Everything Tastes Better with Elderflower

As I sat here sipping on a refreshing gin and tonic with a dash of my home made elderflower cordial, I remembered I’d drafted a post the other week and not got round to publishing it. The elderflowers are almost over here, but when they were in full bloom……

I’d been meaning to make elderflower cordial for ages. I love the flavour and two of my favourite tipples are elderflower gin and Thistly Cross Elderflower Cider. Last year I got as far as picking and freezing the elderflowers as they were at their best just before we went on holiday. I promptly forgot about them! The other day we picked the elderflowers and finally made the stuff.

We gathered some from the garden, then went to find some more along the country lanes, sticking to the quieter ones away from traffic pollution. By the time we had enough the car smelt amazing!

I looked around for recipes (there were loads online) and I settled on this one because the finished product keeps longer. You can find the whole thing here with lots of additional tips. The most important of these are that you pick the elderflowers mid-late morning. This means that early morning dew will have evaporated and the fragrance will be at its best – the flowers develop an unpleasant taste later in the day. The flowers are just shaken and picked over to remove any insects, but not washed. Also you need to sterilise the bottles and anything you use to fill them (jug, funnel, ladle etc). I did this in the dishwasher on a hot setting.

In brief, add 15 large elderflower heads (more if they are small), 50g citric acid, two thinly-sliced lemons and 2.5l water to a large pan, bring to the boil, cover and leave to infuse for at least 4 hours (I left it overnight). You can get citric acid at Lakeland and Wilkinsons/Wilco.

When your mixture has infused and your utensils have been sterilised, strain through muslin into another large pan, squeezing all the liquid out to extract all the flavour- I used a jelly bag for straining, (more usually employed making preserves). Add 1kg sugar, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then immediately pour the hot liquid into the sterilised bottles and seal. Store in a cool dark place and it should keep for a year ( the heating and citric acid preserves it), but refrigerate once opened. I got three good sized bottles from these quantities.

I’m really enjoying this taste of summer!

Making Masks

As face coverings are required in shops from tomorrow, I’ve been busy making my own. There are loads of patterns available on the internet – there seem to be three main types: pleated, shaped and with a pocket for a removable filter. I made a couple of pleated ones a while ago, but decided I needed more. I now have enough use once before washing ready to use again and I can even co-ordinated with outfits! I’ve already noticed discarded disposable masks lying around – I’d far rather have reusable ones and not contribute to litter and plastic pollution.

There are lots of guidelines about using masks correctly. Of course they have to cover mouth AND nose, without gaps at the edges. They should be removed and handled with the elastics rather than the fabric and washed after use.

I experimented with some different designs and decided the shaped ones fitted me better. I used one of the the Big Community Sew patterns – The website includes a couple of patterns (one shaped, one pleated) and instructions, along with lots of videos of people from Great British Sewing Bee making them. I did modify the method though. My version includes 3 layers of fabric (as recommended by World Health Organisation) instead of two. This is how I did it.

I used an old sheet for the inner and lining and print cotton for the outer layer. I only used the lining pattern piece, cutting 3 pairs of pieces.

With a 1cm seam allowance, and right sides together, machine stitch the long curved edge of each pair, then cut notches in the seam allowance and press.

Next, stack the three sections together as follows to ensure the centre seams are hidden.

Bottom: outer print layer right side up

Middle: lining, right side down

Top: inner layer, right side down.

Then stitch the three sections together, 1cm from the top and bottom edges and turn inside out. Press.

Fold all the raw edges on both ends of the mask inside (1cm) and press. Measure how much elastic you’ll need. to fit round your ear, allowing 1cm at each end to stitch inside the open edge you’ve just pressed under. (I use about 18 cm each side, but it’s worth measuring – I’m having to redo the elastic on one I made for K as his was too small!). Insert the elastic to form ear loops at each side, pinning the ends of each elastic piece Icm inside the opening. Stitch all the way round, simultaneously closing the open ends, securing the elastic and top stitching the top and bottom edges.

And that’s it!

I now have a quite a selection, from florals, to pinstripe, animal print to nautical. Which one do you like best?

Wildflower Of The Week: Dog Rose

The blossom in the hedgerow shrubs has changed through the seasons, from blackthorn to hawthorn and now to elder and the beautiful dog rose, which blooms throughout June and July. Our dog roses are actually a collection of several virtually indistinguishable species. The large flowers, up to about 50mm across, are white or pink, with golden yellow stamens. They have a mild sweet fragrance.

The leaves are toothed and arranged in two or three pairs along thorny stems. The shrub is straggly and grows to 3m or more if well-supported by surrounding hedge plants.

The roots are used in the horticultural industry in the propagation of garden roses. Shoots of the cultivated varieties are grafted on to dog rose root stocks.

