Friday, 29 August 2014

Preserving Moments

Summer has come to an abrupt end in the UK in these last few weeks. One moment it was warm and felt like high summer and the next, it just wasn't. The light has changed as well as the temperature - softer; more translucent and subtle. And it's damp; verging on clammy in the mornings which are now, slightly depressingly, still dark well beyond 5.00 am. The change in weather precedes a return to routines and to a more structured pattern to the days and in truth that's quite welcome although, like the weather, the sudden shift is, or will be, a bit of a shock to the system. And then there's the underlying shift that runs deeper than the purely superficial.

I have always regarded the start of a new academic year that comes with the beginning of September with optimism - new chapters opening, new beginnings, new horizons, new books, new pencils (especially new pencils!) - all hopeful stuff. I felt it for myself as a child at school, and then at university and after, when I was teaching in my twenties. I have felt it again, vicariously, through H's progression though school. This year feels a little different. After this coming academic year, H only has one more year of school and so this is almost the last academic new year with which I shall feel a direct connection. It's made me sit up and think a bit

"Time and tide wait for no man" and all that. And suddenly I want to stop "time and tide". I am reminded, not for the first time, of something Dennis Potter talked about in an interview before he died, that "life can only be defined in the present tense". Now is all we have. The past is gone in an immediate sense; the future is not yet with us. He's right. "Now" is all we have, in this life. And yet that "now" slips through the fingers as driftily* as any sand. *Is that a word? I don't think so, but I feel it ought to be!

What was "now" when I typed it, a few seconds ago, is no longer "now" but has gone ephemerally into a gossamer pile of moments that I cannot relive, even if I can retrieve them in some way through recorded memory. In Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid", the hero, Aeneas, goes down into the underworld and meets a lot of long dead characters. Hardly surprisingly, he finds it a patently unsatisfactory and unsettling experience, not least because the souls are, as Virgil puts it, "tenuis sine corpore" (Aeneid Book VI, somewhere in the middle, if I remember correctly) "virtual souls without substance"; empty and ephemeral. You cannot engage with or pin down these souls of the underworld, either physically or in any other way. I feel that's a good description of many moments of time. Blogging them, of course, or photographing them, helps to give them some body and some substance; in a strange way makes them less "virtual", (despite the virtual medium of the Internet and digital photography), which is why so many of us do it.

Our forebears preserved, bottled, salted and dried in order to make sure they had enough food to survive the winter. Any airy-fairy notion of wanting to put a brake on time was probably a million miles away from their thoughts but I find my urge to preserve stuff is as much about this as anything more fundamental. After all, I won't starve if I don't turn my blackberry-pickings into jam or if I fail to dry my herbs. And let not me kid myself that it's about saving money either, because homemade is not always cheaper; in fact, it often isn't. There's always the unanswerable realisation that "no jam is always cheaper than any jam".

But homemade preserving is, for me anyway, not about survival or about saving money, it's a way of pinning down moments, "nows" that would otherwise be gone completely. And this year I am in a quandary because I really shouldn't make any more jam or jellies - my shelves are still full of previous years' efforts. (See my previous Larder Confessional post - and thank you for all your sympathetic comments on that - I don't feel quite so guilty now.) But even though I can't justify making any more jam, I feel the desire to apply the preserving brake to time, very acutely.

So I've had to find another direction for my preserving instincts. It was Viola, who also has a cupboard well-stocked with jams and jellies from previous years, who wrote in a comment that she had decided to preserve her fruit harvest in the form of fruit syrups, who started me off. (If you don't know her lovely blog colourcrochetlove, have a look - gorgeous crochet and baking to boot!)

I've been experimenting a bit with small quantities of flower syrups this year - elderflower and lime blossom - and I usually make blackcurrant and mint cordial in the summer for immediate consumption but I've not really ventured into preserving anything like that for the longer term. I've frozen a few plastic bottles of the early summer syrups but there's not much room in the freezer for more.

Anyway the long and the short of it is that I've ventured into a bit of drying - like my marigolds above  and these herbs

and some wild-fruit-syrup-bottling. No more jars of jam for my overpopulated shelves but a raft of squat bottles for the lower decks underneath them where, after my bit of tidying, there is now some room. And for the space I've newly made on the upper shelves, there is now some capacity for some pots of dried herbs. It's salved my urgent, preserving-as-putting-a-brake-on-time, desires nicely.

And one of the most pleasing things about the results is that they are about as solid and earthed as you can get - nothing virtual or floaty about these solid, glass bottles, nothing washed out or watered down or pastiche about their vivid colours, scents or tastes even though the herbs outside the kitchen window are beginning to wither, the flowers in the garden have faded, and the berries will not be here for much longer. It's been a good exercise for these end of summer days. Steadying and anchoring.

What I've been making a lot of is Spiced Elderberry Syrup. There are a lot of elderberries in the hedgerows near here and although you can use them in fruit pies or crumbles, they are extremely pippy and I find a few of them go a long way. The pips have an earthy taste to them too, which I don't much like. Researching a little as to how one might use these shiny, black berries to better effect, I discovered a lot of references to making Elderberry Syrup as a winter tonic against colds and 'flu.

Intrigued by this, I've experimented a bit and I have to say the results are absolutely delicious. Even if it doesn't head off colds and 'flu, I can see a lot of this getting consumed over the winter.

