Sunday 23 October 2011

Syrups and Soup

Shortening days and cooling temperatures bring both a sense of panic to gather in the last of the harvest and provide comforting warmth and reassurance for the coming winter. Last weekend we visited my parents and spent an hour or so picking quinces from the tree and off the floor and collecting calendula seed ready for next year’s planting.

There were also a number of sorry-looking red roses. Most of them were water damaged and past their best, but they all retained a strong rose scent. I couldn’t leave them, so I picked them all and brought them home. I wondered about making some more rose elixir, but there are still several full bottles from two years ago, so a syrup seemed more in order.

The original Farmer’s Weekly recipe for nettle and rose petal syrup suggested it be used for sore throats during the winter when added to milk. Neither plant are those I would normally turn to for a sore throat but the housewife who offered the remedy would not have done so if she hadn’t found it helpful. I love roses for their ability to raise the spirits – something I’m very much in need of at the moment- so I thought I would add another supportive nervine herb, evening primrose flowers and something to ease the throat/chest – marshmallow leaves.

The marshmallow and evening primrose were gathered from the garden and covered with cold water along with some dried nettle leaves. If I had had time and patience, I would have left them to macerate overnight, but this wasn’t possible as I was leaving for two days in London the following morning. The infusion was brought to a simmer for twenty minutes then strained. After washing out the saucepan, the liquid was replaced and slowly evaporated on a low heat to bring it down to two pints.

Then I added 2lbs of sugar and all the rose petals and brought it slowly up to the boil, stirring continuously for ten minutes while my bottles sterilised in a hot oven at 100 degrees C. Again the syrup was strained to remove the rose petals and could have been simmered further to thicken, but I decided it was fine as it was, so I poured it into the bottles and left it to cool. The taste, when added to cold milk, was very pleasant with a definite note provided by the evening primrose.

When we returned from visiting family in Woking on Wednesday afternoon, I set to work making a sloe and rosehip cordial. The rosehips came from the Sanctuary and the sloes from the farm yard. I covered them with cold water, adding 2 quills of cinnamon, a grated inch of root ginger, a grated nutmeg and several cloves. The mixture simmered for half an hour, then I removed the whole spices and blitzed the syrup in the saucepan until it was fully liquidised.

Then came the arduous task of sieving the entire contents to remove the stones and skins. I was surprised how thick the syrup was despite the amount of debris. After measuring the amount of liquid I added an equal amount of sugar and brought it back to the boil stirring continuously until the sugar was completely dissolved. It tasted wonderful, although a mug of boiling water required at least a tablespoon of syrup to make a really nice drink.

Ever since we returned from holiday, the tomatoes have been prolific. It’s wonderful when there is enough to make fresh tomato soup. The recipe I normally use is from my Good Housekeeping cookbook, but I’ve doubled the quantities and left out the rasher of bacon as I didn’t want to defrost a whole packet just for one rasher. The first recipe was the most delicious, but I’ve made others since which have been very tasty.

Tomato Soup
3lbs fresh tomatoes
1 large carrot
1 onion
2 celery sticks
1oz butter
1 dessertspoon of sugar
Water or stock
Bouquet garni of fresh herbs – thyme, parsley, rosemary, winter savory
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel and dice the onion. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and sweat the onion for five minutes on a low heat, covered, until soft. Wash and dice the celery. Scrape and slice the carrot. Add the vegetables to the saucepan and mix in with the onion. Add in the tomatoes, chopped and the sugar. Cover with water or stock. Chop the herbs and add to the soup together with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer, covered, for one hour. Liquidise, then sieve to remove skins and seeds. Serve the soup hot with fresh bread.

One thing which really surprised me, was the profusion of fresh, young nettles growing in the garden. This was too good an opportunity to miss making fresh nettle soup for possibly the last time this year. I’ve also grown chillis for the first time this year so I experimented with a red one!

Spiced Tomato and Nettle Soup
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
3 lbs of fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 carrot, scraped and sliced
4 sticks of celery, washed and sliced
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 large handfuls of dried nettle leaves or one basketful of fresh nettle leaves removed from their stalks
1/2oz butter plus 1 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp sugar
Bouquet garni of herbs – thyme, winter savory, basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the butter and olive oil together, then sweat the onion and chilli until soft. Add the vegetables, herbs, sugar, salt and freshly ground pepper and cover with water or stock. Bring to the boil, simmering for forty minutes. Add nettles and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Liquidise. Sieve to remove skins, seeds etc. Reheat and serve with fresh bread.

This is a very tasty and nutritious soup with real heat which doesn’t impede the flavour.