The flowers are followed by oval orange-red fruits or hips. These are rich in vitamin C and can be used to make a tea or syrup. As well as a vitamin source, the syrup has also been used to treat gout, dysentery and as a diuretic. The irritant hairs on hips have been used to make itching powder. The roots were used in folk medicine to cure rabies. The flowers are used in skin preparations.

The flower, or at least a stylised version of it is a common feature in heraldry, often seen on coats of arms. Also known as sweet briar, the rose has symbolised love and beauty for millennia. In Ancient Greece the dog rose was often associated with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, who was depicted as wearing a rose crown. The Romans bestowed an association between the dog rose and secrets. Anything said under places where roses were hung, would remain secret, giving rise the the phrase “Sub rosa”.

Occasionally reddish fibrous tangles appear on the stems of dog roses. These are known as Robin’s pincushions. and are caused by a tiny gall wasp laying eggs in in the stem. The gall shelters larvae of the wasp, which feed on the gall over winter to emerge as adult wasps in spring.

The dog roses I see in the hedgerows are a sign that summer is most definitely here!.

Back On The Beach With The Boat

When K retired he fulfilled an ambition: he got a boat. The Ila Mia is a little motor launch. We didn’t use her much for the first couple of years but last year we acquired a mud mooring at Alnmouth, which is so much easier than launching from the trailer every time. At low tide the boat rests on the mud. We simply walk over to it, climb aboard and wait for the tide to come in. The boat floats off, we untie from the buoy and off we go!

Ila Mia comes out of the water for the winter and we were unable to retrieve her from where she is stored during lockdown restrictions. It was not an essential journey and K’s car, (the one with the towbar), needed the handbrake fixed when the garage was closed. As restrictions lifted, the car was mended and the boat was towed home for some pre-launch maintenance.

She was parked on the front lawn while the barnacles were scraped off, anti-foul paint applied and the engine serviced. Then, on a big tide, she was taken back to Alnmouth.

The launch process takes a while. The boat is towed across the hard sand and unhitched, then it’s the long wait until the tide comes in, when she can be floated off the trailer.

It’s good that she’s back in the water. We hope for some decent weather and calm seas so we can take her out, for fishing or simply to enjoy being out, watching the wildlife. We regularly see puffins, guillemots and even the rare roseate terns that breed on nearby Coquet Island.

Apart from having to wait for the tide, the other drawback at Alnmouth is actually getting out of the estuary. The river channel changes position from time to time and over the winter it moved significantly, now running all the way along the beach and out to sea at the north end of it. it looks pretty shallow too, so there will be a shorter window for trips over high tide.

It’s also difficult if there is some surf. We got drenched going out one day last year when a wave broke over the bows, soaking us both! – That was not our best trip. The spare outboard had already gone overboard in the channel when the mounting broke (fortunately retrieved later on when the tide went out) . We weren’t out for long. Despite reports of lots of mackerel, we couldn’t find any . There was a bit of a swell, which made the boat roll a bit when we cut the engines to start fishing – that left me feeling slightly queasy.

To add insult to injury, the following day K took a couple of friends out and there was no surf, a flat sea and lots of mackerel. They came back with quite a haul. That meant a busy evening of cleaning, filleting and smoking the fish. We have a home smoker, which is basically a glorified biscuit tin with a grid in it. The freezer was filled which meant that I had a plentiful supply to make my favourite smoked mackerel pate. Here’s the recipe.

Smoked Mackerel Pate

Ingredients:-

  • 2 smoked mackerel, skin and bones removed
  • a large tub of creme fraiche
  • juice and rind of one or two lemons (I like it lemony and use two)
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste.

To make it you simply whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor. Use the pulse setting until it reaches the right consistency, processing for longer if you like it smooth. It’s delicious on toast or oatcakes. I can’t tell you how long it keeps in the fridge because it never stays around for very long!

With our stock of mackerel in the fridge running low, I hope we’ll be back at sea and able to catch some more soon.!

A Rescued Shirt

I’m a great believer in recycling, repurposing and upcycling. I hate throwing anything away unless it’s absolutely necessary. A case in point was this blue and white check shirt of mine. I’d spilt something on one of the pockets and much as I tried to get the little stain out it was still faintly visible, probably not visible to anyone else but I knew it was there and I didn’t feel right wearing it. Otherwise I rather liked the shirt and would have been quite sad to part with it. It just needed a little bit of a makeover to disguise the stain, so I decided to embroider a row of daisies across the pocket.

I began by making the daisy centres. Using yellow cotton yarn I sewed a row of equidistant French knots. to sew a French knot you bring the thread up through the material where you want the dot to be, wind the thread round the needle a few times then insert the needle very close to where the thread came out, holding the knot in place with thumb as you pull the thread through to the back of the fabric.

