Tuesday 27 August 2013

Preserving The Last Days Of The Holidays

The last days of the summer holidays have a wistful feel to them. None of the same magic that the first days of the holidays have, when weeks of delicious freedom, either one's own or, vicariously, someone else's, stretch out ahead invitingly and the summer days are still at their longest. Now, there's a sense of time beginning to evaporate - the mornings are slower to warm up, even if the day is going to be hot and sunny, and the evenings are beginning to turn twilighty, visibly sooner, as the sands of unstructured, carefree, summer days now begin to run fast through the glass.

There is also an intense sweetness to these days that's accentuated by their dwindling number. A sense that one must make every hour count. Lazy, lie-in mornings no longer seem to be as appealing to my teenage son - the days are not to be cut short by failing to get up until lunchtime and my suggestions for getting out and about, when opportunity presents, meet with less resistance!

Actually, my work has made August a pretty busy old time here, but part of me refuses to be governed by that, and prefers to keep a different kind of clock. This clock may or may not bear much relation to reality, but like a soft metronome, it doggedly ticks under the surface and lends its own colour to the seasons. So now, at the end of August, it is telling a slightly wistful, end-of-summer-holiday time and reminding me that now is the season for gathering wild berries and preserving them in jams, jellies and liqueurs to fill the larder shelves.

This kind of activity always has a dreamy quality to it as well as usefulness. And it's been the most wonderful year for wild berries and fruits in the hedgerows here in the UK. After last year's thin pickings, it's as if the fruit trees and bushes have "gone for broke" this year to compensate.

Inky-blue sloes, damsons and bullaces weigh down the branches that overhang the footpaths.

Blackberries drip from the thorny brambles, that unhelpfully like to keep raffish company with tall, green, stinging nettles and in the mornings are veiled now, with lacy cobwebs.

It says a lot for my devotion to the Blackberry-Picking Cause that I am willing to brave these lacy constructions, in case any are Inhabited. So far I've managed to get away with just nettle-stings and bramble-scratches (which don't worry me) and no close encounters with eight-leggers (which do worry me, big time) A major relief. I am wondering how long my luck will hold though, bearing in mind the number of these critters that have been invading the house recently.

Small wild apples, genuine crab apples or wild, domesticated ones, tumble down banks and gateways and into the lanes. I am not sure how you tell which is which, but my go-to, authoritative source on such matters, Anne of Life In Mud Spattered Boots, tells me there's not much difference culinarily between a genuine crab apple and a wild cultivated one - both produce small, sour fruit, so I am not worrying too much because, quite frankly, what Anne doesn't know about making preserves, is not worth knowing.

Fat, bulbous rose-hips have replaced the scented, magenta flowers on the rugosa roses down the lane and now gaudily deck out the fence where they grow, in scarlet and orange.

Elderberries hang in clusters of swinging, purply-black beads, far above my head.

There is a great peacefulness that comes from being out and about, amid all this bounty. A sense of the land being in good heart and able to withstand what the winter may bring.

I think this is quite a primeval feeling and even though I don't depend on what I gather, to feed myself and my family over the winter, I get enormous satisfaction from squirrelling my jars of amateur preserves away, with that feeling of "just in case".

Some of my preserves have been more successful than others. My first attempt at bramble jelly tastes all right but it's so solid, it could be sold as a commercial aid, to shore up crumbling masonry or fill a few pot-holes. Fortunately, H is consuming the evidence fast, so there won't be much left to remind me of this particular failure, over the winter, and my second batch is better.

Sloe (or damson, I'm not sure which - the fruit seemed big for sloes, but small for damsons) and crab apple jelly did better and it's the most gorgeous, translucent garnet colour.

Very good on toasted English wholemeal muffins which I've had to devise a recipe for myself as Waitrose, where I got them before, no longer seems to stock them.

Rose-hip and crab (or wild) apple jelly is better still and instead of being rock-hard, I've achieved a delightful, trembly wobble in the set which I love.

It's messy to eat though, as it's difficult to keep it from delightfully trembling and wobbling off your scone! I like this on slightly more robust scones than the fluffy white ones I make to accompany strawberry or raspberry jam earlier in the summer. These are made with half wholemeal and half white flour and have a bit of cinnamon in them. You can add butter underneath or thick cream on top but you don't need to, when the preserve is so meltingly sensuous. (So long as you have enough of it, that is!)

