A birthday stompity-pootle

Last Sunday (the 18th) was my birthday. I must confess to getting a little less excited or, indeed, remotely enthusiastic about my birthdays, which seem to be coming around increasingly quickly, which is rather depressing considering I still feel about twenty four (mentally. My knees definitely feel my forty three years).

After a rather pleasant morning drinking decent coffee, demolishing bacon and black pudding croissants and opening my gifts from my little family (a set of three Kilner jars from the man, and a darling little crochet bunny kit from the boysters) we decided we ought to make the most of what was turning into a beautifully warm Autumn day and burn off some of the colossal carb-loading breakfast.

We are so lucky where we live. People consider the Central Belt of Scotland to be a busy, depressing, grim and built-up swathe of Scotland best driven straight through; but I consider where we live to be so convenient for so many beautiful and interesting places, from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to Edinburgh and the Southern Uplands, we’re not too far away to get somewhere wonderful relatively quickly.

We chose to go to New Lanark and the beautiful Falls of Clyde.

New Lanark

New Lanark is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a fascinating example of social history, both in terms of its importance in both the industrial revolution and urban planning, but also as an example of Robert Owen’s Utopian Socialism. It would hardly be Utopian by today’s standards of course, but it was a far cry from the crowded, unsanitary tenements or poorhouses of Glasgow. You can read a little more about Robert Owen and New Lanark on Wiki here.

Nowadays, of course, it is tourists and fancy weddings (there was a very fancy one happening whilst we were there) but the buildings are fascinating just to walk around and imagine how people must have lived when it was a successful working mill. I particularly love the cutsie little shop that sells all manner of (rather overpriced) curios – your old shabby chic advertising tins and Pears soap adverts, and reproduction vintage toys and hobby kits, but I am an absolute sucker for such things.

From New Lanark, there is an enchanting walk up to the Falls of Clyde. I couldn’t believe how low the water levels were after just a few weeks of glorious Autumn sunshine, and it made me think back to how high the Clyde was at the David Livingstone bridge at the height of ‘summer’. We came here a few years ago when the Falls were in spate, and it was absolutely staggeringly beautiful.

IMG_20151018_163415 (1)

Even today, though, the quality of the light and the amazing colours made it magical, particularly as it was so warm and the air still buzzed with insects and busy little birds.

IMG_20151018_203420

It’s not too far a walk to the end and back to the car (albeit up a pretty steep hill!) for a glamorous cold yesterday’s pizza picnic (aren’t they just the best?), just enough to whet one’s appetite for a swift birthday refreshment, so we headed off to Larkhall for a quick pint at the (apparently haunted) Applebank Inn where we sat outside in the mid-afternoon sunshine watching the children play in the park across the road. That pint of Peroni went down extremely well!

IMG_20151018_161748 (1)

There was even a geocache to be grabbed right next to the pub at the entrance to Morgan Glen, and Captain Calamity the blonde terror made short work of it too, having the tiny, pesky nano-cache in his grubby little paws within a matter of seconds. I have no doubts he will be cracking difficulty 5 puzzle caches by the time he is eight.

20151018_152051 (1)

Doesn’t he look awfully pleased with himself?

We returned home to a slap-up Sunday roast cooked by The Man which we all demolished without it hitting the sides, and a wonderful chocolate birthday cake.

Did I say I didn’t like birthdays? I take it all back. I had a very special day that I will remember forever, thank you to my lovely family for making it so.

Advertisements

More jammy business

So I promised you more ideas for jams, didn’t I?

One of the favourites in our house is Bramble and Elderberry. Like brambles, elderberries can’t easily be confused with anything else once you know what to look for:

ELDERBERRIES

(Photo by Stephen McKay, via Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to visit The Woodland Trust’s site and find out how to easily identify the elder (Sambucus nigra) common to the UK. Birds absolutely adore elderberries, so the usual rules apply about not stripping a shrub of its berries – that said, of course, there are usually plenty you can’t reach unless you are partial to romping through the countryside with a ladder.

We are very lucky and have a self-seeded elder in our front hedge, mixed in with the brambles and briar roses and spitefully thorny berberis. The berberis, naturally, provides a wonderfully spikey safe-zone for birds from the marauding local moggies and so our hedge is permanently full of the twitterings and chatterings of a multitude of sparrows that have decided to gather there like little feathered neds. They are an absolute delight to watch, but the downside is that they are rather partial to an elderberry of sixty, so stripped our tree before many of the berries even ripened properly. Undeterred, I pootled off to an underused path at the back of one of our local streets where I had spotted a fantastic cluster of elders a few months ago thinking ‘Ooh, how clever and cunning I am to have such a good back-up plan’ only to discover that the ever-so-helpful council had been along and cut all the low hanging branches. Bye bye reachable elderberries!

