1 May 2020

Bottling summer with homemade elderflower cordial

There's a massive elder tree next to the salad garden cul-de-sac, whose branches droop invitingly over the fence towards me.  Those branches are covered in umbels of flowers about to open so, naturally, I'm about to retrieve and wash my cordial bottles, ready to replenish my stocks of delicious home made elderflower cordial.

I've borrowed from my previous posts (2019 and 2015) about making elderflower cordial to keep things simple because, well, what more is there to say?  Except, maybe, elderflower fritters which I haven't tried but have heard are very good.

My recipe below is an easy one that I've found works well. I keep this to hand as I got very confused when I first tried to make elderflower cordial. Mine is an adaptation of several that I've used and tweaked year on year. (Originally I used limes, following Sarah Raven's recipe; it was not a happy outcome.)

Also, the sugar - it's a lot, but very necessary to extract the essence of the flowers and fruit. A couple of years ago I'd become concerned about the amount of sugar needed for the recipe so didn't make any cordial. It was a decision I came to regret during the extreme heat of the summer - a glass of iced water sweetened with a slug of citrus infused cordial hits the spot nicely on a hot day. So I now (try to) think of this cordial as a treat.  It's also very good added to an iced gin+tonic, and delicious in cake. (Note to me: I must look out those recipes.)

So, onto the recipe. It is, after all, why you're here.  But first, a few tips.

Tip one: Most recipes will include citric acid as a preservative - I don't bother. As I found it hard to get hold of at first, I now keep one bottle of cordial in the fridge and freeze the rest in small washed plastic bottles saved from the smoothies I buy when out. I think that the addition of citric acid may alter the flavour and the cordial might not taste as nice. Also, thanks to the sugar content, the cordial freezes really well; I've defrosted cordial after a year with perfect results.

Tip Two: Look carefully for aphids before you pick the flowers. I found some stems covered in the sort of black aphids usually found on broad beans and left those blooms well alone. Even so, when I got home, I made sure to gently shake the blooms over the sink to dislodge any other critters. (A few black aphids, greenfly and a couple of small spiders, thanks.) Having done that, I then held the blooms over a white tea towel for a second look; it was needed.

Tip Three: There may be some tempting plate sized blooms below knee level just begging to be picked. Don't. Wherever you live, there will be creatures that wee. In my case, dogs and foxes. (I hope that's all but let's not go there.) My advice is to pick the blooms that you have to stretch up high for, just to be on the safe side.

Tip Four: Make sure that you're picking the right flowers. Always important when foraging for any edibles but here the unmistakeable smell of elderflowers should ensure you pick wisely. If in doubt, here's some visual help.

Collage of 3 elderflowers and one that isn't!
Spot the difference! Bottom right is NOT elderflower - look at the leaves!

So now all we need is for the sunshine to return ... !

My simple but trusted recipe for Elderflower Cordial

Large bowl filled with elderflower heads and citrus fruit

3 unwaxed lemons
1 or 2 oranges
1 kg (2.2 lbs) granulated sugar (in the US: ordinary sugar not powdered sugar)
15-20 medium to large elderflower heads
1.5 litres tap water (50 US fluid ounces)

First stage:
In a large pot on the stove, make a sugar syrup by slowly dissolving the sugar in the water over a gently heat. Stir occasionally and once dissolved (no more sugar grains to be seen), bring the syrup to the boil for about 5 minutes.
While that's doing, peel the oranges and lemons. The white pith is bitter so try to leave that on the fruit. (Or just slice the fruit in ½ cm chunks.)
Cut the big stems off the cleaned/shaken elderflowers and put the flowers in a large pot or saucepan with the citrus peel.
Pour the hot syrup over when it's ready. Put a lid on the pan and leave to infuse for 24 - 36 hours. (The timing is very forgiving; life is unpredictable.)

Next day/stage:
Sterilise bottles or jars ready to decant the mixture into. Giving plastic bottles a good hot wash will suffice if they're going into the freezer. Glass bottles can be washed and then dried on a low temperature in the oven for 10 minutes. As a time saver before now, I've washed and then microwaved glass jars to sterilise (but not the metal lids - please!) Lids should be boiled in a pan of water for a few minutes.
Sieve the infused cordial through a muslin cloth or tea towel, placed in a sieve over a bowl or large jug. I now use a jelly bag held securely in it's frame, so much easier! (Here, for info.)
Pour the cordial into the bottles, and store as appropriate.

... Or drink straightaway!  And enjoy!

29 Apr 2020

Pot(ter)ing on

Last weekend, and for a few days before, stage two of annual veg growing, otherwise known as Peak Bottleneck, has been reached here.