For some time now, I’ve been adding vegetables to macaroni cheese. This lightens what can be a very heavy meal and adds extra flavour. I couldn’t resist sharing both the recipe and photo of the last offering as the fresh tomatoes made it so beautiful! The cheese sauce is made without fat and is the method developed by my mother when she had a duodenal ulcer. I use it to make all white sauces, including parsley sauce and brandy sauce.

Vegetable Macaroni Cheese
Fresh tomatoes
3oz of dried macaroni per person
8oz plus 2oz Cheddar cheese grated
1pt (UK) milk
1 tbsp. flour plus extra milk to mix
Bring a large saucepan of water plus salt to the boil and add in the macaroni and any vegetables, excluding the tomatoes. Simmer for fifteen minutes until cooked. While these are cooking, put 1pt milk into a wet saucepan and heat. At the same time, mix the flour and milk into a paste in a cup. As the milk comes to the boil, add the flour paste and whisk until the sauce boils and thickens. Add salt. Stir for two minutes until the flour is cooked. Turn off the heat. Add grated cheese to the sauce and stir until all the cheese is melted. Taste. Add more cheese if necessary. Strain the macaroni and vegetables when cooked. Mix with the cheese sauce and place in an enamel or glass serving dish or in individual bowls. Sprinkle grated cheese on the top of the dish together with halved small tomatoes. Place under a hot grill until the cheese melts and browns to your liking. Serve.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Frost Place and leaves

One of the aims of this holiday was to experience glorious autumn colours as we travelled along. There was very little change as we drove down into New York state until the road began to climb into the Adirondack mountains. Then came the yellows, golds and a touch of heart-stopping red.

We see very little red in our UK colours each year. Apparently it has more to do with the amount of sugars in the leaf rather than the species of tree, so the better the summer, the more reds will be seen. It does depend to some extent on the tree. Crampbark has beautiful red leaves in the autumn, yet is almost unknown as a UK tree. I was fascinated to learn that it is now included in new woods being planted with UK deciduous species, so hopefully soon we shall see the distinctive crimson trees begin to make their mark during September and October.

The tree everyone associates with red leaves is the maple. It is native to the American East Coast with long established harvests of spring sap to turn into maple syrup - a long and laborious process resulting in a scrumptious sugar treat.

One of my favourite Grandma Moses paintings is "Sugaring off". She is my inspiration for developing a new creative career when you are in your eighties. She started to paint when arthritis in her hands made quilting impossible. She finished her last painting, a beautiful rainbow, at the age of 101, a week before she died. I was very fortunate to see an exhibition of her paintings when I was in Portland, Oregon several years ago and was blown away by the beauty and vibrancy of her work.

We loved the colours and calm of the location of our hotel, The Woods Inn, which was situated on the shores of a mirror-lake surrounded by turning trees. We weren't appreciative of a complete lack of welcome when we arrived and having to walk up three long flights of stairs to find our room. Poor Jacce, who is arachnophobic, had a terrible time with the myriad of spiders inside and outside the hotel, but their verandah and view provided some compensation.

The following day we crossed from New York State to Vermont over Lake Champlain. Talking to the elderly lady manning the gift shop about the beautiful colours in the hills behind,

"You haven't seen anything until you see Vermont," she said.

Unfortunately, the trees in the Burlington valley had yet to change and the only thing of note was the wealth of fraternity and sorority houses we passed in the university town while waiting for rush hour traffic lights to change.

The following day it rained. Heavily. Driving through Vermont was not a pleasant experience until we stopped at a diner in Franconia, New Hampshire. Herb tea and a pleasant lunch made everything seem more bearable.

As Peter turned the car to pull back onto the freeway, I suddenly caught sight of a sign to The Frost Museum. My plaintive cry from the back seat to follow the sign was actually heard and we drove off in the opposite direction.

It seemed strange to find a museum in the middle of a winding road filled with ordinary houses and the house and barn we eventually stopped at was nondescript and humble except for the sign which said, "The Frost Place and Poetry Centre".

Robert Frost's poem, "Driving through the woods on a snowy evening" has always been a part of my life. I can't remember when I first read it - probably at school, when I read hundreds of poems. It's different now. I read few and write fewer.

The lady who welcomed me was lovely. Pete and Jacce stayed to watch a video of Robert Frost's life while Chris settled himself on the house porch capturing white wraiths of cloud wrapping themselves around the opposite mountains with his camera.

