Saturday, 4 July 2015

Making elderflower cordial

Homemade elderflower cordial is one of my favourite things and is very easy.  Some years I am just so busy at the right time that I miss the window when you can do it and I always kick myself.  That is the thing about seasonality: miss it and it's gone until next year. You might have missed it for this year if you live in the South East of the UK after the very hot week or so we have had but here in North Wales and for other readers in the North and West of the country you can still find flowers which are just right.

Equipment is easy.  You will need:
a large bowl for the mixture to steep in
3 empty wine bottles (always an easy one in this house).  They can be sterilised by washing in the dishwasher or spending ten minutes in a low oven.
a large pan
a bowl and a sieve to go over it
some muslin to line the sieve like this.  If you don't have muslin just use your finest sieve but the liquid won't be quite as clear

a jug to pour the liquid into the bottles
a funnel like this one makes this much easier but if you have a steady hand you can manage without one

You can buy preserving equipment from a variety of places.  I tend to use Lakeland because they are quick and efficient and great at putting things right if necessary.

Ingredients are
about thirty elderflowers
Juice and zest of three lemons
1 kg sugar
1.5 litres of water
about 25g of citric acid (optional)

Our local pharmacy stocks citric acid.  It helps the cordial to keep for longer but you can make a great cordial without it and just drink it more quickly!

You can see elderflowers all over the place if you live in country.  The slightly scraggy looking trees grow in hedgerows and in the edges of fields.  In towns they often colonise wasteland or can be found in the less cultivated edges of parks and on canalsides.  They have a distinctive scent which affects people very differently.  Some people hate it and find it smells of catpiss.  Some love it and feel it smells of summer.  Even if you don't like the scent of the flowers the cordial has a different scent and is sweetly fragrant.

Pick about thirty flower heads when the flowers are just open.  As the blossom goes over the tiny flowers turn brown and are no longer any good for cordial.  Give each flower a good shake as you put it in your bowl or basket.  Insects and pollinators love elderflowers so you need to let them get away.

Put the elderflowers in a large bowl with the zest of the lemons.
In a large pan, add the sugar to the water and dissolve the sugar over a low heat until you have a syrup.  Increase the heat and bring the liquid to a near boil.  There isn't any great science in this.  It needs to be hot but not boiling that's all.  Add the lemon juice and the citric acid if using and stir well.  Leave it for a few minutes to cool slightly.

Pour the liquid over the flowers and leave it to infuse.  I have done this for as little as ten minutes and still got a cordial full of flavour.  Half an hour is better.

Strain the liquid through the muslin covered sieve into another bowl.  Use a jug and a funnel if you have one to fill the bottles.

Label, dilute and drink.  It tastes of summer to me.  A dash added to long gin and tonic with a lot of ice is also the perfect drink for a summer evening.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

In praise of the bench

We have a lot of benches in our garden.  I like to sit and look and drink a cup of tea.  Some are workaday, some are more formal.  I thought I would take you round and we can sit on them one by one.

This is a very workaday one.  It is just a slab of slate on concrete blocks with an old plank behind it for the larger bottom.   It is in the kitchen garden, just outside the largest of the old stone pigsties.  This is not a place for relaxation  It's too narrow, too hard and doesn't have a back on it.  It is more somewhere to have a break from weeding.

The best thing about this bench is that, if you sit still for long enough, the swallows that nest in the pigsty will decide to ignore you and will come whizzing over your head into the pigsty through the hole above the doorway.

Come out of the kitchen garden and there is another bench which might not be for lounging on but which does have the best view in the garden.  This is the bench for a cup of tea on sunny day or for a glass or wine with friends in the evening.

Maybe it vies for best  view with this one.  This is on the sunny bank in front of the holiday cottage and looks out over the hawthorn hedge across the valley.

On a clear day like today you can see all the little fields and farms all the way up to Moel Arthur, the rounded peak in the distance.  This is, obviously, where King Arthur is buried.  Glastonbury? Just another pretender!

This is the most sheltered bench in the garden, right by the door of the holiday cottage and tucked down away from any wind.  You can often sit here even in winter on a sunny day.  These last two benches belong to the holiday cottage so we only use them when we don't have guests.  That is not a hardship because there are so many other places to sit!  For someone who loves to walk I am very fond of sitting still.

This is a private one, one of my favourites,  tucked away in the side garden and the nearest one to the house.  This is the one where I might sit to eat my breakfast or to have a cup of coffee mid morning if it is windy elsewhere.  It doesn't have the big view of the valley, just a small intimate one across the garden, but sometimes that is what I want.

