sugar, or the skins would stay tough. I thought it would be a lovely twist to add a touch of orange to the mix so I grated the zest from 1 orange per 450g/1lb of gooseberries and squeezed the juice. I put the fruit into my jam pan and added the juice at this stage, saving the zest for later. I gently poached the gooseberries in the orange juice until tender, then added the sugar off of the heat, stirring to dissolve as much as possible. Once placed back on the heat, I stirred until all sugar was incorporated, then increased the heat to achieve the rolling boil. It takes around 10-15 mins to reach setting point and once you have removed the pan from the heat, stir in the orange zest. Jar up as normal.
The taste is stunning.
The Gooseberry & Orange Jam is in the square jars to the right
Don't forget our jar offer on until midnight tonight - see below