Shropshire Prune Gin

shropshire prunesOkay – everyone else calls it Damson Gin, but we’re calling it Shropshire Prune Gin because for the first year since planting it seven years ago, our Shropshire Prune has finally produced fruit! In fact, we had enough for a large jar of damson gin, so it was a lot less work than the usual foraging.

muscavado sugarslice the damsonsAs per usual, we matched the sugar weight to the fruit weight. We don’t bother de-stoning the fruit – but we do slice each one to expose the flesh. The Shropshire Prune is actually a damson, which in turn is a plum, and the particular variety goes back to 1676 in written records. Damsons themselves go as far back as the Romans, who introduced them to our shores as a way of creating their version of ‘lunch on the go’ for their foot soldiers as they marched their way up and down our countryside.

cheap ginjus de salopOnce you’ve added equal weights of the fruit and sugar, filling the jar, pour over enough gin to cover it all – the sugar will dissolve, leaving a sugary solution filling half of the jar, and the fruit filling the rest. Don’t really, don’t bother using expensive gin – the fruit and sugar will obliterate any subtle flavours it might have, and time will smooth out the harsh edges.

What we have noticed about the Shropshire Prune is that it seems a bit larger than our local hedgerow plums, which is always a good thing. There seems to be more flesh on it, and its flavour, although no sweeter, seems more ‘plummy’ than its larger cousins. To help the plum flavour along we’ve used muscavado sugar rather than plain white – so this is a posh shropshire prune gin with heritage. So posh we’ve given it a tongue-in-cheek french name “Jus de Salop” – Salop being the old name for Shropshire, which makes any French friends chuckle. If you don’t get it – look it up 😉

Cider Thoughts 2017 & Cider No.1

As the orchard matures, new trees become available and the choice can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing which to press together. Liking to keep things simple, as life can be complicated enough as is, I prefer the idea of pressing apples in batches – those that have ripened and been picked at the same time. This is how we’ve pretty much done it since day 1, and at our scale with one tree of each variety, it makes sense from a logistics point of view; no hassle with multiple single varieties all bubbling away only to be blended down the line when they’re all ready.

So every year I sit down, assess which trees are currently ready for picking and pressing, which category they fall into with respects cider making – sweets (for the sugar content), sharps (for the acid content) and bitters (for the tannin content), and how much we then need to pick from each. As is usual in the early season, we have plenty of sweet dessert apples, and the early cookers, like Queen and Peasgood’s Nonsuch, tend to be subacid, so not particularly acid. The term ‘subacid’ seems to be an old left-over description for the qualities of an apple variety that is neither particularly sweet or particularly tart – a dual-purpose for want of a better word. The Peasgood’s Nonsuch is classed as a cooking apple, but is not a bad eater in my opinion, although you’d be hard pushed to find a lunch box to pack it in to as they can larger than a baby’s head!

We have only one apple tree that falls into the “bitter” category that is ready early, and that’s the cider apple Tremlett’s Bitter – a Bittersweet apple (having both sweet and bitter qualities). However, this year it failed to fruit due to a late frost killing off the blossom, so it looks as though our Cider No.1 will be more along the lines of the South-East England method, using sharps and sweets (cookers and eaters) in a typical 2:1 ratio. It will, in theory, turn out lighter, crisper but with less body than a cider with more tannins, but that’s also something we’ve ended up with over the years from Cider No.1. It does lead me to think we’d be wise planting some other early bitter varieties as a safety measure. More on that later, as we have a few gaps in the orchard to fill, and I’m sure some serious pondering over one or two of last year’s ciders is in order!

Today we’ve picked:

  • 5% Slack ma Girdle (sweet cider)
  • 5% Elton Beauty (sweet dessert)
  • 10% Yellow Ingestrie (sweet dessert)
  • 35% Warner’s King (sharp culinary)
  • 45% Ellison’s Orange (sweet dessert)
Slack ma Girdle

We’ve included this variety purely for the sweetness factor. If we had other earlier cider varieties to complement it, I’d rather it went in there. As it was, it was ready and would otherwise be wasted!

Elton Beauty

Again, another one at the end of its shelf-life on the tree, it’s one of my personal favourite eating apples we have, along with the Ellison’s Orange below. It would have been a shame to lose the sweetness it brings to the cider.

Yellow Ingestrie

A tiny apple that people seem to find too unusual to eat fresh, though they’re actually missing out on something wonderful!

Yellow Ingestrie

Yellow Ingestrie

Once ripened properly, it turns a lovely warm buttery yellow. The shock in eating is the assumption it will be a bit anaemic in flavour and soft – like an over-ripe Golden Delicious. Nothing could be further from the truth – the flesh is fine, not gritty, almost buttery smooth, and it’s firm and sweet. They are the perfect apple for a young child’s lunch box to be honest! However, we had a good crop, so in they go to Cider No.1!