So that is five so far.  Go out through the gate into the field garden and we are back with large spaces and big views.

This is another home made one, using one of the pieces of slate which were taken out of the holiday cottage when it was converted from a stable over ten years ago.  It is right by the swing so a useful place to perch while children swing until they shout to be pushed.

This bench looks down towards the fruit trees and the cutting garden.  At this distance it is not possible to see the weeds!  Result.

This is another workaday bench, battered and elderly and demoted from use in the garden proper.  It hides in the corner where it is a good place to sit and watch the hens.  Hen watching is very therapeutic.

Two more to go!  Here is the bench by the shepherd's hut.

This is another one of my favourites but because it is in the far corner of the field it doesn't tend to be used when I stop for five minutes.  It is more of a place to walk over to with a book and a cushion and the intention to stay for half an hour.

And this is the newest addition.  It sits down in the far corner of the garden where it catches the last of the sun.  This is another, like the side garden bench, which does not look out to our big view, but inwards, across towards the mulberry tree and up to where the grasses echo the line of the native hedge.

It will in time become another hidden place to sit when the grasses thicken, the new hedge on the left of the mulberry, currently about ten inches high and invisible in this photo, grows up and, best of all, when Ian builds a summer house to shelter it, open at the front to the evening sun with sides of woven hazel.

We haven't spent much money on any of these and they are a motley collection I suppose but I love them.  They make the garden a place of refuge and calm as well as a place of labour.  Do you have a place to sit in the garden?  I would love to know.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Words and images

I wonder if as a society we are getting obsessed by images.  A drawing or a painting used to be the way we represented something in an image.  Even the smallest sketch took skill and a painting might be the work of months or even years.  Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa took him nearly fifteen years to complete.  Then came photography but even when photography had been going for a hundred years or more and we had left behind the period when the sitter had to remain entirely still for minutes in front of the camera it was still the case until digital photography that a photograph required waiting: the film had to be completed, sent away in a sealed envelope and the prints returned a few days later.  Only then could you see that the whole film contained only half a dozen pictures that you wanted to keep with most of the prints being slightly out of focus, containing a pink finger over a bit of the lens, or so dark and atmospheric that it was hard to tell why they had been taken at all.  Perhaps that last bit was just me.  Then digital photography allowed for instant gratification and instant deletion of the failures but that, great leap forward that it was, fades into insignificance alongside the casual production of high quality images we now have from our smart phones.  Selfies, instagram, flickr and the constant easy sharing of pictures make images the currency of our daily lives.  In some ways this is wonderful.  I love instagram and the immediacy of sharing a visually satisfying moment.  I love it when our children send pictures of their children smiling, laughing, being thrown in the air, gurgling in the bath or mastering riding a bike without stabilisers.  It is fabulous to see so much even if one is far away.

And yet what does all this easy access to the telling image do to words?  It makes me uneasy.  Will we become unwilling to give time and attention to anything which is not accompanied by fabulous pictures?  Will a slab of text, however beautifully and evocatively written, start to strike us in the same way as a Victorian novel does in the twenty first century: the print too small, the paragraphs too long, the sentences too dense and impenetrable without a conscious slowing down and a level of concentration that we no longer have the time or inclination to give to it?

I do hope not.  Words can do things pictures cannot.  They can analyse and explore and draw fine distinctions.  They can open up other worlds with a depth of understanding that is quite different from the impact of an image, however complex and evocative.  They help us to understand each other and ourselves.  I would always rather have a letter than a postcard, a novel rather than a comic strip.  Maybe I would choose a biting political cartoon over a well argued piece of polemic but mostly words are for me one of the best things in life.  I love stories and poems and tales of people's lives.  I love images too; my father spent his life as a photographer and he has images which mean as much to me as a favourite novel, but I don't want words to be displaced by the seduction of the easy image.  I don't want the blogs I read to be predominantly pictures.  I don't want intelligent journalism to be displaced by web based images with a snappy byline.  I think I will go to my grave as the little girl saying "Tell me a story."

What do you think?  Does it matter - this immediate gratification of the instant image?  Does it matter that even with images we so often don't have a physical copy to hold in the hand?  Does it matter if the emoticon displaces the letter?  Do they matter, words?

