Bottling summer’s abundance is one of my pleasures in life.
June is a busy month in my kitchen.
When we moved to rural France in 1996, I kinda sorta hoped to grow my own veg, keep chickens etc. That idea was quickly booted into touch firstly by our lack of topsoil (the canny French farmer who sold us this land knew what he was doing…) and my husband’s hatred of all things fowl, with their pecky little beaks and beady little eyes.
What I can grow, however – even if it meant hewing holes in the ground with a pickaxe – is fruit.
We inherited about 12 cherry trees (most of them dying or gone now); eight or so calvados pears (rock hard and gritty); and two apple trees. The apples proceeded to keel over and die that first winter and we lost four trees in the Grande Tempête of Boxing Day 1999, but the rest remain and are thriving.
Redcurrants, whitecurrants (actually pink), gooseberries in shades of red, green and purple, jostaberries, plums of all sizes and colours, apple trees, quinces, crab apples, walnuts, wild cherry and medlars have all been up and fruiting for the past 10 years, not to mention the elderflowers, grapevines and roses, whose petals and fruit can both be processed.
Getting the fruit put up means working quickly in season. Every sunny morning in June, I rush out as soon as the dew is dry, collecting elderflowers and rose blossom before the heat of the day gets up. I cut whole heads of flower off the tree, filling a big steel salad bowl. It gets a good shake, then the petals are removed into a colander, to allow at least some of the insect life to drop out. Another good shake and then you put the petals in a bowl and pour 500ml of hot or boiling sugar syrup over them. (Sugar syrup is made with 50-50 water and sugar, brought to the boil, then boiled for one minute – nothing could be simpler). You then leave this for three days, strain it (I used a chinois sieve, which is conical and holds a huge amount), then filter it through muslin and bottle it. I use two types of bottles – glass for keeping in the cupboard and plastic for freezing, or if the syrup turns out a bit thin.
Another way to preserve petals or soft fruit is to add 40-proof alcohol (Putinoff vodka from Lidl is good) and leave them to steep. But this is a longer process – about three months in a dark place, shaken every so often is about right. Then you strain the mix and filter it through muslin. You can either leave it as it is, as a kind of eau-de-vie, or, measure the amount and add about the same amount of sugar in grams (ie: 500ml of liquid to 500g of sugar) to make a liqueur.
The third quick (and cheap) preserving method I use is vinegar, which works well with elderflowers and berry fruits such as redcurrants. Collect the fruit or petals (you can wash fruit, but not petals), if using fruit, mash it with a potato masher, then add hot vinegar, place in jars and once again leave for 2-3 months, then strain it, filter it and bottle it. It’s wonderful in the depths of winter to help yourself to a glass of rose liqueur or a long drink with a splash of redcurrant vinegar.
On top of that, of course, there are the chutneys, relishes, jams and jellies, though these are all more time-consuming (less, admittedly, since I started doing them in the slow cooker overnight). It’s the syrups and liqueurs that are my first love.
This year I’m trying a cold-process method for the fruit syrups (redcurrant, whitecurrant and ‘fruit walk’). You just gather and wash your fruit, mash it with a potato masher, leave it for 24 hours to ferment slightly, then process to remove the seeds (I use a moulin, then a chinois, then a sieve, then muslin). To this liquid, you just add an equal quantity (or less, if you prefer it sharp) of sugar, stirring until it dissolves, then bottle it and put it in either the fridge or the freezer. This cold method results in a superior product but it won’t keep unchilled if you don’t heat-process it, so I’ll keep it in the freezer in 30cl bottles and only get one out at a time.
In the past two weeks, I’ve made walnut vinegar (with green walnuts), rose syrup, elderflower syrup, rose vodka, redcurrant vodka, redcurrant syrup, whitecurrant vodka, whitecurrant syrup, rose liqueur, redcurrant jelly, ‘fruit walk’ syrup (ie: whatever I can get my hands on), and redcurrant relish. Kind of like nuts for winter.
Speaking of nuts, this year I’m trying that old French classic, vin de noix, for the first time – about a bottle and a half of red wine, 200ml of calvados, about 250g of sugar, six green walnuts, quartered, a couple of walnut leaves, ripped, and a dash of vanilla. Should be ready in a couple of months.