Elderflower Sparkler

The flavour of elderflower has become popular once again. Historically, the cordial has a strong Victorian heritage, however versions of an elderflower cordial recipe can be traced back as far as Roman times.

Elderflower is just starting to come out now and the flowerheads are best collected fresh and new when the tiny buds have just opened and come to bloom before the fragrance is tainted with bitterness. Make sure you shake the elderflowers to expel any lingering insects before you use them!

This recipe produces one of the most delicious drinks ever concocted. Many people prefer it to French champagne because of its light and refreshing taste. Lovely for a warm summer’s evening…

To make about 5 litres, or 8.5 pints

You will need:

750g/1¾ lb caster sugar

475ml/16fl oz hot water

4 large fresh elderflower heads

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

Juice and pared rind of a lemon

4 litres/7 pints water

1.            Mix the sugar with the hot water. Pour the mixture into a large glass or plastic container. Add all the remaining ingredients. Stir well, cover and leave for about 5 days.

2.            Strain off the liquid into sterilized screw-top bottles (glass or plastic). Leave for a further week or so. Serve very cold with slivers of lemon rind.

 

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Completely bats!

Buying an old property often means you get rather more than you bargained for… and I don’t just mean dry rot, woodworm and a leaky roof – I mean resident wildlife!

I hadn’t been living at Victoria Farm long when a chap knocked on the front door and politely told me I had bats! A bat enthusiast who lived in the village, he had seen bats going in and out of an attic in one the old farm buildings we have here.

So, he came along one evening with his bat detector/counter, sat in the dusk watching a hole up in the gable end of the building and then, having checked up in the attic, told us we were the proud ‘owners’ of a lesser horseshoe bat nursery roost! I know, not the sort of thing you get told every day, but there you are, that’s rural living!

The bat gets its name from its horseshoe-shaped nose. It is one of the world’s smallest bats, weighing only about 8 grams, with a wingspan up to 25 cm and a body length of about 4cm – so less than 2 inches – really tiny!

Bats are protected and cannot be disturbed. Luckily for us, the attic has always been unused and their roost is no inconvenience at all. We respect their space, keep the access free of vegetation, and they get on and do what mummy bats do.

Contrary to what you might think, they don’t make a lot of mess. As they eat only insects their droppings are fine and powdery – we call it ‘bat dust’.

Over the 27-odd years I’ve lived here now, the colony has grown and, at the last count, had around 140 little bats in it. If we sit outside on a warm summer’s evening, you can see them flitting about and flying off down the valley but, other than that, we are not aware of them.

The colony is made up of breeding mothers and their young. Females give birth to one pup weighing less than 2 grams at birth. The bats are only with us for three months each year – June, July and August – so I expect any day now, they will start arriving, finding their place in the roof and settling down to give birth and rear their young. The mothers, and their daughters, will then return to the roost next year and so the cycle continues…

Sadly, lesser horseshoe bats are in decline due things such as the disturbance of roosts, changes in agricultural practices and the loss of suitable foraging habitats. Well, be assured – no-one is going to disturb our bats – long may they thrive!

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Hedgerow rummaging again!

Spring is wonderful and, as I’ve said before, my favourite time of year! All the obvious things like baby birds, lambs and flowers bursting into life are lovely… but one of the most gorgeous things to me is the emergence of beech leaves. I know, a bit weird, but there we are!

One day, the hedge seems dull and uninteresting, speckled with narrow brown pointed buds – the next, it is smothered in delicate lime green tissue paper fluttering in the breeze. Beech leaves are so delicate and so fine and tissue-thin when they emerge, they are just breathtaking.

Goodness knows what my neighbours think as the arrival of beech leaves is yet another reason for me to be spotted rummaging around in the hedgerow, but rummage I must!

Fresh from the tree, beech leaves are a fine salad vegetable, as sweet as a mild cabbage, though much softer in texture.

My friend, Julia Horton-Powdrill – she of the food foraging in Pembrokeshire, uses beech leaves to make a potent liqueur called Beech Leaf Noyau.