Drizzling it on pancakes, waffles or ice cream seems to be popular or adding it to yoghurt, as well as simply dishing it out neat by the spoonful as a food supplement. A jelly made from it would also be good especially if you made a two-layer one with some elderflower cordial forming the base of the other layer so that you had both flowers and fruit in one jelly. Yes, Anne, I am thinking of you! Because if anyone can bring such a beautiful jelly to life, it's you! I also have in mind to use it to paint over the bald patches in unmoulded summer puddings where, if you use homemade bread, the juices don't quite soak through uniformly and you get the odd patch of bare bread which always looks a bit unsatisfactory. You can use blackberry or sloe gin for this but I think the elderberry syrup would be better (and more economical, if without the alcoholic kick!) You don't get this problem if you use commercial sliced bread to make summer pudding, of course, but then it doesn't taste nearly as good either.

All the recipes for elderberry syrup I found are basically variations on the same theme. This is my version but it's very similar to many others out there. My method is slightly different from others I found - steaming the fruit rather than boiling it to extract the juice and using sugar not honey. I was too mean to use expensive, raw, local honey that so many recipes recommend. Obviously raw honey has its own health benefits so if you want this purely as a health-boosting food supplement you might want to go the whole hog and stick to honey. The post-bottling sterilisation is important if you want to keep the syrup over the winter without freezing it. The spices, steamed with the fruit to extract the flavour gently, are subtle and fragrant, not remotely assertive or oppressive. Adding powdered spices to the syrup, as most recipes suggest, rather than steaming whole ones, produces too aggressive a spice note for my taste but if that's what you're after, don't let me stop you!

What you need:
about 700 g / 1.5 lbs elderberries (weighed still on their stalks)
a cinnamon stick
a teaspoonful of whole cloves
a fat thumb of fresh root ginger

a steamer (with a lid)
a deep saucepan with a trivet to fit in the bottom
scrupulously clean short bottles or squat jars with tight-fitting lids - I've used a variety of stout bottles recycled from their previous incarnation as bottles containing maple syrup or Starbucks Frappuccino. These were the only ones I had which would fit easily into a saucepan without their heads sticking up over the parapet of the water level when it came to the sterilisation bit. If you don't want to keep the syrup long-term you can use any (very clean) bottles and omit the post-bottling sterilisation part
a jam thermometer (ideally)
a very clean sieve and jug

What you do:
Pick the elderberries in sprays from your chosen elder tree. I snip the heads off with scissors. Aim for heads with ripe, shiny, black, beady berries and avoid any that have gone mouldy or shrivelled up.

Soak the elderberries on their stalks, in a big bowl of cold water, for an hour or so to dislodge any insects or bits of dust. Rinse.

Strip the berries off the stalks using a fork.

Doesn't matter if you have the odd little bit of stalk left in there. Measure the stripped berries by volume. Make a note of the figure in case you forget. You should get around 4 cups of berries. Place in the top part of a steamer and add exactly the same volume of water as berries to the base of it.

Add a teaspoonful of whole cloves and the cinnamon stick, snapped in two, to the berries.

Peel the ginger, grate it coarsely and add that too.

Now put the lid on the top and heat the water in the base of the steamer to boiling point. Reduce the heat but keep it boiling gently and steam the fruit and spices for 25 minutes. At the end of the steaming time, turn off the heat and allow the steam to subside a little. Then, remove the lid and squash the spiced pulp with a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible into the base of the steamer.

Discard the pulp and spent spices onto your compost heap.

Now you need to add the sugar to the fruit juice in the base of the steamer - you need half a cup of sugar to every cup of berries you had originally. So if you had four cups of berries you need two of sugar.

Stir the sugar into the juice, bring to the boil and boil steadily for five minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain through a very clean sieve (in case any rogue pips have got through) into a very clean jug and then into your bottles leaving an inch or so's headroom for expansion. Fix on the lids firmly.

Now place your filled, lidded bottles into a pan deep enough to allow you to cover the bottles completely with water. Place the bottles on a trivet or a folded tea towel in the pan to protect them from the direct heat. Add water to cover and bring to simmering point - 88C to be precise. If you have a jam thermometer, use it - the sterilisation level is usually marked on it. Simmer for 20 minutes. This sterilises the bottles and contents and enables you to keep them in long term storage without freezing.

Remove the bottles from the simmering water pan carefully,  - use a pot-holder or an oven glove because they are mighty hot - tighten the lids if necessary and allow to cool, before labelling and using. Store in a cool, dark place. They should keep for six months or more treated like this, apparently.

The smell of the steaming elderberries and spices is uncannily reminiscent of church incense. Your house will smell beautifully like a monastery church, where faint wafts of incense hover among the rafters for hours after the thurible, in which it originally smoked, has burnt out and the bells have fallen silent. I thought may be it was just me who smelled the likeness, in a rather fanciful fashion, but yesterday H came down and asked why I was burning incense on a Thursday morning in the kitchen. So it isn't; it isn't just me, I mean.

The finished syrup doesn't taste a bit like it though. Not that I've ever actually nibbled any grains of incense but you get my gist!

A spoonful just to taste! Mmmm! 

And somehow I feel that in the "nowness" of the intense taste and colour from the work of my own hands, time has slowed down just a little. An illusion perhaps, but one I find comforting.

Wishing you all a happy weekend with moments that stop kindly for you.

E x