Thursday 27 November 2008

The Boring Bits

Pick up any cake recipe and it will tell you to prepare the cake tin before you start measuring or mixing ingredients. You wonder why until you’ve ignored the instructions a few times and realise how annoying it is to arrive at the time when you pour the cake mixture into the tin and it isn’t there. Then you have to mess around with cake tins, greaseproof paper and scissors when your hands are covered with flour and fruit and other odd bits.

It’s the same with herbs. You’ve gather large amounts of various herbs and you need glass jars to put them in so each herb has its own jar in which to macerate and you realise that there aren’t any empty jars around. Or you’ve made a wonderful syrup and you need more than one bottle to store it in.

Several times this year, when I’ve scheduled a particular amount of time to sort out herbs or tinctures or dried herbs, I’ve had to spend the first hour finding jars, washing them and then scrubbing off the label. This process can make me very frustrated! However, if you can approach the washing and de-labelling task without gnashing your teeth, you do end up with a load of sparkling glass with their attendant lids ready for their next appointment with a herb or its extraction.

Do be careful if you’re washing jars and lids which have contained strong smelling items like Branston pickle or mango chutney. Make sure you wash both items until the smell is removed. Sometimes a single hand wash is not enough. You don’t want your herbal product tainted with curry or something similar!

It is best to take the label off before you put a jar or bottle inside the dishwasher, if you use one, because the washing process will only remove part of the label, which then gets lodged in the filter and bakes the rest more firmly onto the glass. If you are methodical, you can put each jar in a series of hot water baths (plastic jugs are good).

Most glues will dissolve or start to dissolve after 30 minutes or so. At this point the label will either peel away completely or you can rub gently with a wire saucepan scrubber and some washing up liquid until the glue is completely removed.

Sometimes you need to score the paper to allow the hot water to reach the glue. Some modern glues are vicious and won’t dissolve no matter how long you leave them. These will respond to brute force and washing up liquid, but you have to rub away like crazy until all the patches of glue are removed, otherwise you are left with sticky globules which are not aesthetically pleasing!

If a jar has a label both back and front, both need to be removed, otherwise you can fall into the “Can you bring me the mustard, it’s in the coffee jar” trap.

I once had to snatch a jar of St John’s wort oil from an unsuspecting workshop participant who was about to pour it into her herb tea. The oil was in a honey jar and I hadn’t removed the honey label! We all laughed about it at the time, but it would have been dreadful if she had poured it into her tea and then drank it!

The moral of the story is: you might know exactly what is in every jar or bottle, but unless you live in total isolation, you need to ensure there are ways for other people who may come in contact with those items to be sure what they are handling is really what it says on the label.

Everyone has their favourite jar or bottle in which to store a particular item. I tend to use 1lb or 2lb clear glass jars for my dried herbs, covering the most fragile herbs with brown paper bags to exclude light. Tinctures I am trying to ensure go into green or brown glass jars. Oils go into clear glass jars, as do vinegars. I love putting syrups into salad dressing or oil bottles or the 'one glass' wine bottles. Somehow it makes them look more official that way.

Where do you get all these glass jars and bottles from? I hear you ask. Most of them have been household items I’ve kept after using – large and small honeys jars, sauce jars etc. Every time we go and stay at a hotel which provides jams and marmalade in individual glass jars, I make a point of asking for any spares.

The last time we stayed at a hotel in Cheltenham during the February Folk Festival, I came back with 16 little jars which I’ve only just got around to cleaning out and washing. Now I feel secure in having sufficient jars to use for salves – mostly for workshops, but some to give away to family and friends when needed. Pickled mussel jars from the chippie are another great source of beautiful glassware in which to display larger amounts of salve.

Just occasionally I will buy glass items which are specific to requirements, but only if I can’t obtain them through any other form of recycling. A recent purchase was dropper bottles. They were handy to carry around during my recent cold and it didn’t look too strange dosing myself with a dropperful of elixir every half hour. I could have done it with a teaspoon, but the dose is more accurate and when you’re ill, you want to make things as easy as possible!

Sunday 16 November 2008

Quince – A Tale of Abundance

Many authors mention the ancient nature of the quince tree, Cydonia oblonga. They refer to biblical references about apples actually referring to quince, showing how the fruit of this small, deciduous tree has been valued for thousands of years.

I first came across quince when my friend, Jean, who was my child-minder for many years when Stephen and Kathryn were small, talked about making quince jelly for Christmas. My second experience was at a Herb Society AGM at Sulgrave Manor in 1998, when Jan Greenland produced a quince cheese. I was instantly hooked and the following year I planted a quince tree in the Sanctuary next to the main herb bed along with a meddler, an ancient pear.

Quince is related to both apples and pears. The five-petalled flower is pink tinged and as the year progresses, it turns into a small, green, lemon shaped fruit which eventually grows into a large yellow aromatic pear.

During my tree’s first year, the flowers dropped off and the leaves drooped. It wasn’t happy. Over the following years, it grew in size and always flowered, but produced no fruits.

