Given that my blog sings the praises of the nutmeg, it stands to reason that I should advise you all to go out and drink more eggnog at this time of year. Not only does it have a wonderfully charming name, but this beverage is the ultimate form of edible central heating, and showcases the musky warmth of my favourite spice, with its extraordinary power to transform and enrich dairy-based concoctions. It’s undeniably rich, being a mixture of milk or cream, sugar, spirits and whipped eggs, but a little dram is ideal for those lingering winter nights, particularly if you’re the kind of person who likes your desserts drinkable and enriched with booze.Read More
A few weeks ago, I got up on a cold, grey, quintessentially northern morning and made my way to the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival. Before I moved to York, I always looked forward to late-winter trips to my parents' house in the Dales, because they would furnish me with plentiful heaps of gorgeous, hot pink Yorkshire rhubarb from the grocer's around the corner. Now that I'm living so close to that romantic and mysterious-sounding thing, the 'Rhubarb Triangle', it seemed rude not to get on a train and visit the heart of rhubarb country for a celebration of all things to do with this beautiful ingredient.
Any rhubarb connoisseur can tell you that Yorkshire rhubarb is the finest in the world - why they bother importing stuff from Holland later in the year is a mystery to me, as it's never the same. Early season rhubarb is a sight for sore, winter-jaded eyes and souls. Unless you're the world's worst scrooge, I fail to see how it couldn't cheer you up.
An entire festival devoted to rhubarb, given my love for the stuff, was a ridiculously exciting prospect. If you're wondering how you can build an entire festival around a single, generally quite underrated, ingredient, you'd have been surprised at the rather substantial scale of the Wakefield festival. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be more of a general food festival with most stalls offering something rhubarb-themed, but there was still a prominent vein of rhubarb mania running throughout the whole thing.
There were cheese stalls offering Wensleydale cheeses with rhubarb pieces in. Chocolatiers proffering bars of rhubarb crumble chocolate. Cafés offering rhubarb and white chocolate pots in addition to their usual cakes. Butchers with pork and rhubarb sausages, or rhubarb pork pies. Rhubarb and custard fudge. Myriad manifestations of rhubarb jam and chutney, and an excellent rhubarb and orange marmalade. There were delicious rhubarb cordials, cakes and tarts.
There were also, of course, stalls selling gigantic bundles of hot-pink Wakefield rhubarb. I don't think I've ever seen so much in one place. Predictably, I gathered three huge bunches to hoard in the freezer. I also ended up with my very own rhubarb plant, which sent up a little pink, green-tipped stalk about a week ago and rendered me unfeasibly excited (I normally kill pretty much every vegetation I touch). I can't wait to harvest it next year and feast on my own home-grown rhubarb.
One of the highlights, though, was a small sip of rhubarb vodka that passed my lips just close enough to 12pm for it to be legitimate and not reminiscent of desperate alcoholism. Given that the day was freezing, the fiery warmth as it slid down my oesophagus would probably have been welcome no matter how it tasted. But on top of that, oh, was it delicious.
Sometimes it's hard to pick up on the distinct and unique flavour of rhubarb. We so often mask it with sugar and cover it in buttery crumble, nuts or custard that its qualities tend to get a little lost. This vodka was wonderful in that the pure rhubarb flavour came through - that delicious fragrance, a slight hint of vanilla sweetness. It was like delicious rhubarb nectar, and dangerously drinkable.
Having braved the realm of homemade infused alcohols a couple of years ago with my very successful (and equally dangerously drinkable) sloe gin, I decided to have a go at making rhubarb vodka at home. Any excuse to buy more rhubarb is a worthy one, in my world. I'm trying to think of the last time I didn't spend a trip to town with at least half a kilo of pink stalks sticking out of my rucksack, and I'm not sure I can. Soon they will start calling me 'rhubarb girl' and try to pour custard on me.
There don't seem to be many definitive recipes for rhubarb vodka online. Some say to only use a couple of sticks of rhubarb, others (most) suggest more, around half a kilo. They generally agree on a 2:1 rhubarb:sugar ratio. Some add orange peel, lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon sticks or ginger. I thought about adding a vanilla pod, because I reckon that could be insanely delicious.
