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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Monday 30 December 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Oak leaves

Now edited, with corrected recipe and photos!

Some people use brown, fallen oak leaves to make wine but I don't fancy that. Trees put toxins they've built up into their leaves in the autumn before dropping them. Fallen leaves are tree poo. I'd much rather use vibrant, young leaves that have just burst forth in spring.

Fresh, young oak leaves (Quercus petraea)

There are plenty of oak trees around where we live, including three in our garden. I do pick from those but by far the easiest trees to pick from are the ones growing horizontally nearby.

This tree may have blown over, but it's still growing

Pebble helped with harvesting from the more vertical trees

As usual, I ignored any recipes and kept it simple. I picked six pints of leaves, boiled them for an hour or so, put them in a bucket with two kilos of sugar and topped up to two gallons of water then added yeast and left the whole lot for four or five days before straining into demijohns.

Although it's not really ready yet - I spent ages defizzing it - I wanted to drink oak leaf wine on Christmas day so decanted a bottle. The first time I tried this, I thought it tasted quite a lot like grape wine, but now I'm not so sure. I guess it's a matter of context. Either way, it's a crisp, pleasant wine that could probably do with maturing rather longer than the seven months I gave it. I'll try to keep some long enough to find out!

Also harvesting this week:

Also eating
Blackberry and bilberry jam
Rowan jelly
Tomatoes (Gill was right about still eating them at Christmas)

Also drinking
Blackberry wine
Dandelion flower tea

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Monday 23 December 2013

How to de-fizz homebrew

Some drinks are meant to be fizzy - beer, or elderflower champagne, for example - but if I make red wine, I don't usually want it fizzy. You'd think not-fizzy wine would be easy enough to achieve, but I find that mine often ends up with a slight sparkle. This is because some of the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation remains dissolved in the wine.

Happily, I've found a solution to this problem. I have a simple vacuum pump that is used for preserving half-bottles of wine. It came with a couple of rubber stoppers that include valves, so air can be pumped out of the bottle and won't get back in. Reducing the air pressure inside the bottle reduces how much oxygen will react with the wine and so reduces souring. However, if you use this on a fizzy drink, it also has another effect.

With reduced air pressure on the surface, the carbon dioxide comes out of solution and evaporates, effectively de-fizzing the wine. I've shown less than thirty seconds of this in the video, but it takes a lot longer than that to remove all the fizz. It's more effective if the bottle's less full, so there's a greater surface area to work on, and swirling the wine around helps bring more fizzy wine to the surface. I do this repeatedly until... I get fed up. The wine is generally a good deal smoother by this stage.

Foraged Food Friday: Rosebay willowherb leaves

My foraging post got a bit derailed this (last) week. On Friday, whilst gathering dead bracken to feed the terrace, a piece of bracken hit back. It splintered off the stalk and hit back so hard that it went right through my thumb. Ian was out at the time, so I went next door and asked my friend Gill for help. She was wonderfully calm, sat me down, asked if I had any great attachment to my gloves (no, luckily) and cut the glove thumb off to inspect the damage. We agreed that this was not a first aid job, and she took to me to A&E, where they have anaesthetic. Several hours later we returned, my splinter replaced with a couple of stitches and a large bandage. I was in no state to cook dinner, so Ian and I ate at the pub that evening. On Saturday I went to a party (having replaced the large bandage with a rather smaller dressing) and on Sunday we went to another neighbour's for dinner, and I drank far too much wine.

So, here we are on Monday and I have no desire at all to drink the beer I was planning to tell you about. I'm going to cheat and tell you about it anyway, even though I didn't drink it in the relevant week.

Bay herb ale

Following my success with the heather ale, I wanted to experiment with other flavourings. When I ate rosebay willowherb stalks, I found it necessary to discard the growing tips as their flavour is far too strong for me to enjoy as a salad. I wondered whether they might be just the things for bittering ale. Having learnt that ale needs both bitter and aromatic flavours, I cast around for something to complement the taste, and settled on bay leaves, and not just because they also have bay in the name.

Following a similar recipe to the heather ale, I used two 370g jars of malt extract and 350g white sugar to make two (imperial) gallons of ale. I gathered about a saucepanful of rosebay willowherb tips (young leaves with some stalk) and supplemented these with a handful of bay leaves from a tree I've had since I was a teenager. Since neither herb has delicate flavours that might be ruined with excessive boiling, I put them all in a pan together, covered with water and boiled for half an hour or so. The liquid was strained onto the sugars, topped up to two gallons with cooler water, and yeast (probably from oak leaf wine) added. As usual, I left it to ferment in the bucket for 4-5 days (it might have been a week - my note-taking isn't very good) before bottling with a little more sugar in each bottle.