This year was different. During one summer visit, I discovered a small fruit forming and was overjoyed. The next month, my father asked if I had seen my five quinces. This time I took pictures to record the momentous event.

At the end of October, one of the quinces had fallen off onto the floor, so we knew they were ripe to pick. The five quinces were reverently laid in a basket and more pictures taken. Then we brought them home and left them in the cool section of the fridge to wait until I could concentrate on turning them into jelly and cheese.

It would have been better if I had stored them in a cool, dark, dry place as they would have kept indefinitely. One of quinces was starting to go bad when I took them out of the fridge.

Surprisingly, Mrs Beeton doesn’t have any recipes for quince jelly, neither does the 1960s picture version of Good Housekeeping (my mother’s standard cookbook). I knew I’d seen recipes in my Good Housekeeping cookbook which I’ve had since before we were married, so even in the 1970s, people were using quinces.

I found another recipe on The Cottage Smallholder website which suggested cooking the quinces for many hours and using the juice for jelly and the flesh for cheese, which she referred to by its Italian name, membrillo. In the end, I used a combination of both recipes which yielded around 4lbs of cheese and 5lbs of jelly – not a bad quantity from 5 quinces!

Quince Jelly and Cheese

Wash the quinces. Chop into small pieces using a sharp, heavy knife as they’re very hard. I cored mine as I didn’t want the pips in the cheese, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to peel them either. Add the juice and grated peel of two large lemons. Cover them with cold water (I used 3 pints of water for 5 quinces). Bring to the boil and simmer on the lowest heat until the quince flesh is tender (between one and three hours). Strain.

You should use a jelly bag and strain overnight to ensure the jelly is cloudless. I didn’t have the appropriate equipment so I strained the juice into a plastic bowl and left it for a couple of hours so all the sediment fell to the bottom. Then I measured the juice and poured it back into the cleaned saucepan after I’d finished making the cheese, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the bowl.

Add 1lb granulated sugar to each pint of quince juice. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved stirring with a wooden spoon continuously. Then heat to a rolling boil for ten minutes. Spoon several spoonfuls of jelly on to a pyrex saucer and place in the freezer to cool for 5 minutes. Keep doing this every five minutes until the jelly has a wrinkled skin over the top of it when you gently push it back with your finger nail. This is the setting point. Take the saucepan off the heat and pour jelly into sterilised glass jars heated in a low oven for ten minutes. Seal with jampot covers.

To make the cheese, place the quince flesh with a small amount of liquid in a liquidiser until you have a puree. Weigh the puree and return it to the saucepan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. (5 quinces produced 2 1/4lbs of puree and 2 ½ pints juice.) Cook on the lowest heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick or burn for another couple of hours. (I went away to start writing a new short story and returned for a stir every 15-20 minutes and it was fine.)

The cheese will turn a deep crimson and have the consistency of a thick soup you can stand a spoon up in. Apparently membrillo is cut into slices, so to achieve that consistency you need to cook it for at least three to five hours. I only cooked mine for two. You don’t need to cook at a rolling boil because you aren’t looking for a setting point. When the cheese is thick enough for your liking, pour into sterilised glass jars and cover in the usual way.

The cheese has a slightly gritty texture because of the stone cells which are also found in pears. It tastes aromatic and unique and very moreish! I’m looking forward to trying it with feta or other salty Greek cheeses. The jelly tastes very much like an aromatic pear and will be wonderful as an accompaniment to meat, cheese or just spread on toast.

Apparently the energetic properties of quince are linked to purification, protection and exorcism, but I prefer to look to the energies associated with apple – abundance. Quince is a veritable cornucopia and I am so pleased the tree has finally gifted me with its fruit.

Sunday 9 November 2008

My first award and other excitement!

Debs Cook, who writes Herbaholic's Herbarium kindly awarded me the Uber Amazing award last week, which was a wonderful surprise. I love knowing that other people read my blog and enjoy sharing the information and experiences I post about.

The rules of this award are:-

* Put the award logo on your blog or post (right click on award, save as)
* Nominate at least 1 blog that you consider to be Uber Amazing!
* Let them know that they have received this Uber Amazing award by commenting on their blog
* Share the love and link to this post and to the person you received your award from.

I'm going to nominate Tammy from The Witchen Kitchen Beginner Herbal for inspiring me to try making herbal products I hadn't thought of before and Cathy from Growing Curious who isn't afraid to mix emotions with her developing knowledge of the growing world.

I have another piece of exciting news I wanted to share. My first book of poetry was published by Romance Divine on Friday 8 November. It's very rare for poems to find a publisher, so I'm grateful to Greg Causey for giving me the opportunity to share my poetry more widely.

The book is available as an ebook, a paperback and an audio CD featuring my dulcet tones(!) reading and singing plus my daughter, Kathryn, playing a couple of my tunes on her flute. You can find it on if you're interested in purchasing a copy. The paperback is also available on

Email me at if you're interested in details of my other published books, which include an Arthurian Romance, an Iron Age romance and a book of short stories from the dark side!