However, for my first attempt, I wanted to keep it pure and simple - just rhubarb, vodka and sugar. If I feel it needs improving, I might try a rhubarb/ginger or a rhubarb/vanilla version next year. I didn't want to complicate things with spices, as I think they would be too intrusive. Cinnamon and rhubarb don't work that well together, in my book - not as well as ginger or vanilla, anyway.
So here is one of the simplest recipes you'll find on this blog. It's one of those simple recipes whose text belies quite how enjoyable and rewarding it is. I spent a lovely relaxed Sunday morning chopping beautiful candy-coloured rhubarb into chunks, then smashing it satisfyingly in a pestle and mortar. I loved the crunch and crush of the pieces as they shattered into pink and white shards, the way they started to release juice that then combined with the sugar in the jar to turn frosty and almost sparkly.
The crushed rhubarb went into a big Kilner jar, and I poured over the sugar, shaking the jar to let the sugar permeate into all those lovely cracks in the rhubarb pieces, turning the whole lot into a garishly pink mass reminiscent of a small girl's bedroom decor. Crushing the rhubarb first means there's more surface area for its aroma and flavour to infuse the vodka, and it also helps the sugar combine with the fruit. Plus, it looks so pretty.
Next, I poured an entire bottle of vodka into the jar. I haven't bought a bottle of vodka ever in my life, I don't think. In fact, I don't think I've drunk vodka since I was actually legally able to. I was almost embarrassed at its presence on the conveyor belt at Morrisons, especially as I was buying very little else so it looked like I was on a strange diet of strong spirits, mints and dried cranberries.
But there was a certain satisfaction in tipping that entire vessel of clear, potent liquid over my beautiful frosty sugared rhubarb mass, knowing that in a few weeks time the whole lot will have coalesced into stunning, hot-pink, sugary, warming deliciousness.
If you decide to make this, try and make it using early season pink rhubarb, rather than the thicker, woodier, greener stuff from later in the year. You'll need to be patient, as it needs to mature for a few weeks - at least three months, preferably. However, if it tastes anything like the stuff I tried at the festival, you're in for a treat. Try it served in small shots after dinner, or combine with cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime for a sort-of rhubarb cosmopolitan. It's also, reportedly, very good in a bellini, topped up with prosecco, though perhaps only if you can handle the inevitable hangover. My alcohol expertise ends there, really, as I don't drink much, but I'm sure more experienced mixologists will find exciting uses for this.
Meanwhile, it's still sitting on my kitchen table. I know I need to move it to a cool, dark place, but the sight of it is just so cheering and uplifting that I can barely bring myself to part with it.
Rhubarb vodka (makes 750ml):
- 500g rhubarb
- 250g granulated sugar
- 750ml vodka
Cut the rhubarb into 2cm pieces. In batches, crush it roughly in a pestle and mortar, and place in a large, clean airtight jar (I used a 2-litre Kilner jar). Add the sugar and shake to combine. Pour over the vodka, clip on the lid, then shake well.
Leave in a cool, dark place, shaking the jar daily, for at least 3 weeks. After 3 weeks you can shake the jar less frequently, about once a week.
When ready to drink (patience is a virtue - it will be at its best after at least 3 months), strain the vodka through a fine sieve or muslin, then bottle.
"All around it looked so cold and raw: the long willow-leaves were quite yellow, and the fog dripped from them like water; one leaf fell after the other: the sloes only stood full of fruit, which set one's teeth on edge" ~ Hans Christian Andersen
If this country were a kitchen, its larder would be Yorkshire
. I never fail to be amazed by all the wonderful produce around me whenever I go and stay in our house up north. There are the two excellent butchers three minutes away from our house, whose steak and ale pies, sausages and sirloin steaks are to die for, and whose meat all comes from farms barely a stone's throw away. There's another butcher a five minute drive from the house, where I picked up six partridge and a mallard for under £15 last week (more on the partridge at a later date...). There's the quaint little deli where I've found treasures like shocking pink Yorkshire rhubarb in late winter, or beautiful glossy damsons at the close of summer, and which can always be relied upon to sell oddities that you'd normally never find in a local country shop: tahini paste, quinoa, pomegranates, fresh fennel. However, it's not just the produce that I have to pay for that I love, but everything that's available for free, too.