The resulting ale has a nice reddish colour (well, it does in good light) and is surprisingly frothy. It tastes pretty good, too, though not as much like beer as the heather one. One friend said it was more like cider - I'd say it's distinctly herbal. I suppose it's fairly acidic, and a refreshing sort of a drink. I'll definitely make this again, even if it isn't really beer.

Also harvesting this week

Also eating
Pumpkin, including roasted seeds (not mine)
Mint sauce
Rowan jelly

Also drinking
Blackberry wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Christmas sweets

Christmas means different things to different people - personally I'm celebrating the return of daylight - but apart from the deeper meaning, it does seem to consist largely of traditions. Sometimes the value of tradition outweighs all other considerations - I don't care if none of us like sprouts, it's Christmas! Mostly, I'm not a fan of tradition (no sprouts in this house), but there is one Christmas tradition that I keep, and it would upset me not to do it. Even if I don't send a single card or don't put up one strand of tinsel, I will make Christmas sweets.

My mum started this tradition. Every year for as long as I can remember, the weeks before Christmas were filled with melting chocolate, marzipan and icing sugar. Tasks were carefully selected so that little girls could join in (rolling marzipan to stuff dates, not cutting dates with a sharp knife) and as my sister and I got older, we shared the sweet-making as equals. Then, after Mum died, we carried on the tradition, through our teens and as we grew up, left home, and started families of our own (my sister taking on this latter task more wholeheartedly than I).

I wasn't sure whether to write about Christmas sweets here - perhaps it would be nice to keep them our, Secret family recipe. I talked to my sister about this and she pointed out that most of the sweets are made to well-known recipes. The only ones that are unique to our family (as far as we know) are the peppermint mice. Even those are made from a standard recipe; it's the construction that might be considered a secret and that probably has more to do with our years of practice than any secret tips I could share online. We agreed that I could share our family tradition, with just a few hints about how to make mice. If that's enough for you to make them too, good for you!

Mum varied the repertoire a bit from year to year, but four types were constant: Chocolate truffles, brandy cherries, stuffed dates, and peppermint mice. Since I'm married to someone who doesn't like dried fruit, alcohol, or peppermint (It tastes like toothpaste - it's just wrong!), I've added chocolate caramels (for which I am indebted to Susie for inspiration - see link for how to make these).

Chocolate truffles
The standard recipe for chocolate truffles consists of heating cream gently and melting dark chocolate into it, then (optionally) beating a little alcohol into the mixture after it's cooled. Ratios of chocolate:cream vary from 2:1 to 1:1, so it's not terribly critical. Mum always padded the mixture out with crumbled stale sponge cake. Stale cake? I hear you ask. Well, no, not in this house either. I make a very plain cake specially, just for the crumbs. Not only does it make more truffles, but I prefer the firmer texture, too.

Brandy cherries
Buy glace cherries, soak in brandy, drain (keep the boozy syrup!), coat in dark chocolate. Simple.

Stuffed dates
Buy dates, remove stones, replace with marzipan, roll in sugar. Also pretty simple. Mum used to add food colouring to some of the marzipan, so we had a selection of colours. I don't find food colouring so appealing these days, though I do still buy yellow marzipan as opposed to white, which I presume is uncoloured.

Peppermint mice
Mix egg white and icing sugar and a little peppermint essence (I have an ancient bottle of pure peppermint oil, so very little is required) to make peppermint cream mixture. Add a little glycerin, which stops it setting hard, then add more icing sugar. More than that. No... more still. You're aiming for the consistency of modelling clay. When you think you've added enough sugar, add a little more. In the unlikely even that you've added too much and the mixture cracks when you mould it, a drop more glycerin will solve the problem.

Some of these take quite a bit of forward planning, and there's some sense in doing some things before others. Cherries need soaking in brandy - a few days is probably enough, but we often give them weeks - and a cake needs crumbling for the truffles. If the cherries are coated before the truffle mixture is made, extra chocolate can be melted, which makes dunking cherries easier, and then leftover chocolate can go into the truffles. It's just as well the ratio for truffles is a bit vague. Currently I have...

Cake crumbs

Chocolate-coated cherries

Leftover chocolate and syrup

... and what else is that in the second picture? Oh, yes. Mouse ears. You have to make the ears first and leave them to dry for a few days before making the rest of the mice. Do not be tempted to put them in a warm place to speed this process, as they tend to go yellow.

By Christmas - hopefully by the end of this week - I should have:

Christmas sweet selection.
I still haven't figured out a way of stopping the colour running on the mouse faces.