The fragile set may mean this jelly won't keep very well, I fear, which slightly defeats the object of the exercise. Also, in the making of this, I managed to cut my hand rather badly - note to self, do not try to answer the 'phone and cut up crab apples at the same time. This did not affect the preserve but has temporarily put paid to a lot of other activities, including my crochet. Not good.

Do you like my autumn-fruit-themed plates by the way? They were my grandmother's and date from the 1930s, I think. Of course Mrs T insists on eating her tea-time muffin or scone on the correctly-themed plate for the preserve in question. Er, what does this presage for the plates that depict acorns and conkers, Mrs T?!

Blackberries have been turned into blackberry ice cream; well, frozen yogurt, I suppose, really, as it contains thick, homemade yoghurt and no cream. I freeze this in little individual plastic tubs to limit greedy consumption! (Yes, H, I am looking at you!) Large quantities of the berries have also been frozen away, soaked, rinsed and dried off, to remove any maggots, but otherwise unprocessed, for cooking later in the autumn and winter.

 And I have been buying gin, like a fishwife, to put up big jars of blackberry gin to steep over the coming months, to be strained and bottled in time for Christmas. Small glass bottles of any suitable shape and size are being saved from the recycling bin to be stripped of their labels, de-stickified with Sticky-Stuff-Remover or, if that fails, with industrial white spirit, and washed in readiness. After my little post-holiday recycling foray and now this initiative, I am getting some heavily pointed remarks about "not yet another sticky bottle, Mrs T!" It's frustrating that while some labels soak off easily in plain, hot water, leaving no residue, others require a lot of dedicated elbow-grease and solvent to release the gluey, papery traces of their former life. Of course I could just buy new bottles! But where's the fun in that?!

The recipe for the blackberry gin came from Nikki of Tales of Mrs H which she kindly posted here. I had a go at making a blackberry liqueur some years ago, using eau de vie brought back from France, but I made the mistake of cooking the berries and this was not good news. Something nasty happened when I added the spirit - the mixture formed not a delicious, clear, purply-pink liqueur but an unpleasant, opaque, purple sludge that blocked the drain. Not just, "not good", but "pretty bad"!

Pretty orange sprays of rowan berries and red hawthorn berries are also tempting me to turn them into jelly, but I am running out of jars, so these, slightly less mainstream players in the preserve department, may have to wait for another year.

And as well as all the beauty in the hedgerows, a rosy, harvest moon has been glowing in the dark sky. Fabulous - a moon to wish on, for the coming autumn!

E x

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Souvenirs Recycling Style (With Crochet Of Course!)

As already indicated in these pages, I am susceptible to packaging. Shops that sell things in old-fashioned, paper bags or even better, shops which give away those nice, unbleached calico bags, get my custom almost regardless of what they sell. Parcels that come through the post in drifts of tissue paper beneath the outer wrapping, and with ribbon and pretty cards to boot, fill me with happiness before I've even seen what's inside. I buy wine, olive oil, flour, soap and all manner of other things guided by the outer appearance and feel of the container or wrapping (especially if it can be reused or redeployed in some way). I am afraid I am a packaging-designer's dream target!

Conversely I can be put off, if the packaging is unattractive in some way. I am currently battling my instinct to stop buying my favourite bread-making flour from Waitrose, (Canadian Extra Strong Breadmaking Flour, if you're interested) for example, because they have replaced the nice thick, brown, paper packaging, printed in a reassuringly old-fashioned, dark, red and black design, with thinner, flimsier, (nastier) paper, in nasty (to my mind) pastel shades of peach and washed-out raspberry. The original packaging was both practically robust and had an engaging, timeless feel to it, both literally and visually. The new version simply doesn't cut it - it splits easily, spilling flour all over my larder shelves and doesn't "feel" nice in handling. These things matter. I am shopping astray as a result. Fickle? Yes. Frivolous? Yes. Going to stop being so silly and carry on buying the original product, regardless of the packaging? I am afraid not!

My soft spot for packaging gets a whole new lease of life when I'm on holiday and I often come back with unusual, or particularly pleasing, examples in my suitcase. Match-wood cheese boxes with pretty printed labels from France; unusually-shaped olive oil bottles from Italy; honey tins and jars from Greece; quirky, individual wine-bottles from hotel mini bars or baby jam jars, surreptitiously squirrelled from hotel breakfast tables, saved from their inevitable, sad destiny of a commercial recycling bin to ride again as containers for little gifts of homemade jelly or jam back home; dinky, little Maltese salt-jars; hinged, wooden chocolate boxes and Lebkuchen tins, equipped with musical box mechanisms that play "Stille Nacht", from Germany; they all now people my home in various new guises housing tea, stationery, cotton reels, buttons, preserves etc, or like the baby jam jars become containers for little homemade gifts.