Friday, 5 June 2015

List making

We do lists differently in our house, my husband and I.  He always has a list going on of the jobs to do: gutters to clear, weeds to strim, shelves to make, beans to plant out, walls to paint.  He works his way through these and rubs them off the whiteboard and is clearly seen to be achieving.  Most of what I do never makes a list.  I would feel a fool writing up "go shopping", "make lunch", "wipe worktops", "pick herbs" and solemnly rubbing them off every day.  Even things that sound like one off tasks - weeding - are simply not.  I have to weed a bit three or four days a week.  If I don't the weeds take over but I am never done.  Perhaps that is what comes of living in a field.  So I am not really a great list maker now that I am not at work.

But this week we have produced a shared list of some of the administrative things to do and whizzed through it in a most satisfying way so I am feeling quite kindly disposed towards lists.  So here are some "not to do" lists that have been hanging around in my head while I have been weeding, or driving, or cooking, or having a shower:

Five things I love in the garden:

  1. peonies
  2. swallows
  3. birdsong
  4. apple blossom
  5. swinging children

Five things I want to do this year:
  1. Sing in my choir
  2. Enjoy my children and grandchildren
  3. Love and support my father
  4. Appreciate my husband
  5. Walk my landscape

Five things to have more of:
  1. Time with friends
  2. Sunshine
  3. New and interesting food
  4. Smaller quantities of better wine
  5. Sewing

Just five things:
  1. new bread
  2. kisses
  3. hand holding
  4. clean sheets
  5. eggs

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Back again, on the blog and in the garden

I haven't had such a long break since I started blogging.  I would be hard pushed to explain why it is several weeks since I blogged.  Nothing terrible has happened.  I haven't moved house or continent.  I have just been ridiculously,overwhelmingly busy, rushing up and down the country and, for the first time since my mother died, having a serious go at falling back in love with the garden. That has meant hours weeding and cutting back and trying to uncover the garden again after a year of neglect.  I even went to the Chelsea Flower Show, thanks to the kindness of a friend in sharing some corporate hospitality with me.  There has been a funeral, time spent with all four of our children and our grandchildren, time spent with my father.  Hours and hours in the car.   Whizz, whizz, all a blur.

Time to slow down, time to reflect.

This is The Beauty of Islam garden by Kamelia Bin Zaal.   Interestingly, when I saw it, although  I was struck by its beauty, I was rather overwhelmed by the amount of white marble.  I wanted more planting and less stone and yet, when I looked for something to represent the need for contemplation I am feeling right now, this picture was the one which did it for me.  The cool, the white and the green, the clear water - I can feel my heart rate slowing as I look at it.

I might come back to a longer Chelsea blog.  Much of it is still brewing.  For now I want to stay home and take stock and think about the garden in particular and gardening in general.  Let's start with a blast of colour after all that white.

In the corner of the side garden is a huge rhododendron inherited from the previous owners of the house.  Every year I think that I don't really like rhododendrons.  For eleven months of the year it is a large evergreen hump.  It is far too big to get rid of easily but every year I wonder whether we should keep it and every year it erupts into flower in May and I forgive it everything.  I know it is too huge, too blowsy, too pink (and I don't even like pink) and doesn't really fit with the gentle, wildish planting of the rest of the garden but for three weeks in May I really don't care.  It fizzes with life and as it dies away alliums and hardy geraniums take over and the pink fades to blues and purples and a bit of lime green.

Some of the alliums are just starting in the sunnier bed.  I would love them to multiply.  A friend finds alliums popping up all over the place where she doesn't want them but we have just two places in the side garden where they seem to be happy in one of the beds.  In the other bed they hang around for a year or two and then gently disappear.  I think there are just too many thugs in that bed.  I should dig it over and revamp it.  I have been putting that off for a while but this year I found to my surprise that the oriental poppies which usually dominate almost half the bed in the early summer look as if they are going to fail.  The plants are weak and sickly looking with no flower buds.  I shall dig them up and burn them in case they have fallen prey to some disease and use the empty space as the spur to make some changes.

This is the acid green - euphorbia oblongata, a short lived perennial.  I grow it in the cutting garden as it is a fabulous foil for almost anything and I am bringing it into the side garden as well since it is just as good a companion in the ground as it is in a vase.  Purples and oranges look deep and saturated set against its zinging green.

The peonies in the kitchen garden are just coming out, about a week before those in the shadier side garden which are still great fat buds.  These are the oldfashioned cottage garden type, officinalis. They thrive here.

I was very taken by the peonies on the Kelways stand at Chelsea, especially these white ones.  Perhaps a white alongside my deep pink ones would be worth thinking about.

