Trust in the Power of Nature
This year I have been making cordials and squashes – I had a pleasant fantasy of being able to supply enough to for the needs of my son, nieces and nephew. In the event I have been the victim of my own success and cannot keep up with demand.
My cordial making frenzy had at its heart the recipes from the excellent River Cottage Handbook No. 2: Preserves written by Pam Corbin. The book was given to me for my birthday last summer and has been a constant source of inspiration and satisfaction. It covers all manner of preserved things from jam, jellies and chutneys to cordials and vinegars. I really cannot recommend it highly enough, I love my copy, and it is now a bit sticky & warped and has things written in the pages – a proper recipe book.
In most cases I have used Pam Corbin’s recipes as a starting point and diversified. First I made her lemon squash, then I made her suggested orange and lemon squash (`St Clements’) variation and then, emboldened by my success, I made my own invention `Citrus Squeeze’ with lemons, oranges and grapefruit; delicious!
So are cordials `herbal medicine’? While they’re certainly not medicine in the specific treatment sense I do feel they are part of herbal medicine in the wider sense that incorporating herbs into daily life helps to forge a different relationship with plants, food, health. It’s also true that if you make your own cordials or squashes you can control the ingredients; choosing organic ingredients, raw cane sugar, using no preservatives or colours etc, and they are cheap! Finally, I feel a strong link with my ancestors when making my own preserves and drinks, my recent forbears would not have found it a novel or strange occupation and in a deeper way I also feel that I am demonstrating my love for my family, as well as having the most enormous fun and almost instant satisfaction.
Before we get to the recipes let me share some useful bits of advice about sterilizing and here I have taken the techniques that Pam recommends in the River Cottage Handbook, they work really well for me, this method should make them last for a year although so far the cordials haven’t lasted more than a month before they get drunk! So – wash all bottles in hot soapy water and rinse well; submerge them (so that water is inside the bottles) in cold water in a cooking pot with a folded tea towel or trivet at the bottom. The pot needs to be big enough to take the bottles standing up as well (see later on); I have a huge stainless steel pot that I use for brewing and sterilising. Heat the water to boiling point then switch it off and leave the bottles warm in the water while you make the cordial.
When you’re ready fish the bottles out with tongs and oven gloves and put them on a wooden surface or chopping board (the wood won’t be cold, which would crack the bottles, and will absorb the shock of the heat).
Fill with hot cordial to 2.5cm of the tops for swing top bottles (I honestly wouldn’t bother using corks it’s too much hassle), put the lids on – for screw tops put the lids on lightly and then tighten after the water bath (otherwise you may not be able to get them off at all!) – then place the bottles carefully back into the pan. The water should reach the level of the cordial inside the bottle. Bring the water back to a boil then keep at a simmer (over 88°C) for 20 minutes. Fish out and allow to cool. In theory they will now keep for a year unopened. Remember to label.
If you can’t find a pan big enough for the water bath sterilising Pam Corbin recommends bringing the cordial to simmer point (88°C on a jam thermometer) and then filling each of the bottles to 1cm of the rim for swing tops and 2.5cm for corks. Once the bottles are open keep them in the fridge.
We drank a lot of Grolsch over the years to get lots of swing top bottles but you can source them on the ever useful and diverting interweb, the little rubber seals are also replaceable. Do try & get good quality ones as you want them to last and they will need to withstand heating.
One last thing: do read the whole recipe all the way through twice before you start! It will save you making silly mistakes . . .
The classic. I can never make enough!
25 elderflower heads
Finely grated zest and juice of 3 unwaxed lemons (+ zest and juice of an optional orange)
1 kg sugar
1.5 litres water
If you like your cordial more lemony add another 2 lemons and leave out the orange. I also like to add the merest hint of finely grated ginger.
I always lay out the flower heads on newspaper and give all insects a verbal 5 minute warning. Wash the lemons with a scrubbing brush, even if they are unwaxed, and zest them but don’t squeeze them yet! Cut off the stalks from the flower heads or use a fork to pull off the flowers and put into a large heat resistant bowl with all the zest. Pour 1.5 litres of boiling water over all, cover and leave overnight.
Strain through a coarse sieve and then through muslin (or a jelly bag) into a pan. Add sugar and juice and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour while still hot into bottles. Seal and sterilize. I usually leave at least one bottle that I don’t sterilise because I know I’ll want to taste it (and so will everyone else!).
Limeflower & Orange Cordial
Up early to harvest limeflowers one morning I found they were almost over (their peak was very quick this year, only about 3 days in London I reckon), I only collected a couple of handfuls of decent flowers but, adapting the elderflower cordial recipe to suit, made a sweet and fruity summer cordial.
About 4 good handfuls of limeflowers, chopped
2 handfuls of lemon balm leaves, bruised
Finely grated zest of 2 unwaxed oranges and 1 lemon and their juice
1.25 litres water
Follow the same method as above: give the insect the 5 minute warning then put all the herb flowers and leaves and zests into a heat resistant bowl and pour the boiling water over, cover and leave overnight.
Strain through a coarse sieve and then through muslin (or a jelly bag) into a pan. Add sugar and juice and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour while still hot into warm bottles. Seal and sterilize.
Mint & Rosemary Cordial
This started life as a simple mint cordial but on the day I went to harvest the mint my rosemary was humming with bees and so I thought, why not? I think the rosemary adds nicely to the mintyness and gives an added depth of flavour. The original recipe uses a teaspoon of salt which I have omitted in this version; I found it just toooo salty!
The recipe is a bit of a fiddle as it has 3 stages. I have found the simplest way is to do the bashing part on one day, leave it overnight, then pour the boiling water over all very first thing in the morning, then I can make the syrup in the afternoon/evening.
50 g freshly plucked mint leaves
20g chopped rosemary, needles and flowers
Juice of 1 lemon
Give the 5 minute warning and then shred the mint leaves. Put the lemon juice, mint leaves and rosemary into a sturdy heat resistant bowl (I use a pyrex one) and bash with the end of a wooden rolling pin. Add the sugar and carry on pounding until the sugar looks a bit grainy and oily as if it has taken up the essential oils (which of course it has). Cover and leave overnight.
Pour the boiling water over the minty sugary mass, stir making sure you get all the way down to the bottom to dissolve the sugar, cover and leave for another 12 hours.
Strain once through a coarse sieve then through muslin (or a jelly bag) into a pan. Bring gently to a simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour into your warm bottles. Seal and sterilize.
This is one I haven’t yet tried but the blackberries and currants are rapidly ripening so I look forward to making some soon. Let me know your variations…
Put your fruit into a pan. Now get a pencil and bit of paper and make your calculations thus (as ever I am indebted to Pam Corbin for this) –
Blackberries and apples: for each 1kg of fruit add 600ml water
Plums or other stone fruit: for each 1kg add 300ml water
Soft berries: for each 1 kg add 100ml water
Put all your fruit into a pan, crush the fruit with a potato masher as you bring the whole mess gently to the boil (we don’t want to frighten the fruit!) and cook until it’s all soft, squishy and juicy, this will obviously take longer for the harder fruit.
Tip the fruit into a jelly bag or muslin lined sieve (it’d have to be a big one!) and leave to drip overnight.
Measure the juice and take up your pencil and paper (and calculator): for every 1 litre of juice add 700g sugar (or, Pam says, to taste). Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, then immediately pour into your warm bottles leaving space for a couple of teaspoons of brandy. Seal and sterilize.
Pam Corbin, The River Cottage Handbook No.2, Bloomsbury, 2008