Warner's King

Warner’s King

Warner’s King

Our earliest culinary apple, over half have fallen off the tree – and these things can be huge! It didn’t look like many and I assumed I might have to pad them out with another cooking apple, but as it was they easily filled a third of the truck, leading me to look for another sweet apple to help balance out the ratios!

Ellison's Orange

Ellison’s Orange & Marsh Daisies

Ellison’s Orange

These have been a favourite at Melbourne Deli, our local customer whose customers appreciate the unusual and scarce varieties we grow here. However, they are at their best right now, and we have the Allington Pippin ripening right next to them which is also a great eating apple, so we’ve decided to pick the rest and add them to the cider mix. I’m hoping, as they’re an offspring of Cox’s Orange Pippin, that they’ll bring some of their complex flavours to the cider, although they are juicier than the Cox, in my opinion, so maybe that might come out a bit diluted. We’ll soon see!

A Full Cart

A Full Cart!

Penny the Guard Dog

No one touches Penny’s apples!

We’re leaving them outside to sweat for a couple of weeks before pressing. The press is booked for this coming weekend for plain non-alcoholic juicing, and then the weekend after for cider-making – then everyone’s happy! Even Penny, who might bag the odd apple to chew on.

Globe Artichoke Hearts in Oil

Now in their third year, we can safely say that globe artichokes do well at Merrybower! The first year we had a handful, and last year we steamed some, then the rest went to flower as the kitchen extension meant we had no preparation space to cook! This year we finally have a kitchen where more than one person can stand and prepare food – something invaluable when you grow and prepare an awful lot of your own food, so we attempted to preserve the globe artichoke hearts in oil.

Last year we steamed them, served them on a plate with a knob of butter melted on top so it ran between the leaves. This was the only way I knew how to eat them, it was one of those messy delicacies I remembered from childhood years in Naples, a dish a child couldn’t resist – butter, mess and a gorgeously delicate flavour. We’d pull each leaf off individually by the spiky end, and draw the fleshy bit between clenched teeth, pulling off the tender flesh. Then came the best bit – the revealed globe artichoke hearts sat in a pile of butter!

To the matter in hand – this year we have a bumper crop of lovely artichoke globes and didn’t fancy wasting them, so I decided to make globe artichoke hearts in oil. I lopped off around twenty of them, even some that weren’t as tight as the rest, and sloped up to the house. I then cut off all of the stem, and the spikey leaves, and scooped out the fluffy internal fibres with the handle end of a teaspoon after halving the globe. Some globes were so large I had to quarter them. To test if I’d taken enough off, I’d chew the ocassional piece – I’d never done this before so was going purely on what you see in the jars of artichoke hearts you can buy in the shops.

Note of warning – just like walnuts, the cutting process leaves your hands a striking shade of nicotine brown! Gloves are your friend.

As I prepared each heart, I dropped it into a saucepan of cold water with lemon juice taken from about a third of the lemon – this helps to prevent the hearts going brown before you cook them.

Once all were cut, I rinsed the globe artichoke hearts under a cold tap and lay them out in the bottom of a deep frying pan, covering them with olive oil. I’m going to guess that any oil would do – but flavour is king!

Then I added the rest of the lemon, thinly sliced and sea salt and mixed Italian herbs to taste. You can use anything here in terms of herbs – possibly even nothing would be fine!

Next I covered the frying pan and heated the whole concoction for around 30 minutes on the lowest heat setting – testing them to see if they’re done is the best bit! Once the test pieces had passed muster, I poured the whole concoction into a screw top Mason Jar, any sterIlised jar will do, and allowed them to cool down slowly before plopping the jar into the fridge. I’ve been reliably informed they’ll keep fine in there for a month, unless opened, but I don’t think we’re going to find out!

For the simple recipe – go here!

First Walnut Harvest

2016 walnut harvestContrary to the doom and gloom of various people telling us we’ll never see a walnut from the tree we planted in the centre of the acre, today I picked 30 nuts from the floor and tree itself in our first walnut harvest! Who’d be daft enough to plant a full-sized walnut, which would take years to fruit and even then be ridiculously tall to harvest! Nope – our mini-walnut (about 30ft full grown) has started giving back the love. Shelling them was easy enough once in the swing of it, and I dried them out for a few hours on a low 100c heat. Rather than trying to preserve them, they’re just foil wrapped in the fridge, where I believe they could keep for a few months if needed. However, as I eat them every morning for breakfast, they won’t see the week out!

2015 apple jam

Sugar-free Apple Jam

A sugar-free apple jam recipe – something not too sweet to spread on your toast or, my favourite, stir into your breakfast porridge 🙂

2 lb eating apples (net weight once cored)
2 tablespoons hot water
8 sweetener tablets (e.g. Canderel)
1/2 oz powdered vegetarian gelatine
Powdered cinnamon if required.