In the kitchen garden there is much chaos although Ian has mended some of the raised beds which were beginning to fall apart.  The sweet cicely is in flower.  When you brush against it a faint sweet, aniseed smell rises.  The chives are going strong and the mints in their separate slate boxes are ignoring my attempts to keep the different flavours apart and attempting to fraternise.  That needs to be stopped or the culinary mint and the basil mint, both very vigorous and keen to go adventuring, will get mixed up with everything else and I will lose the flavours of lime mint, basil mint and apple mint which are much less invasive.  I know I should have weeded out the buttercup but I spend my life digging it out and this one escaped.  It looks rather lovely in the sun though.

And out by the swing a rose which was a gift from our friends in Provence has come into flower. The flowers are simple but very beautiful and the foliage is small.  It has thrown up three sprays of flower and I assume it will in time become a bush or shrub rose.  It is a beautiful thing and I am on a mission to identify it so if you have any ideas please tell me!  It must have come with a label and was clearly chosen with care for the conditions of our site and the style of our garden.

It is hard for a garden not be beautiful in May and it is lovely out there, despite the bindweed and the invading hogweed.  Any tips for getting rid of hogweed?  Its roots go down to Australia so I haven't done well with attempts to dig it out.

But perhaps the most beautiful thing in the garden right now is the apple tree in flower.

Nine feet high and twenty five feet across and covered in blossom of the palest pink, it is a sight to make the heart sing.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Leiden and gardening gloves

So how was Leiden?  Beautiful, a mini Amsterdam with canals and bridges and bikes.

It is a university town with something of the same feel as Cambridge, but with canals!

The place we stayed in was a real find, an apartment on the Nieuwe Rijn.  Ours was not the one pictured on this website but had two bedrooms, a fabulous bathroom and a small sitting area within the larger bedroom overlooking the canal.  Everything was spotless and comfortable, the bathroom was to die for and our host, Leon, made us wonderful breakfasts in the spacious kitchen overlooking a terrace.  Brilliantly situated, beautifully furnished and cared for and really nice people.  If you can get to Leiden I would really recommend it.

We rented bikes from our hosts and, having not ridden a bike for about twenty five years, I tested the cliche that you never forget and found it to be true.

The Keukenhof gardens were amazing,  not a garden in the ordinary sense of the word, although there were a few places which worked as a garden for me, but a living bulb catalogue.

Although I love tulips and identified some varieties which I shall try, this river of muscari armenicum, edged with tiny daffodils was one of the high points of the garden for me.

And looking out from the Keukenhof to the surrounding fields is extraordinary.

The place was full.  It was crowded and jostling and I often find that being surrounded by too many people inhibits my ability to look properly but somehow and surprisingly Keukenhof absorbed the people and there were moments of simple beauty.

We focussed most of the rest of our time in Leiden on walking to find a series of almshouses, known as hofjes.  These are tiny squares hidden away behind doors in the walls of Leiden.  They were built from the late sixteenth to the eighteenth century as places for the poor or the elderly to live and are all still lived in, most still by the elderly, some I think as part of the university.  They are tiny oases of calm and all are accessible to the public, if you can find them.

We drank a lot of coffee in all sorts of outside cafes including one on the top of a department store with fabulous views down over the canals.

And we visited the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in Europe outside of Italy, which has some of best glasshouses I have ever seen.

A great week.  Thank you to Joyce for her company and to Ian for holding the fort at home and visiting my father while I was away.

And just a quick heads up for a product review coming soon.  I don't do much of this kind of thing as I am not myself keen on much advertising in  my own favourite blogs.  I review books occasionally if they are ones I think you might be interested in.  I get lots of approaches for product reviews and generally just say no thank you.  This approach came from Mill Race garden centre and was just so pleasant and totally non-corporate, courteous and personal that I thought I would give it a go if I could find something to review that mattered to me.  I have chosen to look at some gardening gloves.  I don't know about you but I am constantly on the hunt for gloves that are not so thick and heavy that I find myself taking them off which defeats the object somewhat (a very frequent occurence) or so thin and flimsy that I put the index finger of my right hand through them.  Why the index finger?  I have no idea.  Do you find that gloves fail in the same way every time?  I must have half a dozen pairs with a hole in the end of the index finger of the right hand.  I don't know why I just don't throw them away.

So these are the three pairs which have been sent.  The last pair is the thinnest and lightest and I am already using them.  The others are a little heavier.  I will use each pair for a week or so on the same kind of activities, hand-weeding mainly and let you know how I get on.  I will report back!