In Search of Elderflowers

Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that  the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.

No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.

So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove.  My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third.  Always looking Wooden spoon measurefor an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds  and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!

So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes.  The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…IMG_8415

I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing!  After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.

By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars  are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’!  It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.

And this year’s crop?  The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.

 

 

 

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Home Again

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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.

IMG_8391Rosa Mundi

 

 

 

 

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 Hollyhocktummy watching the flowers open as the rays of the sun Mesembryanthemumwarmed 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 Just picked(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 comingFreshly picked and prepared home from holiday is not too bad!

 

 

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IMG_8359Nature is a an amazing thing just as the rhubarb comes into its own the angelica ( Angelica archangelica) raises its lofty head as if to say  ‘here I am don’t forget how useful I am’

Before I started growing angelica I  associated it with the sticky green candied variety used to decorate cakes and puddings. But now I know better. Fresh angelica is one of those amazing plants that reduces the acidity or sourness in fruit such as rhubarb and gooseberries so that much less sugar is needed to sweeten it.

The plant in the picture is in its third year and as you can see from the swollen stems near the top it is really trying to flower. The flower is a large umbelliferae (Apiaceae) blossom which is really quite beautiful. I have removed the flowers to try and prolong this plant’s life because once it flowers it will die.  However, I feel that this one will probably sneak a flower or two when my back is turned and then gracefully fade in the autumn. But all will not be lost as each flower head produces literally hundreds of seeds which look a bit like fennel or cumin seeds. The seeds should be planted immediately as if kept there is a much lower germination rate. Before winter there will be lots of little seedlings ready to be planted out for next year and the promise of tender fresh angelica. I have just planted three plants into a different herb bed which I grew from last year’s seed just to make certain that the angelica supply will not cease.

So how to use angelica? The simplest use is  adding a few leaves when your are stewing fruit and remove them before serving. ( People don’t really like seeing wilted leaves in their pudding).  Taste the stewed fruit before adding sugar and you will be amazed that it not very sour – add sugar with care as you will probably need much much less than you would normally add.

But if you have a little more time then why not go for pan cooked rhubarb and angelica  served with vanilla infused cream and some home-made shortbread. But the most delightful spring pudding of all is rhubarb and angelica tart where a creamy rich filling made with double cream infused with angelica and vanilla, eggs and sugar is poured over rhubarb and baked.

 

 

 

Inspiration in Cardiff

A trip to a garden or a flower show is always a risky thing  – it can generate a feeling of enthusiasm  or a feeling of complete hopelessness when the realisation dawns that the  perfection observed will never be achieved.  So last Friday I set off to spend the day at the RHS Flower Show Cardiff with mixed feelings.  It had been a long week and I was a bit tired so wasn’t sure if I could face seeing perfection knowing that I had left a lot of imperfection at home!

I needn’t have worried it was a perfect day.  The Show was held in Bute Park, about 10 minutes walk from the station.  It was just the right size to wander round for a day taking in the gardens, displays and the stalls.  Being early in the year I was full of admiration for the exhibitors who had coaxed plants into flower or leaf but yet had not gone over the top to create false shows.

My favourites – well I do love auriculas and so loved seeing them in displays, gardens  and also the stunning theatre on the Hill View Hardy Plants .(Sorry not the best photo but the display was lovely)

auricula theatreI bought my first auriculas about four years ago and now have quite a collection and this is exactly the time of year that they come into their own. Today I popped my parent plants of Brenda’s Choice, Piers Telford and Beatrice on the doorstep so that we can enjoy their flowers.  My normal spot for building my auricula theatre has been taken up with a temporary log pile!

Back  to the Flower Show favourites and another great one was the  beautiful Hooksgreen Herb exhibit .  Encouraging everyone to get involved in growing edible plants was the focus of The Pennard Plants and Growing for the Future at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales garden. The fantastic design made you want to rush home, create raised beds and get planting. But how practical is the perfectly designed raised bed?  What happens when you eat one of the four leeks and leave a bald patch? So somewhere there needs to be a compromise between aesthetics and functionality.  I think that the exhibits at the Show helped inspire and encourage all visitors to get gardening in a practical and manageable way.

So what’s happened in my garden since Friday – well more vegetable and herb seeds planted ( including some fenugreek, chervil, minette basil, red giant mustard  – all bought at the show) . I also have planed some cute little boxes ( bought at the show) with lettuce, corriander and peas which will be cropped when they are young and tender for salads. ( I’ll let you know how the get on in future blogs)

In a bid to thwart the mice I have lifted the strawberry plants from open ground and replanted them in big pots and moved them under cover – maybe this year we will get a crop or maybe we won’t. And most importantly I have been extracting the tangled webs of ground elder from the  main beds – oh why was this invasive ‘herb’ brought to Britain by the Romans. I know its edible- the young leaves can be used in salad, it can be cooked like spinach, used in quiches and many other dishes. But if like me you wage war on it in your garden I can only think that is would choke me if I tried to eat it!

 

 

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake

The middle Sunday of lent is traditionally known as Mothering Sunday (or the more modern Mother’s Day) the origin of which varies.  The religious one is honouring the Mother Church when people travelled to worship at the main church or cathedral.  Or it could be that for the first time in six months since the October hiring fair boys and girls in service were allowed to travel home and visit their families.  Following this tradition the girls were allowed to make a cake to take with them and the story goes that they made a spiced  fruit cake which their mothers often kept until Easter. This explains why there is confusion as to whether a Simnel cake should be baked for Mothering Sunday or for Easter.  I think it is a good excuse to bake two.

The richness of the fruit combined with the gooey marzipan cooked in the middle and topping the cake were also probably a boost when people adhered to a strict lenten diet often not eating meat or rich foods during the 40 days leading up to Easter

So why Shrewsbury Simnel Cake? There are different versions: Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury. The Shrewsbury recipe seems to be the most popular and I must confess when I moved to Shropshire over 20 years ago I became a fan and it has become a bit of a Mothering Sunday and Easter tradition in our house. I also see it as a brilliant use of all the dried fruits that have been lurking in the cupboard since Christmas!

My favourite recipe is from the Good Home Baking by Mary Cadogan  which is sadly out  of print now.  For for the Mothering Sunday version I make deep cuts in the marzipan topping which gives a diamond look and for Easter it gets the added topping of the traditional 11 balls of marzipan which symbolise the 11 apostles minus Judas and sometimes some mini Easter eggs too!.