My big weakness is, believe it or not, yoghurt containers! I have two roughly glazed terracotta bowls, that take it in turn to house tomatoes waiting to ripen, on my kitchen work surface, which were originally sold, containing fresh ewe's milk yoghurt, from a sheep dairy, in western Crete. I only brought back two smallish half-litre size ones but the yoghurt also came in big, one litre bowls too. I felt that this might be going too far as it was quite big and heavy but I have regretted leaving it behind ever since.

My watercolour-painting water jar is a Spanish yoghurt pot, embossed with a kite and clouds in the glass.

(The same Spanish holiday also supplied a fetching, brightly enamelled, dried milk tin, now the repository of candle-ends.)

I have a set of no less than six, lavender-coloured, terracotta dessert pots that originally housed, set, French yoghurt which I now use to serve lemon syllabub or chocolate mousse in. I saw the same make of yoghurt when in Provence a few weeks ago and I can't tell you how tempted I was to add to my collection!

 You get the picture!

I have been known to embarrass my family in restaurants in France by asking If I can take home beautiful, printed, paper place mats that I have turned into book-covers.

And I have not been allowed to forget, asking a waiter in Munich, in my very sketchy German,  if I could purchase the glasses, in which a round of Glühwein had been served. (These were very delicate to bring back on a plane, but with care, everything is possible!) Every time, we're packing to come home and I sidle along with a mysterious bundle to be slipped into someone's suitcase, my family raise their eyes and ask why their dirty washing has been redeployed. (To prevent my treasures getting broken in transit of course!)

This last holiday I was quite restrained. I did not make everyone eat a particular yogurt every day for a week to provide a complete set of dessert dishes back home, nor did I cause embarrassment by asking if I could purchase the tableware from any restaurants. I did however bring home a Provençal wine bottle. Nothing fancy. A plain, uncoloured, glass bottle that housed my favourite Provençal vin gris. Not quite plain though - it has the word Provence embossed along one side of the base.

It appealed. So, the wine having been drunk, home it came, wrapped in an old T-shirt. (Not my T-shirt of course, in case the bottle broke in transit and shards of broken glass caused any damage! Tee hee! I know, I know, I am very unscrupulous!)

Anyway it didn't break and all was intact. But what to do with it? For a week or so it sat on the side looking a little forlorn.  And then I thought I would redeploy it as a water carafe. You may have one of those nice fridges that have an in-built, chilled water dispenser, but I don't and when it's hot, I do like chilled water. I don't buy bottled water, except for the fizzy variety which H drinks in vast quantity; I prefer tap water, especially here in Oxfordshire where the Thames Valley water is very "hard" - full of calcium and other minerals anyway, but I always forget to chill it and in any case, there isn't always room for a big water jug in my fridge. A wine bottle that could slip into a small space in the fridge door made a perfect solution, but not without a smidgeon of hooky adornment.

Thinking of all the colours of Provence and the essence of the place, in the beautiful rosé that the bottle had originally contained, the idea of a colourful hooky wine bottle / water carafe jacket was born.Very simple but somehow very pleasing! The only snag is that the jacket has covered up the embossed letters of "Provence". I wondered about creating a window in the crochet to reveal them but in the end decided it would look fussy, so they are present, but hidden.

I embellished the plain, blue jacket with a handful of hooky tulips which I made using AterG's lovely pattern. You can buy the pattern on Etsy here.

I know tulips are not exactly typical Provençal flowers, but nevertheless, I think, they give the ensemble a lovely sunny, summery feel especially in these slightly, sun-bleached, pale colours.

There's not a huge amount of space for decoration - as you can see I had a few tulips left over. That's OK though - they will adorn another project. Possibly another bottle cover!

If you fancy giving the idea a whirl, it is very straightforward. I have put the pattern up as a separate page here.

Once kitted out in its pretty hooky jacket, fill your bottle with water and stick it in the fridge. The jacket, as well as being pretty, prevents the bottle getting slippery from condensation so has a nice practical aspect to it as well as a purely decorative one.

