Saturday, 1 May 2010

Prelude to Summer - Old Fashioned English Elderflower Cordial

It seems only right and proper to share an old family recipe with you for May Day ~ Prelude to Summer - Old Fashioned English Elderflower Cordial, this is delicious when added to fools, crumbles, desserts, pies and beverages.

Prelude to Summer - Old Fashioned English Elderflower Cordial

The English summer is thought to start when the elder blossoms end and the berries ripen. The citrus aroma floating down country lanes also heralds a bountiful harvest for the forager and home-brewer. Elderflower cordial costs more as the bottles get smarter and it’s seen as a luxury, which seems ludicrous to me, as I know that you can make it for next to nothing! Elderflower cordial is a wonderful base for all sorts of culinary treats............lemonade, sorbet, mousses, jelly, desserts, beverages, glazes etc. It is very easy to make, although you need to plan ahead as the flowers need to be steeped in the sugar mixture for four days. The flowers taste best picked early on a dry, hot day, and speed is crucial: they should be used straight after picking. The cream-coloured heads (or umbels) are tastier than the white, and don’t worry if they smell unappetising at first once they’re infused, the heady scent is delicious. Choose umbels free of discolouring and keep them dry until you’re ready to begin. Folklore: * One name for it is the Judas Tree, as it was thought to be the tree Judas Iscariot hanged himself from To fell a tree without suitable protection could free a spirit called the Elder Mother to take her revenge The elderflower was said to be a protection against witches, and a knotted twig kept in the pocket was a charm against rheumatism * Elderflowers were apparently never struck by lightning, and a cross of elder fastened above stables would protect the animals from evil Medicinal benefits * Elderflower cordials and elderberry wines are high in vitamins A, B and C * In A Modern Herbal of 1931, Mrs Grieves recommends an elderflower infusion, taken hot before bed, as a remedy for colds and throat trouble * Mrs Grieves swears by elder leaves as an insect deterrent. The foul-smelling bruised leaves around tender plants and buds prevent attack by aphids and cater-pillars, and gardeners can add a sprig to their hatband to ward off midges * Medical herbalist Christine Houghton says a daily elderflower infusion, made with fresh flowers, is helpful in preventing hay fever

Makes a 1 litre bottle.

15 large elderflowers, shaken to get rid of dust and insects and fertiliser free (umbels, heads)
900g white sugar
1 lemon, wiped clean and thinly sliced
40g citric acid
500ml boiling water

1. Place the freshly picked elderflowers in a large heatproof bowl or pan (that can be covered or has a lid). Add the sliced lemons. Then add the sugar.
2. Pour the boiling water over and add the citric acid - stir all the ingredients together until the sugar has dissolved.
3. Make sure the lemon slices and most of the elderflower heads are under the sugar water. Cover and leave in a cool place for 4 days.
4. Every day, remove the lid and stir the mixture - pressing the lemon slices gently to extract the juice.
5. You should be able to smell the beautiful floral fragrance of the elderflowers after only one day -- if after 4 days you feel there is not enough "floral" flavour to the cordial, leave for a further day. Remember, that this will be diluted to drink or added to other ingredients, so it should be as strong as possible in smell and flavour!
6. When you are ready to bottle the cordial, strain through a non-metallic FINE sieve (lined with muslin if necessary - if the sieve is not fine enough) into a large pouring jug or bowl.
7. Then pour the cordial into clean and sterile bottles. Seal the bottles and store the cordial in a cool, dark, dry place. This cordial is ready to use/drink now, and it will keep for a very long time if stored in the right conditions. (I have some from 4 years ago and it is still as fragrant and floral as the day I made it!)
8. NB: Citric acid can be found in chemists or pharmacists, or in special brewing and wine-making shops/departments. If you cannot source citric acid, use an extra lemon instead.

MAY DAY ~ 1st May

Today is May Day, an old British holiday steeped in tradition. Long before the 1st May was linked with workers and the trade unions, May Day was almost as popular as Christmas. It was, and still is in some regions of England, a day for fun, flowers, frivolity and food! Although summer does not officially begin until June, May Day marks its beginning. May Day celebrations have their origins in the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers, which marked the beginning of summer. A few customs that are associated with this spring holiday are:

1. Washing in early morning dew ~ for the ladies! To wash one's face in May morn' dew to was to secure beauty for the next year.

2. May Day Garlands ~ Young girls would make May Garlands. They covered two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, with leaves and flowers, and sometimes they put a doll inside to represent the goddess of spring. In some parts of Britain, May the 1st is still called Garland Day.

"The first of May is Garland Day
So please remember the garland.
We don't come here but once a year,
So please remember the garland."

3. May Day Tricks ~ In the North of England, the first of May was a late 'April Fool's day' when all sorts of tricks and pranks would take place and 'May Gosling' was shouted to those who had fallen foul of the pranks. Their response would be: 'May Goslings past and gone. You're the fool for making me one!'