Friday 13 December 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Blackberries

I was going to tell you about my next beer experiment this week, but I have a cold and fruit-based drinks are more appealing.

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

I don't have to go very far to find blackberries, as there are plenty of brambles in my garden. Indeed, there's a part of my garden that's inaccessible for this reason. The one pictured above grows on the boundary between my garden and my neighbours' and feeds off my compost heap. The fruit are luscious indeed.

This late summer* bounty has many uses, but the first thing I do with blackberries is to make wine. I also tried Atomic Shrimp's recipe for balsamic-like blackberry vinegar, which is pretty good, but right now I'm drinking blackberry wine.

The recipe I used was:-

  • 4 lb blackberries
  • 1 kg sugar
  • Add water up to 1 gallon
  • Sprinkle with yeast from sachet (remaining half from kit lager)**

The first kettleful of water onto the berries was boiling, to kill off whatever moulds were living there (blackberries always go mouldy very quickly. If you pick a batch and leave them at room temperature until the next day, they will be mouldy). I then mashed the berries with a potato masher before adding sugar, the rest of the water (cold, to bring the temperature down), and the yeast. I let this ferment in a bucket for a week, then transferred to a demijohn (using a jug to scoop and pour - I find this method easiest), leaving the yeasty sediment behind for use in the next brew.

My note-taking seems to have fallen down when it came to dates, but I think that was the end of August. As wines go, this one's pretty quick, so not much more than three months later it's ready to drink.

Blackberry wine

I'm not sure whether you can tell from that picture, but it's a nice clear, ruby colour. It's still slightly fizzy but I have a trick for dealing with that (separate post - remind me if I don't get round to it) but once flattened, it's a very pleasant, light red wine. The thing with these country wines is not to expect them to taste the same as grape wines. Mostly, you can tell what fruit they come from. This is not a bad thing, but if you're not expecting it, your first reaction may be, This doesn't taste like wine. I'm rather partial to blackberry wine, myself. In fact, I think I may have another glass. Cheers!

Also harvesting this week
Celery (this is pathetically small this year but better to have tiny celery than none at all. It doesn't add much bulk to stews, but it still adds plenty of flavour, especially if I use the leaves as well as the stalks)
Nettles, bittercress and sorrel (there's not much of any of these, but I folded a little of each into pastry. They failed to disguise the fact that the lard I used was past its best.)
Evening primrose roots

Also eating
Pumpkins, including roasted seeds (not mine)
Birch bolete (from dried)
Knotweed chutney
Green laver
Rowan jelly

Aso drinking
Blackcurrant wine
Honeysuckle and dandelion ale
Sloe and elderberry wine (this year's, though it's not quite ready yet)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.


* Late August, early September
** I had been keeping yeast going from one brew to the next for several months, but the live yeast got infected after the previous brew - dandelion and honeysuckle ale - so I started again with a half-sachet of yeast I'd kept back from the kit lager.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Heather

This was my first attempt at making non-kit beer and the hardest part about writing this post has been keeping the beer this long. I wrote about the recipe when I made it, back in April, so I won't go over it all again. After that I left it in the bucket for about a week, then bottled with a small teaspoonful of sugar to each bottle, and it was ready to drink a couple of weeks after that. I could have written about it sooner, but it made sense to save anything that could be saved for the last months of the challenge, and then I thought it might be fun to finish the foraging challenge with a run of alcoholic drinks so here goes - booze for the next two months!

Ale flavoured with heather (Calluna vulgaris). It did clear in the bottles and I usually manage to pour it clear, but not this time.

For a first attempt, this was remarkably successful. The only commercial heather ale I know of also includes bogmyrtle (otherwise known as sweet gale), but as I didn't have any of that, I just used heather on its own. The result wasn't even, "Well, it's pretty good if you don't expect it to taste like beer." It actually does taste like beer, and a pretty good one at that. It's light - not exactly lager but a nice summery sort of a beer. Well, it was.

Sadly, the flavour started to deteriorate after about about three months. It's still fine, but a bit sharper and not quite as good as it was before. I believe that the popularity of hops is partly due to their preservative qualities, so I shouldn't really be surprised if heather ale doesn't keep quite so well. Never mind - excellent for a few months and OK after that is quite good enough for me. I made two batches (two gallons each) this year, and I'll definitely be making more next year.

Also harvesting this week
Hairy bittercress
Mustard leaves
Oyster mushrooms
Evening primrose roots

Also eating
Tomatoes (it's only small ones left now, still ripening in their bowl in the kitchen. I just pick at them in passing)
Pickled samphire
Rowan jelly
Pumpkin (not mine)
Green laver (toasted, crumbled and sprinkled on pumpkin stew)

Also drinking
Hopped ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.