Anyone else stuff their suitcases with similar items? It's a fun and cheap form of souvenir-hunting and often I've found that these kinds of souvenirs are more laden with memories than things I've bought specially. I recommend it! (Just don't forget to wrap breakables in someone else's T shirt!)

E x

PS Hello and welcome to new followers here - it's lovely to see you! 

Saturday 3 August 2013

Croquets à la Lavande

When I come back from holiday I always want to cook things that evoke where I've been. Sometimes rather more successfully than others, I have to admit! This time I came home from Provence armed with a bag of "amandes Provençales" and a bottle of "eau de fleur d'oranger" as well as a recipe from my Provençale friend, Christiane, for "croquets", known locally in Provence as "casse-dents" or "tooth-breakers".

"Croquets" are very similar to Italian "cantuccini" (but, I have to say, croquets are better). Italian cantuccini keep brilliantly for weeks, or even months, in a sealed tin and, when dunked in a caffè latte, a cappuccino or their traditional accompaniment of a glass of vin santo, they probably won't break your teeth.  Un-dunked though, they might well! The Provençal version is slightly, mesmerisingly, softer and requires no dunking although Christiane tells me they are very good dipped in a glass of white wine. I haven't tried this yet, as they are just too moreish exactly as they are.

I often make cantuccini at Christmastime and I usually flavour them with orange oil (or zest) and fresh rosemary. Returning from Provence, armed with the wherewithal to make the French version, I gave them a whirl yesterday and am happy to report they knock my Italian version into a cocked hat although, being slightly less dry, they may not keep as well. May be difficult to assess this, at the rate they are disappearing however.

They are sweet, but not too sweet and their delicate perfume evokes Provence in a trice. I recommend them! I've tweaked the recipe a little bit by adding some lavender flowers as well as the eau de fleur d'oranger flavouring because, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time and lavender and Provence hunt together, pretty much, but you can omit the lavender if you haven't got any to hand or prefer the idea of them without.

The basic recipe is Christiane's and all I've added, apart from the lavender, is a translation and an anglicised method.

What you need

300g plain white flour
175g caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs (large ones) + an extra egg to glaze the outside of the croquets with
about 50 ml of good quality, extra virgin olive oil
1 dsp eau de fleur d'oranger or orange blossom water - in the UK you can get this from Waitrose and probably elsewhere too
4 sprigs of fresh lavender
150g natural almonds, shelled but not skinned. In French they are called "amandes brutes" which I rather like as a phrase; they are particularly good at this time of year when the almonds are new season ones and deliciously milky and fragrant. Buy enough to allow for natural wastage / teenage depredations / quality control testing (delete as applicable) in the course of the cooking!

What you do

Preheat the oven to 170 - 180C. (I used 170C in my fan oven)

Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Strip the florets from the lavender sprigs and add to the bowl.

Whisk the eggs, orange flower water and olive oil together in a jug. Pour into the dry ingredients and begin to mix with a spoon. Before the dough completely comes together, add in the almonds. You might need to add another tablespoonful or so of olive oil, if the dough seems reluctant to coalesce.

Divide the resulting firm dough into two and shape into long slightly flattened sausages about 30 cm long each. Place on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment.

Whisk the remaining egg and brush the outside of the dough to give the outer surface a golden glaze.

Bake for about 25 minutes until lightly golden and the outsides are just set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes.

Then using a sharp and heavy knife, carefully cut each sausage into slices of about 1 - 1.5 cm or so thick. The sausages are quite fragile at this stage so you need to use the knife firmly but gently. Turn the slices onto their sides on the same lined baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or so to dry out the middles.

Cool on a wire rack. They are great with tea or coffee and make good accompaniments to poached fruit or ice cream. We had ours last night with apricots poached in a lavender syrup. Very, very good, though I say it myself. Lavender brings out the scent of the apricots beautifully and the whole thing just sang of summer.

You don't need much lavender either in the croquets or the apricots - just three or four sprigs to lend a subtle hint of aromatic fragrance. Don't taste-test as you add, by the way, as lavender is a mild anaesthetic and if you keep tasting, you may end up adding too much as your tastebuds become anaesthetised!

I have another lavender recipe somewhere for lavender, honey and gin ice cream. I think this may also be calling me though I may have to run up another batch of croquets to go with it!

Merci, Christiane, pour ta belle recette - elle se trouve déjà une favorite!
E x