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IMG_9316Usually in the middle of May, shortly after the May tree flowers, the elder tree will start to appear with large heads of creamy white froth. A signal that summer is nearly here. This year the weather has been awful and the seasons a little muddled. The elderflowers have been late. I have had to take several extra walks to check on progress. Then over a few days of sunshine small white buds started to appear and not long afterwards froths of flowers could be seen.

Walk anywhere in the English countryside and it won’t be long before you walk past a tree full of the creamy frothy flower heads with the most heavenly fragrance. These flower heads can lend themselves to many recipes, dripped and fried as fritters, made into a cordial, mixed into cakes but the most luxurious thing has to be Elderflower Champagne. What ever is made with the flowers the house will be filled with a sweet summery scent.

As tempting as it is to strip the first tree of all its reachable flower heads it is better to take a few of the best heads and move onto another tree. This allows for berries to mature later in the year, not only for further recipes but also for the birds.

Elderflower champagne is easy to make and uses very few ingredients. The taste is floral but in a subtle way. Please do read the notes below the recipe, as they are quite important if you are thinking of making this. I don’t want to come across as off putting in making this but, I learned new respect for its powers, when my brother managed to blow the fridge door off many years ago! Luckily I wasn’t living with him so was unavailable for any clearing up duty but he wasn’t allowed to make any more.

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Elderflower Champagne

Makes 12 litres

40-45 Elderflower heads

5 Tablespoons cider vinegar

6 Unwaxed lemons

8 Pints boiling water

16 Pints cold water

1.5 kgs granulated sugar

6 x 2 litre plastic fizz bottles (cheap lemonade bottles are good)

A large bucket

Method

Pick the elderflowers when they are dry, preferably on a sunny afternoon when the dew has been dried off. Look for the newly opened flowers, not any that are brown or petal dropping.

Remove the stalks, any brown flowers and any small bugs. Set to one side.

Put boiled water in a bucket (a fermenting bucket is well worth the investment), add the sugar to this and stir until dissolved. Add the cold water, stir. Allow to cool to no hotter than blood temperature.

Whilst the water is cooling prepare the lemons. Remove the zest and extract the juice. The pith is unwanted as it can cause the elderflower to have a bitter taste.

When the water has cooled add the lemon juice, the lemon zest and the vinegar. Stir well. Add the elderflowers and stir gently making sure they are fully immersed in the liquid. Cover and leave for 5 days. If using a fermenting bucket, make sure the lid is not completely sealed down as you need to allow for any gases to escape. If no lid is available a tea towel or towel can be used.

After 5 days there should be some evidence of activity. This is in the form of bubbles and or foamy mould sitting on the top. Lack of either of these does not necessarily mean that no fermentation has taken place. To double-check this, I strain the liquid through a muslin cloth into 4 demijohns fitted with an air lock (just over half filling them to allow for any excess activity). After thirty minutes the air locks started to bubble indicating fermentation was under way.

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Allow to settle. Siphon the liquid into bottles leaving a generous gap at the top. Seal and leave to ferment further.

During this time the gas will build up in the bottles and this gas will occasionally need to be released to prevent excess pressure. The sugar is being used up in the fermentation process and so the champagne will decrease in sweetest and become drier but also more alcoholic. Please read further notes below.

The champagne should be ready to drink after about 7 days in the bottle. As time goes on the fermentation process continues until all the sugar gets used up and it becomes unpleasant and past its best. To slow the process down put the bottles somewhere dark and cool.

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The bottles are designed so that when too much pressure builds up the indentations at the bottom of the bottle will pop out and make the bottle tip over, this is the signal to release some of the pressure by opening the cap to allow some of the gas to escape.

NOTES

Picking

Elderflowers are best picked on a dry day, preferably a sunny afternoon. Do not pick from the side of a road because the passing cars will have affected the flowers. Also try not to pick any flowers at dog height!

Bottles

I have used plastic fizz bottles for one very good reason; they are manufactured to withstand high pressure. As the elderflower champagne ferments in the bottles there is a build up of gas. By squeezing the bottles the amount of gas can be judged easily.   At this stage excess gas can be released when needed by twisting the cap part way until a hiss is heard. Lastly if any of the above signs of pressure build up are missed the design of the bottom of the bottle will pop out making them topple over and warn you before they explode.

Glass bottles with swing lids are temptingly attractive but come with hidden dangers. There are several clips on Youtube of the force that these can explode from pressure. The aftermath of clearing up broken glass and sticky liquid is no fun. The other problem with the swing lid is that it doesn’t allow for easy opening and closing releasing excess pressure – its all or nothing rather than controlled.

Natural Yeast

The idea behind this recipe is to use natural yeast found on the elderflower heads. Natural yeast is unpredictable; sometimes there will be none present. It’s strength is also unpredictable. If fermentation does not occur naturally then a sachet of sparkling wine yeast can be added to get it started. To do this, mix the sachet with 100ml warm water to which 2 teaspoons of sugar have been added. When it becomes frothy add to the elderflower liquid.

Blackening

Some recipes call for you to add boiling water to the elderflowers. In my experience this always causes them to discolour and go black immediately – and this ruins the batch. I have found that the answer is firstly to allow the water to cool sufficiently and secondly to acidify the water (with the lemon juice and vinegar) before adding the elderflowers.

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This is what happens if you add boiling water to the elderflowers or elderflowers to boiling water.

Fermentation.