Take a short walk into the dales, and you'll be rewarded with even more edible goodness, without having to spend anything at all. Towards the end of summer, ripe blackberries hang heavily from their bushes, lining almost every stone wall in sight and glistening invitingly, begging you to snatch them up before they're gobbled by greedy birds. A couple of years ago I went on a walk, without realising that blackberry season had started. I passed so many beautiful berries on my stroll that I couldn't bear to leave them behind, but I hadn't brought any form of receptacle in which to carry them.
However, dear readers, there is no end to my initiative and resourcefulness when food is at stake. I carried them home in the hood of my jumper.
It doesn't stop at blackberries, though I've collected enough in a single day in Yorkshire to freeze and last me nearly a whole year (delicious on porridge with chopped pear and honey, or in a crumble, or in a lovely apple and blackberry jam). There are also bilberries, a curious and rare wild version of the blueberry. They are notoriously hard to pick and only grow in certain places (usually rather high up, requiring much climbing, scrambling and huffing and puffing) on the dales, possessing a very short season towards the end of summer. I was mad enough to go foraging for them in August during a torrential downpour...but more on that in another post, when I finally get round to cooking my gains. They're currently sitting in the freezer, awaiting the invention of a recipe special enough to justify the intense discomfort involved in peeling off a pair of completely saturated skinny jeans and acquiring a hideous illness for the entire week afterwards, which I'm sure resulted from the combination of wind, rain, and three hours hunching over mud and occasional ubiquitous dog excrement in order to pick these damned berries. I christen said illness "Forager's Downfall". I'm sure I'm not the only one to have succumbed.
Our national larder didn't disappoint last week when I visited. During a little afternoon stroll I stumbled across a group of large bushes hanging heavily with little dark fruits, rather like overgrown blueberries but darker, and mottled in places. Having read a little bit about sloes and sloe gin in various food media lately, I had a strong inkling that these were, in fact, the elusive sloes. I'm still not actually sure they are true sloes - apparently sloes and bullaces, which are like small damsons, look very similar - but I'm hoping my resulting gin will taste delicious nevertheless.
I've always liked the idea of making sloe gin, but having never seen sloes before (not much chance of them in central Cambridge, I don't think) it was one of those items on my long-term gastronomic to-do list (I have various lists, you see, all relating to food. It's very stressful trying to keep on top of them all, actually). I don't really drink much alcohol; I only like wine, preferably white, and gin, and even then in quantities so small it makes most of my friends laugh. I often recall the depressing incident whereby my boyfriend and I drank a whole bottle of wine between us one night over dinner. I was immensely impressed with my tolerance, seeing as usually I can only manage a small glass. Flushed with my success, I then inspected the bottle more closely, only to find that the wine contained 5.6% alcohol. Sad times.
However, I do like gin-based drinks, and sloe gin is particularly tasty due to its higher sugar content and fruity flavour; it has a taste reminiscent of summer berries, with a pleasant blackcurranty tang. You can buy it, of course, but when there's a huge bush sporting hundreds of sloes only minutes from where you're staying, it seems rude not to take advantage of nature's offerings.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a hood to put the sloes in. I had to go back for a bag.
A happy half hour of dodging prickles and getting some very quizzical looks from a field of sheep later, I had 1.6 kilos of sloes, enough to make at least two litres of sloe gin.
Although I love the almost-instant gratification of most cooking - chop, stir, bake, eat - I also enjoy the occasional longer-term food project, mainly because it gives me an immense sense of self-satisfaction and makes me feel a little bit like a Victorian housewife or a home economist (not particularly glamorous role models, admittedly, but certainly useful ones). I enjoy making my own jam and chutney, and have made various forays into that arena over the years.