Using white cotton, I worked the petals in lazy daisy stitch (also known as single chain stitches). Beginning by bringing the thread up close to the flower centre, insert the needle close to the thread and pull it partially through to form a loop, then bring the needle up where you want the end of the petal to be, inside the loop. Pull the loop until it lies in the right position and insert the needle in the same place, stitching it down. These steps are repeated for each petal until the flower is complete.

I embroidered a row of six daisies along the pocket.

Of course I had to do the other pocket the same. I’m pleased with the result. My shirt has a fresh new look and a new lease of life!

Wildflower Of The Week: Hogweed

Wildflower of the Week is back on the blog with Hogweed, that has taken over from Cow Parsley as the dominant large wildflower of our hedgerows and road verges. Both are umbellifers, with white, umbrella-shaped flower heads, but Hogweed’s flowers are a creamier shade, sometimes tinged with pink, and the whole plant is sturdier.

Cow Parsley (left) is a much more delicate plant with frothy pure white flowers; Hogweed (right) has creamier flowers and is a much sturdier plant.

Hogweed, also known as Cow Parsnip or Eltrot, is a biennial or perennial plant and grows to 2m high. The shoots and flower buds are covered in a leafy sheath when they emerge, opening to reveal a rosette of large, divided hairy leaves.

The flowers are carried on hollow hairy stems. They are rich in nectar and pollinated by insects. They have a rather unpleasant “farmyards” smell, possibly a reason for the hogweed name. The outer petals of the flower cluster tend to be larger. The flowers are followed by flat disc-shaped seeds.

The plant has been used in folk medicine as a sedative and an expectorant … in parts of Eastern Europe it was also traditionally used to treat gynaecological and fertility problems and impotence. Foragers pick the young shoots to cook as a vegetable, reporting it to be tasty and rich in minerals. The dried seeds can be used as a flavouring said to resemble that of cardamon. All however advise extreme caution for a a couple of reasons. First of all the young shoots are hard to identify when the leaves are not fully open so it is easy to confuse the plant with similar looking and extremely poisonous members of the same plant family. Secondly, hogweed sap contains chemicals called furanocoumarins. If you get these chemicals on the skin it becomes highly sensitive to UV light and develops blisters that may leave severe scarring. Foragers advise the use of gloves when collecting hogweed. People using a strimmer to cut down hogweed have reported getting the rash of blisters even through clothing and appear to have been sprayed with the sap. Scything (using a well-sharpened blade) is seen as safer, producing a cleaner cut rather than pulverising the stems.

Cases of skin blistering around the mouth have been reported in children using the hollow stems as pea shooters – to be discouraged!

The hogweed’s big brother, the non-native Giant Hogweed, which grows to 5m, has higher concentrations of the irritant chemicals and should be avoided at all costs. Classified as an “invasive alien’ under the WildLife and Countryside Act, it is an offence to cause Giant Hogweed to grow in the wild – landowners may be compelled to remove it from infested areas or face penalties.

This all makes me rather relieved that our area is populated by the smaller, native version!

Is your neighbourhood troubled by any invasive species?

NB Always follow these guidelines when foraging

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

An Unexpected Visitor

The weirdest thing happened today. We got some beautiful flowers sent from some dear friends for our wedding anniversary the other week, but alas they were ready for the compost bin today. As K went to pick up the vase to dispose of the flowers he noticed what he first thought was a dead leaf from the bouquet that had fallen into the empty glass vase next to it. It was actually a BAT!!!!. We couldn[t believe our eyes. We can only think that the unfortunate creature had flown in last night when the back door was open when the dog was in the garden and somehow got trapped in the vase. It’s a pipistrelle – our smallest and commonest bat species.

We took it outside and worked out that it was probably dehydrated after its ordeal. so K tried offering it some water from a teaspoon, which it lapped up.

It had crawled into a corner between some bin bags of garden waste ready to go to the tip.

After it’s drink the bat really perked up and crawled around the patio, then started to climb up the wall.

Unfortunately it fell off but seemed ok and crawled behind a flower pot. We are hoping it’s ok and just resting until nightfall.

Many years ago we used to volunteer to support our local licensed bat expert, monitoring roosts. He usually had at least one sick or injured bat being nursed back to health so K and I had seen these amazing creatures close up before, but son and daughter hadn’t and they were both fascinated too. It was such a privilege to see our little visitor. I’m just waiting to see if it gets active again at dusk.

Do you get any interesting wildlife in your garden?

UPDATE: We went to check on the little bat after it went dark and I’m pleased to report that it’s gone – hopefully back to lead a normal life!