I have therefore given up on elderberries this year. However, if you do fancy giving them a go they can be easily worked into most recipes requiring dark berries. Some people find them an acquired taste – they can be almost sickly sweet and rich and, whilst adding a lovely extra dimension to berry jams, I wouldn’t make a 100% elderberry jam. I would, however, substitute up to a half of other berries, so in the Apple and Bramble jam recipe from last week, I have very successfully used 450g of apples, 300g of brambles and 150g of elderberries. I have made batches with and without spices, and both have been lovely. Equally, you could leave out the apple altogether and have a combination of brambles and elderberries – if this was the case, I would double the amount of lemon I was using to give it that zing that you would lose without the apples, and stop the jam tasting too sweet.

Elderberries are definitely, in my opinion, worth picking if you spot any. Cut off whole bunches of them, bring them home, plonk yourself in front of the TV / fire / sit on the back step in the sun and strip them off their stalks using a fork. It’s satisfying, though messy work (the juice does stain, so do be careful!). Weigh them, and pop them into a freezable tub or bag (it’s worth writing the weight down in permanent marker) and pop them in the freezer, they can be very handy for making up a shortfall of other fruit for jams, or even fruit puddings such as crumbles. Wash them thoroughly after they’ve defrosted before use.

Marrows are not something you would usually associate with jam, are they? You’ll be surprised how well they work as a preserve.

We grow courgettes every year. I always grow two plants – one as a standby in case one fails. Every year, we love courgettes for maybe the first fortnight of having fruit from them. As do our friends and neighbours and fellow gardeners. And then, well. You start running out of ideas for what on earth to do with courgettes. So what I do now is to allow some of mine to mature into larger fruits – i,e. grow from ikkle baby courgettes into big, beefy brutes of marrows. And then I make it into jam, and nothing could be easier.

20151014_152231

Here’s one we prepared earlier…actually, this is a squash of some description kindly donated by a fellow gardener but the method is exactly the same.

Basically, you skin and de-seed your marrow (you can dry out your seeds in the oven as you would pumpkin seeds and toss them in curry powder for a gorgeous treat if you are feeling particularly frugal) and remove the more fibrous, ‘stringy’ parts. Chop up what’s left into small chunks – you need a bit of patience for this, but you’re ideally aiming for wee chunks about 1-2cm square or thereabouts.

Weigh your marrow, make a note of the amount, and set aside.

You’ll need 20% more jam sugar than marrow (‘jam sugar’ will be better than ‘preserving sugar’, and far, far easier to use than normal sugar), so work out how much you’ll need and set that aside.

Now for the ginger – you have a choice here. I have used both powdered ginger and the sugary crystalised stem ginger and, to be honest, you couldn’t really tell much difference. Chopping the crystalised ginger down into tiny pieces is a fiddly, sticky and time-consuming job so in future I will just go for the powdered ginger, which is also considerably cheaper! With ginger, it’s one of those ‘personal taste’ things – if you really like ginger, wallop a load in. If you don’t like it so much, hold back. I usually add about four teaspoons to mine per 1kg of marrow.

You’ll also need the juice of 3 lemons (per 1kg of marrow, reduce amounts if using smaller marrows but don’t worry about being too precious about it – it’s experimental science, dudes!).

So all you do is whack in your marrow with a wee dod of water as you did your apples in the previous blog post, stir away until your head is spinning and the marrow is lovely and soft and breaks apart easily when prodded with the spoon; then add your ginger and lemon. Then add your sugar and make your jam exactly as we did last week. Obviously the same rules apply about sterilising your jam-jars and filling them as high as you can. Half filled jars of any jam should be fridged once cool and used as soon as you can – don’t worry, these jams will not hang around for long!

If you’ve enjoyed making jam and would like to experiment with different combinations and maybe even branch out into the wacky, crazy world of chutneys and pickles, I can highly recommend this book:

20151024_164130

Everybody needs at least one Marguerite Patten book in their life, I reckon, and this really is my bible. Except for her marrow and ginger jam recipe, which I completely ignored and made up my own. Marguerite really was a quite remarkable woman, there is a brief Wiki biog of her here and if you can track down the recording of her interview for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour a few years ago, it is really worth a listen.

EDITED TO ADD: I found the Marguerite Patten interview here on the BBC’s website. It really is wonderful.