The process involved is a natural and ancient one. Yeast reacts with sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide (and a small amount of sediment). The carbon dioxide gas is released to the air in the initial stages of fermentation. After the liquid has been bottled the fermentation process continues but this time the gas is trapped in the bottle. The gas exists partially dissolved in the liquid and partly in the space at the top of the bottle. On releasing the pressure the gas escapes from the liquid, which causes the bubble effect but can cause a volcanic reaction if too high a pressure is allowed to build up. The fermentation process will come to an end either when all the available sugar has been used up or if the alcohol level reaches higher than the yeast can tolerate (commercial yeasts are selected to withstand a higher alcohol limit).

Champagne

True Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France. My elderflower “champagne” is not true Champagne (obviously) but is still great for a summer celebration!

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As the nights draw in and the last of the August sun lingers into the early days of September the blackberry bushes finally yield their fruit. The tight little beads of white berries turn to red and then finally swell to a deep dark purple. I watch these changes as I walk the dog.   I return to the same spots each year in the hope of cornering the best pickings before everyone else.

My special spot is high up on common ground overlooking the sea.  Amongst the long dried grass and to the side of downtrodden grass paths can be found large clumps of bramble bushes.  As the years have passed my pickings have become slimmer and slimmer, largely due to foraging becoming more popular. Last year it was difficult to collect enough to do anything worthwhile, so this year I decided not to bother.

That was until I helped Sally take a chair back to her beach hut.  When we got there she realised she had left the keys in the car, so I was asked to watch the chair (in case someone decided it was abandoned and took it home) while she returned to her car to get them.

I stood there looking out to sea; there were no ships to spy, and nothing to see so I soon became bored. The sun was quite strong, so I decided to move to behind the beach hut and stand in the shade, and that is when I made the discovery.   Behind the huts lies a steep wasteland, as I scanned across the long grassy bank I spotted what I thought was a large dark mass of ripe blackberries – surely not. I left the chair and went to get a closer look. As I gingerly scrambled up the slope I could see not only one heavily laden bush but also a whole mass of them. Deep rich purple berries glistening in the sun. There was evidence that someone had earlier this season visited and trodden down paths around the bushes and, judging by the weight of the blackberries on the bushes, had not returned.

Beachut

This is not Sally’s hut. I am keeping that location quiet for now!

I went back to minding the chair, thinking how could I have missed this rich seam over the years. I concluded that the rows of beach huts shield the area from the front and the steepness of the bank shields the view from above. I have now marked this as my new spot.  The minute I was relieved from chair minding I raced back home to grab some containers and gloves. An hour later I was back home relaxing with a cup of tea in my hand and a container of 4lbs of blackberries I had collected.  These juicy little berries were going to be turned into blackberry jelly, as I hate the little irritating seeds that get stuck between the teeth found in jam.

Blackberries are picked in England at the end of August and all through September but never after September as ‘the devil spits on them and they are bad’ that is what I was always told.  An old wives tale maybe, but not such a myth because as the weather becomes colder and wetter the berries can be infected by toxic molds.

It doesn’t matter how many blackberries you have, as with most things cookery it is all to do with the formula. Put blackberries in a large pan with enough water to cover them and lemon juice.  Blackberries are not endowed with masses of pectin so this is where the lemon juice helps.  Simmer for about one hour and strain. The juice is measured and then balanced with sugar, taken back to the heat to boil to setting point, and then bottled.

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Blackberries with water to cover

 

Blackberry Jelly

Ingredients

4 lbs blackberries
2 Lemons – juice of,  pips as well
Enough water to cover the blackberries
Sugar granulated (1lb sugar to 1lb of strained juice)
Large pan or preserving pan
Jelly bag or a couple of layers of muslin lining a sieve.

Clean sterilised glass jam jars. (see below)

Method

1. Wash the fruit and pick out any obvious stalks and rotten fruit
2. Place into the preserving pan with the lemons juice and pips  just covering with water
3. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour
4. Using a wooden spoon or potato masher break the fruit down as much as possible
5. Let the liquid cool a little – this is not for any reason other than it stops yourself being scalded if you spill any.
6. Strain through a jelly bag and allow to drip through until it dries up. I leave mine overnight.
7. Measure the juice produced and pour back into the cleaned preserving pan. Bring gently back to a gentle boil and add the sugar:

For every pint of juice you will add 1 lb of granulated sugar.

What is left in the jellybag

What is left in the jellybag

Add the sugar a bit at a time.  Stir, you don’t want the sugar sitting on the bottom of the pan and catching.
Once all the sugar has been added stir and gently bring up to the boil.
Using a thermometer boil until jam temperature is reached and set has been tested.  When set is achieved.  Let the pan sit and cool for 10 minutes and then pour into sterlised jars (see below).  Label.

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The jelly reaching setting point. As you can see the liquid rises quite a bit so its a good idea to have a large pan or preserving pan.

The Set

Don’t just rely on the thermometer reading, the jelly still needs to be tested for set.  Place a small plate into the freezer and leave for 10 minutes and then drop a little jelly onto it and leave for a couple of minutes to cool. Now push your finger through the jam.  It should wrinkle and not flood back.  You want the jelly to be thick enough that the path remains.  If the jelly is not set then bring the preserving pan back onto the heat for another five minutes or so and test again.

Blackberry jelly does not set like other jams it has a much looser set. Once set it will wobble rather than sit solid in the jar.  It also takes quite a while to cool down so best to leave it until the following day before eating.

Makes 7 jars

Sterlising Jars

To sterilise the jars wash them in hot soapy water and rinse. Place on a baking tray and put into a warm oven Gas mark 3/325F/160C and leave for 10/15 minutes. Carefully take out and use.

I use the rule that it is either wax discs or screw lid not both. The waxed disc will prevent the twist top from creating a proper seal.

Remember to label and date. I like to keep a jar from the previous year so I can compare tastes.

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