Lockdown Crafts: Driftwood Candle Shades

K is always beach combing on daily dog walks and comes home with sea glass, pottery fragments, shells, interesting looking stones and pieces of driftwood. I’ve had a pile of driftwood sitting around waiting for a purpose since last year so today I’ve been using some of the smaller pieces to make these shades to sit over candle jars (I’m always wary of putting something combustible like wood near a naked flame, but it’s safer when there’s glass in between).

First a word about treating the driftwood. I submerged the newly collected pieces in a tub of bleach solution and left it to soak for a couple of weeks, to kill any worms, insects or fungus, then rinsed them with clean water and put them in mesh bags in the airing cupboard to dry out thoroughly.

I used a plastic jar as a mould, but needed to find a way to release it from the hot glue, so I began by putting a paper sleeve round it, secured with tape. I put put some strips of folded paper inside the sleeve – the idea was that if I pulled these out first, then the jar would slide out more easily. I found that the hot glue didn’t stick too firmly to the low tack tape so I taped all over the paper sleeve.

Using the glue gun, I stuck the first layer of driftwood pieces directly on to the mould. I kept the mould on a flat surface and made sure the sticks were touching the table all the way round so the shade would stand up without rocking when complete.

The next layer was stuck on to the sticks in the first layer, ensuring it was glued in at least two places. The second layer pieces were placed at an angle to the first to ensure that all the pieces were locked together. I found the easiest way to apply the glue was to hold the glue gun nozzle over the joint and allow the hot glue to dribble into the gap, then hold the piece in place until the glue hardened.

I continued until the whole mould was covered, then I pulled out the strips of paper to release the sleeve and the jar slid out quite easily. I was then able to gently pull the tape- covered paper away from the glue on the first layer.

I continued to add more driftwood pieces, including some to the inside, until I was happy with the result.

I’ve made two of the shades. I prefer the taller one, where I kept the sticks closer to vertical – the other one was more random. I really must take more care with the glue gun though. Much as I love using it, I have sustained a couple of blisters in the process!

Lockdown Crafts: A Trio Of Baskets.

I have a set of shelves in the utility room, where I store things like tea towels, cleaning cloths and freezer bags: not the easiest things to store on shelves, so I was after some baskets, but couldn’t find anything the right size so I decided to make some. All I used were some old glossy magazines and glue (hot glue and PVA). Don’t you just love repurposing things?

Using a craft blade and a ruler to get a straight edge, I cut the pages out and started by folding them into strips, long edges to the middle, then long edges to the middle again, then in half. Wherever possible I kept the most colourful side to the outside.

When I needed to join strips I either joined two or three sheets together with a thin line of glue before folding or joined two folded strips together by wrapping one round another with 1-2cm overlap and securing with glue.

Starting with the basket base, I secured the first few strips to the table with low-tack tape, using the grid lines on my cutting mat to keep them parallel to each other. I then began to weave strips through these, keeping them a right angles to the initial strips and parallel to each other. I tried to keep the weave as tight as possible, applying a dab of hot glue every so often to keep the strips secure.

When the base was the right size I folded the unwoven ends up and began to weave a strip round the basket. I made some strips with magazine covers and attached these to the strips that were forming the corner verticals, for added strength. I joined in new strips as I went, trying to keep joins behind upright strips. When the first round was complete I joined the two ends, making sure that the weave stayed tight and even to avoid the sided of the basket bulging. I also kept the upright strips as straight as possible, easing them into place to forma tight weave and not bulging out. I started each new round in a different place – joints are the weakest part, so I didn’t want to concentrate them all on one side. I found it helped keep things secure if the uprights (apart from the stiffer corner struts) were bent over as I wove the strip round and the upright were also already in the right position for the next round.

When I got to the second last round I found it was important to use as little glue as possible to secure the weave and limit it to the lower edge to allow for tucking ends in.

Once the last round of strips was woven in I made some edge supports by rolling a magazine page diagonally into a thin tube (I started it by rolling it around a thin knitting needle) and securing with a dab of hot glue.

These tubes are surprisingly strong and make a rigid top edge for the basket. I wove the uprights through as if the rod was another round of strips joining them at the corners by inserting the end of one tube into another and securing with a little hot glue (one end of each tube is thicker than the other

I finished by trimming each upright strip to about 6cm long and tucking it into the second last round of strips. I started with the outside and then did the inside, securing with a little glue around the tube.

With all the ends tucked in I gave the whole basket a couple of coats of diluted PVA glue, inside and out. This makes the whole basket more rigid as well as sealing the surface.

I’m really pleased with my made to measure baskets. I wouldn’t use them for heavy item storage but they are perfect for lighter things.

Have you tried any new crafts recently?