I was going to tell you all about my delightful birthday pootle in the sunshine, but I think it deserves a post of its very own. Plus the light is rapidly fading and the clocks go back this evening (well, 2am tomorrow UK time) and I want to sit outside on the back step with my cuppa and gaze at the gorgeous, autumnal blue sky for as long as I can. Meh. Winter! (But again, that deserves a blog post of its own, and so it shall get one!).

Until next time, my lovelies xx

We’re jammin’!

Oh, come on! How could I resist a header like that?

Righty-ho, I get asked a lot about jam-making, as though I am some kind of expert. I’m by no means any kind of expert and I probably am guilty of over-cooking some of my jam but it still tastes lovely and is much, much more satisfying than anything you can buy in the shop (particularly if you usually just buy the cheapy value jam like we do. Because we are tightwads like that).

 

What you will need

A large, deep, heavy-based saucepan / jam pan. It really does need to be deep enough so the rapidly boiling jam doesn’t boil over. Stainless steel or aluminium pans are great. I just use my ‘big pan’ that I got about twelve years ago from Ikea for some princely sum of a fiver or something, it’s both my jam pan and the pan I use for making big batches of soup. I’ve only got a tiny kitchen with very little storage space, so if I can have one pan that does two jobs, that’s perfect!

Wooden spoon. For, you know, stirring. You will be doing a lot of stirring.

A sugar thermometer, if you’re fancy. If you’re not fancy, a clean saucer (or side plate) chilling in the fridge.

Something for pouring the jam into hot jars. I have tried ladles, funnels and all kinds of contraptions but now I find it easiest to just tip the hot jam into a heat-resistant kitchen jug and pour the jam into jars that way.

Jam jars. You can buy these from places like Lakeland and online; or you can do what I do and just save up your old jars. Old jam and marmalade jars are the best – avoid jars that held foods that smell strong (pickles, curry sauces etc) as they are nigh-on impossible to get the smell out of.

Waxed paper circles for the top of the jars, if you want. I’ll be perfectly honest here and say that I don’t bother with them but I do ensure that my lids fit very well and fill my jars up as high as I can.

Oven clock, stopwatch, wristwatch or something that can help you count minutes.

First steps

Put your saucer in the fridge to chill, if you’re not fancy enough to have a jam thermometer.

Thoroughly clean your jars in very hot water. You could put them through the dishwasher – I don’t have one of those newfangled contraptions so I have to do the ouchy-ouchy-ouch sink dance each time. Rinse thoroughly in hot water and either dry with a very clean tea-towel (ha! that mythical beast!) or allow to air dry.

You need to sterilise your jars and lids. Most people these days use their dishwashers, I believe, on the hottest setting. Being a pauper without such luxuries, I have to use the old-fashioned oven method. I double up a piece of greaseproof paper and place it on a baking sheet and then place my jars, right way up, on the tray. I pop them in a cool oven (only needs to be 100 degrees C or so) for about fifteen minutes. The lids I soak in boiling water. Don’t waste your electricity or gas by sterilising your jars until you’re half way through your jam making, there really is no point putting them in the oven until your fruit is soft and you are almost ready to add your sugar.

Sort out your fruit

For this post, I’m going to talk about the last batch of jam I made, which was Apple and Bramble with Cinnamon. I will give you some alternatives in my next post. I usually add Bramley apples because I have very kind friends who gift me their windfall apples for nothing, but this time I did actually drag myself down to a leading local supermarket where I bought some for £1 per kilo.

In addition to your fruit, you will also need

  • Jam sugar (you can use normal sugar, but I prefer jam sugar particularly when using things that are low in pectin like brambles, you’re pretty much guaranteed a set. Preserving sugar would probably have been OK given that Bramley (cooking) apples are higher in pectin, but hey. It was jam sugar I had in the cupboard so that’s what I used)
  • Lemon juice (freshly squeezed lemon juice is always nice, bottles of Jif are also perfectly acceptable!)
  • You’ll notice that I used cinnamon. I just use the ground stuff, for ease. You could use mixed spices instead of pure cinnamon, or you could just leave the spices out altogether, it still tastes lovely.

Ready? Let’s cook!

20151014_102307

Weigh/measure out the following and set aside:

900g of fruit – in this recipe I used 450g each of brambles and Bramley apples. The apples are peeled, cored and cut down into small pieces.

900g sugar (as mentioned, I used Whitworths Jam Sugar)

2 tablespoons of water

Juice of one lemon (or equivalent if using bottled juice. It’s not an exact science, I just put about 1.5 tablespoons in. I’m crazy that way.)