Tray of seedlings on a balcony ledge
Just one of the trays on my tiny balcony

Peak Bottleneck, as every balcony gardener knows, is when things start to back up and there are too many arrivals (tiny seedlings) and not enough departures (bigger plants).  Suppliers of seeds will be feeling the same right now, with too many orders coming in and not enough staff to fulfil those orders. Their solution is to temporarily close down their websites to stem the flow; my salvation lies in a newly purchased mini greenhouse, which has been put together but still resides in my living room as a useful night-time spot for my baby plants.

Plants in modules or tiny pots dry out quickly so need regular watering; my other time honoured remedy is to pot everything on into bigger pots (7 or 9cm) until they're sturdy enough to be planted into the garden and withstand rain, wind, slugs, etc.  A healthy plant has a much better chance of survival but even those will be challenged by baking heat and a lack of regular watering. Best to keep them nearby, for now.

I have a balcony full of seedlings and do the Hokey Cokey dance most evenings when a decision has to be made as to whether I dare leave any of them out overnight. Daytime temperatures have been in the 60-70°F zone, dropping to around 45°F at night (chilly) so tiny seedlings are brought in, bigger plants (brassicas, etc) stay out. And when I say ‘bigger’, I'm referring to the plants that have matured enough to show their first true leaves, like this Bolivian Giant achocha - a vine that will eventually grow to over 3 metres (and hopefully be dripping with large, pepper-like fruit).

Bolivian Giant achocha seedling showing first leaves

The tiny seedlings are the modules of tomatoes and chillies that didn’t get sown until the beginning of April as I didn't want them stretching towards the light as they grew. Now that they're soaking up the outside light during the day, the tomatoes are doing well, 50 and counting, the chillies not so much. Another evening basking in the soft flow of warm 26°C air from my fan heater might help. I shall persevere.

Tomato seedlings ready to pot on

My job today is to prick out my tomatoes, if I can find enough spare small pots. I know where most of the pots are because they're currently occupied by sweet peas sown in early January. Those sweet peas need to be planted out as soon as I've built a structure for them to climb and that task is subject to me deciding where everything else will be planted. And then I can start again with round two of sweet peas, beans, peas, beetroot, salad leaves, etc, etc, etc. It's akin to one of those sliding puzzles where one bit has to move before the rest fall into place.

Wish me luck!

19 Apr 2020

Spring progress ... but not as we know it

Mid-April, even in the southern counties of the UK, can be cold, wet and windy. This year though, there have been some joyously warm days when spring has overlapped with summer and brought vibrant colour to the garden.

There’s nothing like a few days of warm sunshine to bring everything out in the garden - me, the flowers, germinating veg seeds and, of course, more seed sowing! A little garden update is due ...

Deep pink cyclamen lit up by evening light in the garden
Evening light, setting sun and ... pink.  I may have stopped breathing for a moment.

Let’s start with some colour.

11 Apr 2020

Chuffed as a Weed: #2 Myosotis

Forget-me-not flower growiing out of a wall

With spring well underway, I’m spending quite a bit of my gardening time bending over to pull out weeds. Little and often is my method for keeping the worst weeds at bay, but what is a weed anyway?

4 Apr 2020

End of March in the Veg Patch

Narrow garden within a low wall, with soil for growing food plants, surrounded by paving.
Hardly a vision of beauty, although this space will fill up fast.

Isn't it lovely the way our gardens are giving us hope and keeping us sane, carrying on regardless while the world beyond the garden gate is mostly off limits? Even if the weather isn't good, I like to have a wander around the gardens here most days and feel much calmer for it. I'm lucky that I have two gardens to look after - the veg patch and the car park garden - plus a few borders including the triangle by the washing lines which is mostly maintenance free (although there are some gaps crying out for new plants).

30 Mar 2020

Sowing seeds for a salad garden

The internet and social media are full of tales of people turning to gardening, and food growing in particular, during the lockdown.  Most crops take a while to be ready for picking but one of the fastest and easiest to grow is salad, especially baby leaves, herbs and cut and come again. This post is anecdotal but with, I hope, some practical advice on how I get my salad garden underway, starting with my balcony and raised beds.

flowering broad bean plants
Just beautiful! Autumn sown broad beans flowering in the veg patch this week.

25 Mar 2020

Chuffed as a weed #1

Green fresh leaves of sweet woodruff growing out of an old wall
Sweet Woodruff or Galium odoratum.
A useful and vigorous ground cover with scrambling stems that will root where they touch the soil
(or even push their way through the mortar of a brick wall) 

This time last year I was studying planting design on a course based in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Tony Kirkham, Kew’s Head of Arboretum, Gardens and Horticulture. Basically, he’s the tree man and his knowledge of, and boundless enthusiasm for, trees has earned him a worldwide reputation, the VMH and, earlier this year, a well-deserved MBE.  You might be more familiar with the name if you watched 'My Passion for Trees', Judi Dench's 2012 tv series where Tony introduced Judi to his favourite tree, a 1500 year old yew tree in a Surrey churchyard. (You Tube clip here.) To my mind, I will always think of him as one of the nicest, funniest and friendliest people I’ve met.

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