4. Decorating Houses and the Parish Church ~ May Day began early in the morning when the villagers would go out before sunrise in order to gather flowers and greenery to decorate their homes, villages and the local church, in the belief that the spring garden spirits would bring good fortune.

5. May Queen ~ the highlight of May Day was the crowning of the May Queen, to represent the goddess Flora. By tradition she took no part in the games or dancing, but sat like a queen in a flower decked chair to watch her 'subjects'. To be chosen as the May Queen was a great honour.

Maypole dancing and Morris dancing are also popular on May Day, and Maypoles could be seen all over Britain in every small hamlet, village or town.

Friday, 30 April 2010

May Day Eve Recipe ~ Elizabethan English Herb and Flower Salad With Honey Dressing

An Elizabethan May Day Eve Flower and Herb salad, just the recipe for this ancient celebration - I think Shakespeare would have approved!

Elizabethan English Herb and Flower Salad With Honey Dressing

An old Elizabethan salad recipe, but with an air of modernity about it, as our interest increases in herbal and floral remedies in today's busy, stressful and hectic world. I have made some suggestions about which flowers and herbs to use - but PLEASE do check that the flowers and herbs you choose to use are edible!! The French also use flowers in their salads, and although the title suggests this to be an English recipe, this style of herbal and floral salad will have been very common throughout Medieval Europe. I serve this with freshly picked flowers and herbs from my garden; it is always enjoyed with great relish and is a vibrant topic of dinner party conversation! It makes a lovely appetiser or can be served with the cheese course for an unusual and pretty accompaniment. Make sure that your flowers and herbs are insecticide free, and are not traffic polluted as well.........wipe them or wash them gently, allowing them to dry before using them.

1 bunch watercress, washed and trimmed
6 spring onions, finely sliced
4 leaves sorrel, shredded
1 bunch lambs lettuce, washed and trimmed
6 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 sage leaves, chopped
3 mint leaves, chopped
1 stalk fresh rosemary, leaves from
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon clear honey
salt & freshly ground black pepper
fresh edible flowers (calendula flowers, roses, primroses, lavender, blue borage, violets, nasturtiums, pansies, marigolds)

1. Toss together the watercress, lamb's lettuce, spring onions, sorrel, sage, mint and rosemary leaves.
2. Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice and honey - season with salt and pepper. Toss the salad with the dressing.
3. Place the salad in an attractive serving dish. Scatter the edible flowers over the top of the salad.

May Day Eve ~ A Magical Day of Mischief and Merriment!

Today, the 30th April, is May Day Eve........the day before May Day, one of the loveliest English celebrations. Not long ago, as recently as the 1950's, the day before May Day was still observed and celebrated as a special day. An old May Eve custom was to spend much of the day in the fields and woodlands gathering wild flowers to decorate the villager's homes and the local church. Shakespeare's play "Midsummer Night's Dream" was set around this day, and not Midsummer as most people believe. This was the time of year where the link between us, mere earthly mortals and fairies was at its strongest, and this magical connection is steeped in English folklore.
In the Northern counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the 30th May was also know as Mischief Night; a night of trickery and merriment! Young children would play tricks on their neighbours, such as adorning the thatched rooves with rakes, mops and brushes, these were often adorned with household items such as mugs and pails (buckets). Simple tricks that harmed nobody but gave the little ones an innocent chuckle, and their elderly neighbours a muted grumble!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Victorian Watercress Tea Sandwiches

I happened upon some fresh watercress from the local farm shop - crisp, green and peppery, I could hardly wait to get it home to undress it from its brown paper bag! Soup I thought, no, not this time...........I wanted something simple, elegant and yet filling. I decided to make some sandwiches, classic Victorian style sandwiches which were the mainstay for most country children, a cheap and cheerful luncheon in those days as the watercress would have been freely available to pick from babbling brooks and local streams. All that was needed to complete my Victorian watercress lunch, was fresh wholemeal bread, freshly churned local butter and a cuppa!

Here is the recipe for your lazy luncheon requirements:

Victorian Watercress Tea Sandwiches for High Tea and Picnics

During Victorian times, children used to take watercress sandwiches to school in place of meat ones. I love them, especially when cut into small trianges and served with a cuppa. Use the freshest bread - I like to use wholemeal, and a fresh salted farmhouse butter. I have inlcluded a soup idea at the end of the recipe, to be made with the excess stalks! So a soup and sandwich recipe then!

SERVES 4: 8 Rounds of Sandwiches

2 bunches watercress
softened butter
16 thin slices bread
sea salt and black pepper

1. Snip the stalks from the watercress and place the leafy ends on kitchen paper to absorb any water. Butter the bread generously, arrange the watercress over 4 slices and season. Top with the remaining bread, cut into triangles or fingers and serve.
2. Don't discard the watercress stalks; they can be made into a soup. Soften a chopped onion in a pan with butter, add 250ml whole milk and bring to the boil. Add the stalks, cook for 1 minute then liquidise until smooth and foamy.