Spices, if using (ground spices are easier than fishing about for muslin bags or fishing bits of twigs out of hot jam). Again, it’s not an exact science and it’s fun to experiment so don’t be too precious about precise measurements.

This will make about 3.5 normal-sized (454g or thereabouts) jars of jam. I always sterilise more jars than I need and try and have a variety of sizes.

Here goes!

20151014_103139

Set your hob to a medium setting just to get it started off. If you have an Aga, swear at it a bit, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Add your apples and the water, once it is cooking away nicely wallop that bad boy hob down to its lowest setting.

(If you’re not using apples, just whack all your fruit in at this point)

Stir. For ages. The trick for the best taste is to cook the fruit as slowly as possible so the fruit gradually softens and the flavours really come out. This isn’t a job you can rush.

I hired a slave-child for this particular task, I can highly recommend it. Obviously, you will need to conduct a health and safety briefing before plonking child-slave on chair, and do not leave child-slave unattended.

20151014_103511 (1)

After a while, the apples will start to break down nicely into a very satisfying mush. Keep stirring to make sure they don’t start to catch and burn on the bottom of the pan.

20151014_103324

At the point where the apples break up easily when jabbed with the wooden spoon, you can add your berries and your spices (if using). This is a good time to pop your jars into the oven to sterilise, if you’re doing things the old-fashioned way. Don’t forget to soak your lids in boiling water as well.

Continue to give words of encouragement to child-slave, if using, by bribing with blackberry crumble and muffins.

20151014_103121

Reward yourself with a cuppa.

20151014_112841 20151014_114050 (1)

Eventually, with constant stirring, the fruit will turn into a delightful reddish-purple mush like something from a zombie film and the fruit will have broken down into pieces small enough for jam. Some people like bigger chunks of fruit, some like smaller so just keep stirring and nagging and moithering the fruit with your wooden spoon until they get to the right size. Or, like me, you can cheat and speed this process up a bit by attacking it with a potato masher. I can practically hear Marguerite Patten spinning in her grave but hey, it works.

Once the fruit is the consistency you want, add your lemon juice and stir well.

This is where things get interesting, and sometimes a bit scary….dum-dum-duuuuuuuuuuuum!

Now it’s time to add the sugar. It is REALLY important that you pay attention to this bit. This bit isn’t really suitable for child-slaves, who should now be sent off to play Minecraft or stoat about the neighbourhood with NERF guns or something.

Only add the sugar when you are 100% sure that your fruit is soft and small enough for you. Once you add the sugar, the fruit will no longer soften.

With the heat still on its LOWEST setting, add the sugar, all in one go. Stir well. Keep stirring until all the sugar is dissolved (you’ll be able to hear it, undissolved sugar sort of scratches and grates as you stir it). Pay attention to the sides of the pan too.

Once you are sure that all your sugar has dissolved, remove your wooden spoon and whack the heat right up. This really is the test of your mettle right here! As the jam starts to rapidly boil you are going to want to stir it to stop it catching and burning on the bottom of the pan, but you must try and resist any more than the most cursory stir. Stirring lowers the temperature of the jam and delays the setting point but I do appreciate that you don’t want it to burn, so give a wee stir if you think it might be starting to catch.

All jams will reach a setting point at different times. If you use a jam thermometer it’s all fairly straightforward and you can big up your own bad self. If you use the wrinkle-test saucer method, you’ll need to check your jam regularly after it has been boiling for around 3 minutes.

After three minutes, remove the jam from the heat.

Use a teaspoon to grab some jam and drop a dod of it onto your cold saucer. Wait a moment, then use your index finger to lightly touch the jam and look to see if it wrinkles. If it does, that’s you done. If it doesn’t, then return your pan to the heat and continue to rapid boil. Repeat every minute until your test wrinkles – don’t forget to remove your jam from the heat every time you test. You don’t want to accidentally miss the setting point, or you’ll never get your jam to set properly. 

Once you have your jam at setting point, give it a good final stir and pour it into a heatproof kitchen jug, being careful not to splash. Because, my god, hot jam is painful.

Grab your jars, drain your lids. Carefully pour the jam into each hot jar right to the top just before it narrows for the lid. Put lid on tightly as soon as you possibly can. TAKE CARE! Jars, lids AND jam are all hot! (I can’t say this enough, because without fail I forget and try to pick up a red hot jar). If you end up with half a jar, don’t worry, it’ll be fine in the fridge and be demolished before it can spoil.