Julia says: “Pack a glass jar about nine tenths full of the very young, delicate, clean leaves. Pour gin into the jar, pressing the leaves down all the time, until they are just covered. Leave it to steep for about two weeks.

Strain off the gin which should now be green in colour (although mine is quite often more brown!). To every 500ml of gin add 300g sugar dissolved in 250ml of boiling water. You can add an optional splash of brandy if you fancy it! Mix the warm syrup with the gin and bottle when cold.”

Sounds great to me – cheers!

Joanna

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Dandelion – weed or wonderful plant?

What do most of us think when we see a dandelion? WEED!!! But wait – this is such a negative view of what is actually a very versatile and edible plant. If we can train ourselves to see it as such, just think how much more relaxed we will be as gardeners!

As we all know, dandelions grow very well in the UK for pretty much most of the year. The dandelion is used by the French and Italians in their cuisine and is even cultivated. Did you know almost all of the plant can be eaten?

The leaves: The leaves of the dandelion plant are best eaten young. The dandelion has a bitter taste similar to chicory that grows stronger with age and leaf colour. Pick the young and tender leaves and you can include them in salads. You can mix them in with other greens such as spinach or cabbage or even use them in a stir-fry.

The roots: The roots are also edible and can be washed (not peeled) roasted and ground to make a caffeine-free coffee alternative. Large roots can also be roasted like small thin parsnips – delicious, but you will need a lot to make it worthwhile. They cook very quickly, so keep your eye on them!

The flower: The flower is really very attractive – I know, hard to see it in this way – but it is! Pull off the petals and scatter them in salad – it looks lovely. Or, you can use the whole flower head as a garnish or dip it in a light batter and deep-fry the flower heads as a snack or starter – they go really well with a hot chilli sauce.

If picking now, make sure you go for the smallest, newest plants. Do be careful not to pick ones have been chemically sprayed. Also avoid picking dandelions by the roadside as they will have absorbed petrol fumes. But if, like me, you have a garden full of them – pick away!

Here’s a simple little dandelion idea for you to try:

Dandelion tea

Most warm herbal teas have a comforting effect. Dandelions are a diuretic and can help to reduce water retention and bloated feelings. Many people find this tea a useful treatment for rheumatism too. The tea also acts as a mild laxative, so don’t drink too much at once!

You will need:

  • 5-6 dandelion leaves
  • Boiling water
  • 1 tsp honey (optional)
  1. Remove any stems from the leaves. Break them into strips and put in the bottom of a mug. Pour on enough boiling water to fill the mug and leave to stand for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Strain, discard most of the dandelion leaves and drink. If you prefer a sweeter brew, add a small teaspoonful of honey.

PS. And don’t forget, guinea pigs and rabbits adore dandelion leaves too!!

Smiles, Joanna

 

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Turning ‘nothing’ into ‘something’

Whether you refer to it as Folk Art, Barge Art, Canalboat Art – or even the modern version One Stroke or Fusion Painting – they all cover roughly the same territory. The artwork is bold and simplistic and once tutored, even a relative beginner can produce some really fun pieces of artwork.

Many moons ago my mother and I signed up for barge art evening classes and for ages, we plagued the entire family with decorated gifts for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries – you get the drift! But joking aside, it is a fun way to decorate the most inexpensive household bits and pieces.

These enamel items are all painted using glossy paint (small pots of Humbrol) but you could use other mediums on cards or canvas. I think it’s a great way to pretty something up and it encourages me horribly to hoard more dilapidated bits and pieces ‘for when I have time…’!

We’ve decorated wonderful flat irons, horseshoes, hat boxes, coal scuttles, washing up brush containers, bottles, trays, jars… the list is endless, and many of these bits and pieces we managed to collect for nothing.

One of the joys of crafting I guess… turning nothing into something and creating a really pretty thing that takes pride of place in your home!

Smiles, Joanna

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