Prepare/sterilise the jars – put lids / seals into a saucepan of boiling water for a while. Wash jars with soapy water, drip dry and place in a warm oven for half an hour.

1. Simmer fruit with hot water until soft (there will still be sizeable lumps of apple in it it doesn’t need to be smooth).
2. Crush the sweeteners and stir into the hot apples (not boiling)
3. Add the vegetarian gelatine dissolved in a little hot water.
4. More water can be added to the mixture if you feel the texture needs it (add cinnamon at this stage if required)
5. Stir for several minutes.
6. Spoon into the jars.
7. We have kept ours in the fridge as the shelf life is unknown at the moment.

Very healthy and delicious on puddings / cereal / hot oat cereal. Delicious on sugar-free eierkoeken.

Simple White Currant Cordial – Sugar & Sugar Free

This is such a simple recipe for white currant cordial, and one we had a go at last year for a sugar-free version which used red currants instead (essentially the same berry, with more pigmentation).

Every year we struggle to think of things to do with our white currants. I know there are many things we *can* do, but in reality, there’s only so much jelly you can eat, and we don’t eat enough meat to cook a portion up to accompany it when the berries are ripe. So as I stood by the two bushes we have, taking a break from turning some weeds over, I thought I’d look for a useful recipe that would keep, that didn’t involved freezing the blighters, which can be summed up as a ‘putting the (nice) problem off’ solution.

Cordial was the answer. Everyone likes a drink, albeit sugar-laden, so at the end of this post I’ve also added a sugar-free version. It won’t keep for long, but as it’s sugar-free you won’t feel guilty gulping it down!

Step 1 – Pick the currants! Bit obvious, but important, as it’s the step where you make sure you pick as many of the decent currants as possible, and none of the mouldy or dried currants. Just place a bag or similar under the currants and snip them off with a pair of scissors – easiest method. Jay cut ours on the promise that this drink, unlike many recent ones, was suitable for younger people!

Step 2 – Wash the currants thoroughly – stalks and all. Discard any currants that look dodgy, get rid of stray leaves.

2015 white currant cordia 1Step 3 – Place the currants in a pan – we use the invaluable, and much abused, jam pan. We started out with 3kg of white currants – stalks and all – don’t go to the trouble of removing them! We used to for some recipes, and it’s a needless pain if you’re going to seive the liquid anyway. Add 600ml of water for every kg.

2015 white currant cordia 2Step 4 – Cook them gently until they’re soft and the skins have broken down. In reality I forgot ours and left them on their initial high heat for a while. Suz saved them, turned them down again, and there were no noticeable adverse effects.

2015 white currant cordia 3Step 5 – Strain the juice. Finally, after several years of laying a cloth in a colander, we have invested in a strainer! Posh eh?! It’s one of those things you’d wished you’d done earlier, as we use the technique for so many things. They’ll drain pretty much instantly – I left them overnight and only gained an extra quarter cup of juice – not worth it really.

2015 white currant cordia 4Step 6 – Add 700g of sugar to every litre of juice, in a pan, and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. I used demerara sugar, which doesn’t give the most pleasing final colour (dirty dishwater      brown!), but does taste delicious. For the sugar-free version I just added 15 sweeteners (Canderel tablets)  to a half litre of juice.

2015 white currant cordia 5Step 7 – Bottle the cordial in sterilised bottles.

The final cordial should keep for several months, but the sugar free version I don’t think will last anywhere near that. In fact I popped mine in the fridge and give it a week maximum, to be safe. To see the effect sugar has on the 2015 white currant cordia 6colour – the photograph to the right shows the sugar-free version in the foreground, with the two litres of juice with demerara sugar added behind.

I used sterlising powder for the bottles, which you can buy at any homebrew shop, and the bottles are some I purchased in a sale at IKEA ages ago – they seem quite sturdy (better than the new Kilner bottles if I’m honest – more metal in the clips).

Preserving Produce

2015 preserving 1It’s all starting to come in! Jay and Suz picked red currants, white currants, black currants, whilst I brought up the first of the broccolli. There were also some dessert gooseberries and raspberries – the stalwart of our summer puddings (and my particular favourite). These will all be frozen in the chest freezer, but the broccolli will need blanching first. The best guide we’ve found for preparing vegetables for freezing is The Reader’s Digest “Food from Your Garden and Allotment”. It really is a great resource and has handy tables for each produce in the back, giving clear instructions on how to prepare each vegetable for storage, including blanching times – anything really to make preserving produce a doddle.

2015 preserving 5Another piece of kit that gets a good hammering in our household is the jam pan – useful not only for jam, but boiling up large quantities of water for blanching.

For dinner we picked some of the Royal 2015 preserving 4Chantenay 3 carrots that have turned out well in the raised bed. We also added a Karmen red onion, some Green Magic F1 broccolli and a Golden Acre Primo III round cabbage, which are deliciously crunchy and fresh!