Let the jars cool and wait for that delightful sound of the lids popping as the jam cools. Once cool, wipe any jam spills with a clean sponge and hot water, label with ingredients and date, and store in a cool, dark place.

Slap yourself on the back for being an awesome jam-maker, and tackle the washing up. Or load the dishwasher, if you’re all fancy-like.

The next post will share some of my favourite preserving recipes.

We’re going on a bramble hunt…

 

So, it’s been a marvellously mumsy week in Pootle Towers thanks to October Week. I’m one of those mums who genuinely loves the children being off school and although I’m somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to TV and video game / YouTube time (I confess completely to an ‘anything for a quiet life’ philosophy) I do ensure that they don’t gawp at screens all day long and we do love our long walks or just hanging out together talking. (They usually like to quiz me on what life was like in ‘the olden days’, making me feel less funky mum and more dusty old relic they can’t wait to put out to pasture, thanks kids…)

As I mentioned yesterday, we have had some beautiful sunshine these past few days and an abundance of delicious brambles (or blackberries, as they are more commonly known south of the border) so we grabbed the wooden trug and some ice-cream tubs, donned some old clothes and off we went.

foragingforagingforbramblesandblackberries_1285249768

For anyone who hasn’t been brambling before, rest assured that there is nothing else out there that could be mistaken for a bramble – look for the fruits surrounded by branches of demonic thorns. As with all things, though, don’t pick anything you’re not absolutely sure about.

A couple of tips

  • Pick away from busy roads where plants may have been affected by pollution and/or roadside herbicides.
  • Don’t court trouble by picking fruit from private land unless you have permission
  • Always pick fruit that is higher than a dog’s bottom (for obvious reasons!)
  • Don’t completely strip an area of berries. We are not the wartime W.I, and brambles are a valuable food source for birds and animals. It’s much better to share.
  • Use a box, tub or basket to collect your brambles rather than a carrier bag. Bags have a tendency to crush the fruit.

When you get home, pick through your treasure discarding any that are past their prime (they start to discolour and/or get ‘mouldy’ patches), leaves and stems that sometimes sneak in (particularly when you have enthusiastic children).

Clean the berries by rinsing well in cold running water and then submerging the fruit in a large bowl of water for a wee while – this will bring any hidden baddies to the surface that you can skim off. Freeze them immediately if you are not using them within 24 hours because they spoil very, very quickly – many publications talk about freezing them on a tray so they don’t touch each other, but that is hardly practical for most people. I just bung mine in an ice-cream tub and I’ve never had any problems at all. Defrost thoroughly before use.

In the next post I’m going to thrill you all with a step-by-step guide to making your own jam, slapdash style!

20150925_093828

Meep! It’s that first post time!

**Shuffle on shyly, stage left; clear throat, go scarlet**

Here it is, then. The first post on this ‘ere new blog. What to write that doesn’t make me sound like a complete dunderhead?

blog101

Well, it is Autumn. We have had some gloriously bright sunshine to herald October Week holidays rather than the usual wet gloominess, and so the boys and I have made the most of being outdoors as much as possible and we have enjoyed pootling in both the community garden and further afield around the gorgeous woods on the banks of the Clyde here where we have been busy brambling, bird watching and mini-beast hunting.

20151013_14102120151013_13553020151012_125455blog100

September is usually jam-making season in this house, but I fancy the season – though it has been gloriously abundant with brambles – is later than usual so I didn’t have my usual stock of preserves ready in time for our garden open days for the Bothwell Scarecrow Festival . I apologise to those of you who came to the garden looking for my (apparently now famous!) marrow and ginger jam – the truth is that I had only had teeny tiny courgettes on the one plant, and absolutely nothing on my other plant until (typically!) the week after the festival.

To make up for it, I will share my marrow and ginger jam recipe with you (along with a few more of my favourites). Marrows are absolutely the easiest things in the world to grow, too, once you get them started, and can be grown perfectly in pots in the smallest garden or even in a porch or on a balcony, so you could even grow your own marrow for that super-personal touch! Obviously it’s a bit late to be growing marrows at this time of year, but if you have any vegetable growing friends you may find that they have a glut that they are only too happy to get rid of; and I understand that this particular jam is just as nice made with pumpkin, and I’m sure that many of you will have plenty of that to use soon!

So there – I have thrown my hat in to the ring by making promises, and I promise to get my first ‘instructional’ blog post on easy-peasy jam making done tomorrow. There, that’s better.

I work better under pressure. 😀