I toured the house. I knew nothing of the poet's life beforehand. I'd always thought him a Victorian Englishman - a lack of knowledge understandable since his success as a poet came from two years he spent in England, but now seeing his home and letters written in his own hand brought him that bit closer. Brought up by his widowed teacher mother and mostly homeschooled after his father's early death from TB, Frost wanted to farm, but ultimately gave himself up to a career as a poet.

The best part for me of the The Frost Place was the poetry walk - a quarter mile colour-strewn leaf path through trees with Frost's poems clearly printed every so often for the pilgrim to read and enjoy. He is an "easy" poet. His phrases talk of simple things painting clear, accessible pictures for the reader. We are given a window into his world - whether it is apple picking, haymaking or watching birch trees bend in a strong wind.

It was a wonderful visit - a place to feed the soul whilst others rested. I saw milkweed shedding seeds, ripe red raspberries on wild canes and wet,red apples glinting in the afternoon sunshine. I was so pleased we turned and followed the sign.

The Frost Place
Your woods I walked today
Red apples shimmering in the sun
Birch and fir tall sentinels
Maple and alder lining the ground with red and gold.

Fat raindrops fell glistening from branches
White stoles wrapped themselves around mountains
As we sat on your porch
Edged with purple aster
Four years of your life laid out within the modest home.

You found it too cold to grow
In dark, New Hampshire winters
Forty four acres not enough
To feed your growing family

You thought to farm
Bur your successful pen brought better fruit
Sat beside the fire
Writing of bending birch
Discarded apples on trees
Your arms and shoulders aching from their picking.

Yet you knew your fields
Sweet whispers of scythes
Penned for your posterity
You left the hay to make itself
Hopeful of summer's heat

As we stood
Grateful for sun,
A welcome respite from torrential rain
Allowing us to walk in your woods
Share in your works
Drinking the colours of fall
Amidst white mountains.

11.15am 3/10/11.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Colours through the mist

It seems strange a whole week has passed since I last posted. It feels like a lifetime. This time last Sunday we were happily visiting my Canadian cousins, catching up on nearly thirty years of news in a few hours. It was wonderful to realise I still held a place in their memories and photos, even though their children and grandchildren have never met me. The new generations drift further apart no matter how much we try to keep the threads of family together.

It was good to be back in Canada, even if time was painfully short. It felt like home. The sun was hot, the purple and blue New England Aster were a perfect counterpoint to the vibrant yellow of the goldenrod. It seemed fitting the latin name for goldenrod is solidigo canadensis - something our host didn't know. She saw her colourful bank as merely untamed weeds, including the wild grape vines which ran down to the creek. I didn't like to mention how they might support her chest in times of trouble while the grape leaves could give her food a Grecian feel.

There is something about the smell of Ontarion grapes which is quite unique. I have never found it elsewhere. Another cousin's husband had to leave early to tend to his harvest - making ready to produce the local wines the area now specialises in. Crops and harvests have changed since I lived with them. Then the grapes went to large wineries, now those have gone and locals make their own wines. Good ones too if our tastings that afternoon were anything to go by.

It felt wrong to pass by the offer of supper and more conversation, but as the light faded we drove along the Niagara River to watch the calm waters and marvel at the beautiful homes built along the shore line.

The following day we crossed over the border again to view Niagara Falls and experience them from the Maid in the Mist - or Smurfs in the Mist as Chris christened them, because of the blue ponchos everyone was given to wear.

Journeying close to the base of the waterfalls taught me so many different things. The sound of thunder which grows louder as you sit and listen to it. The overwhelming mist which envelops you as you get closer and closer to point of droplet fall. You can see, you cannot hear, you are immersed within the waterfall and there is nothing else. I have so much more to add to my River of Life story now the Falls have shown me part of their reality.

Niagara Falls the town was so different from how I remember previous visits. I don't think it was just the beautiful flowers and impressive night lights from the skyscrapers. Maybe it was the ability to take our time and sit and watch the water for however long we wished rather than trying to do everything there was to do. It was so good to come back and find everything better!

Afterwards we wended our way south along the Niagara Gorge, stopping to admire the whirlpool, having lunch at a farm stand, then experiencing the streets of Niagara on the Lake - my first visit, made all the more special by tea in pots which tasted as tea should!

Dinner that night was at the Seneca Casino - a fantastic buffet for $18 each and $9 from the slot machines to take away with us. The final visit of the evening was to experience the Falls from the American side. Few people, a barmy night and coloured lights shining across from a Canadian tower onto the Horseshoe torrents. It was breathtaking to be so close to the fast-flowing rapids and watch each droplet cascade over the edge. A perfect end to a wonderful day.