There was the fig jam, hastily whipped up with a plate of semi-rotting figs that I couldn't bear to let go to waste; the rhubarb jam and chutney made with an immense glut of rhubarb given to my mum by a colleague; the apple jam and chutney made with the windfall apples from the tree overhanging our garden; the quince paste made in a moment (more like five hours) of madness that I heartily regretted when I got cramp trying to press insufficiently soft quinces through a sieve; the red chilli and tomato jam that nearly had me in A&E because I got such severe and agonising chilli burns on my left hand (still remains to this day the most painful experience of my life, but at least I didn't do what a chef I used to work for once did, and went to the toilet without washing his hands after chopping chillies...).
I've also made my own preserved lemons (incredibly easy - stuff lemons with salt, pour over boiling water and leave to mature in a jar for a few months) to use in Moroccan cooking; my own bottled apricots for when these lovely fruits aren't in season; I dried my own apple rings one year, from the windfall apples in our garden; I made a jar of my own sun-dried tomatoes, by putting seasoned tomatoes in the oven on a very low heat for half a day. Projects like these are not only - eventually - tasty, but there's a certain satisfaction in opening a jar of preserved lemons that you've made yourself, or gorging yourself on sweet, soft apricots in syrup in the middle of February, or spooning homemade jam onto fresh toast. It always tastes better than shop-bought, even if that difference is entirely psychological.
This is another such long-term project. The gin needs to be left to mature for a good couple of months before drinking, though I intend to leave mine for a bit longer. However, there's very little work involved, and once it's all mixed you can just leave it, shaking or stirring it occasionally.
Basically, you mix your sloes with sugar and gin.
There you go, readers - Nutmegs, seven's shortest ever recipe.
You need about 450g sloes for every 750ml gin, and about 225g of granulated or caster sugar for every 450g sloes, though you can add more if you have quite a sweet tooth. Then you just need to combine them in a jar or tub with a watertight lid, leaving a bit of space so you can either stir or shake the mixture.
You can either do this the painstaking way, and prick each sloe with a pin so that they release their juices into the gin, or you can do it the easy way, and freeze your sloes so the skins split, before defrosting and then squeezing them to mush in their bag (intensely enjoyable). Then you can add the sugar and the gin. Apparently it doesn't really matter what quality of gin you use - no point in splashing out on some Bombay, for instance - but I wouldn't suggest using Tesco Value gin. The next one up would be fine, though. I got mine from Asda - £20 for 1.5 litres, which isn't bad for two bottles of tasty sloe gin.
I made my gin in two large 3-litre Le Parfait jars - although they're not even half full, the space left gives you room to shake the contents vigorously to ensure they're well-mixed. Put the fruit in the jar, sprinkle over the sugar, pour over the gin, and clip on the lid. Then shake, shake, shake, and leave in a cool, dark place. Keep shaking it every day or so for a couple of weeks, then leave to mature for a couple of months at least.
I'm not sure whether to take the sloes out and strain the mixture after a couple of months before leaving it to mature further, or just leave the sloes in right up until I want to drink it. Apparently it's possible to do both, though I think leaving the sloes in for longer might give a better flavour, so that's probably what I'll do.
I'm also looking forward to using the gin-saturated leftover sloes for something delicious; I've read various people suggesting them as an accompaniment for game. What better partner for Yorkshire sloes than some nice Yorkshire venison, or pheasant?
Incidentally, sloes are not good for eating raw. I tried one out of curiosity, but Hans Christian Andersen was right when he wrote that they "set one's teeth on edge". Your whole mouth puckers up from the astringency, rather like trying to eat a lemon or gooseberry.
So that's a brief summary of my latest food project. If you know anyone who might have some sloes growing near them, ask nicely for a few and try it yourself. I'm going to decant the gin into lovely old-fashioned stoppered bottles when it's ready and make some nice hand-written labels for it, to please both my inner home economist and outer rampant aesthete.
I can't wait for the first sip of this sweet, warming, fruity concoction.
Have you done any foraging this year, or dabbled in the joy of home preserving? Do you have a favourite recipe for an abundance of wild ingredients?