Blackthorn Flower Syrup

We had a good weather day a couple of days ago and I thought “Spring is here!” I love to see the Blossom out, I feel winter has finally been banished. So with Spring on my mind and a spring in my step (sorry, couldn’t resist it) I ventured forth.

I’ve seen lots of blossom on the trees and normally one of the first blossom we see is from the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). This year with winter being so mild everything seems to be running ahead of nature’s schedule, because of this I was worried that I’d missed the Blackthorn. When I got out to one of my favourite patches of it I discovered that it was one of the few blossoms NOT out! Now I’m wondering why; does Blackthorn go on daylight hours rather that temperature? Do the others (Wild and Bird Cherries) go on temperature? Answers welcome…

Blackthorn001        Blackthorn flowers

One of the many reasons I feel attracted to the Blackthorn is the smell of the flowers…it subtle, like the delicate flowers themselves. It is light, sweet, with hints of almonds.

I managed to collect about 3 cups worth of Blackthorn flowers. They are quite different from the Bird Cherry blossom that was next to them. The Cherry blossom is almost twice the size and white with a very pale pink hint, while the blackthorn flowers are half the size, and more of a cream colour. The Cherry flowers dangle from stalks like the fruit will later in the year, while the Blackthorn flowers are densely clustered and close to the twigs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABird Cherry on the left, blackthorn’s smaller flowers on the right.

Picking blossom is a time consuming affair. I’m looking for blossom that has plenty of pollen, and not been either wind blasted or all the goodness taken by early insects. I also try to leave blossom for the bees, as they’re hungry this time of year, and I don’t want to take too much from one plant as that will mean that I may get a shortage of Sloes later in the year.

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Once I got home I made a slow warm infusion with the blossom. I put the flowers in a pan of water. I should have measured it but working backwards it was probably about 750ml. I brought it up in temperature but didn’t let it reach a simmer. I feel that too harsh a heat brings out too much bitterness in the plant material. I wanted to keep the flavour as light and fresh as possible. I kept the flowers heating in the water for at least 15 mins, probably a bit longer.

The flowers were strained out, the fluid measured – now about 500ml. The general rule of thumb is equal amounts of sugar to liquid, so I added 500g of white granulated sugar to the infusion. I chose plain sugar as I wanted the colour to be as light as possible and the flavour to be as close to the smell of the flowers as possible.

The hard thing for me in syrup making is not to stir! I’m a natural stirrer ( remembering many family arguments, my mother would surely agree!). The danger with stirring is that grains of sugar migrate up the sides of the pot, so that when pouring out your finished syrup, you run the risk of adding the sugar crystals into your new syrup in the container, thus giving the perfect conditions for growing large crystals. This is apparently frowned upon, personally, I think it looks cool.

To prevent any sugar crystals being deposited on the sides of the pot I put the sugar in via a funnel so it  just sat there on the bottom of the pan perfectly behaved. I said ‘pot’ then ‘pan’, is there a difference?

I heated up the liquid till the sugar dissolved then brought the infusion to a boil, reduced to a simmer and kept it at that for about 15 mins, or until it thickens up. I’m sure thermometers are meant to come into it but I’ve never really bothered.

The still hot syrup (so be careful) is then poured via a funnel into a sterilised bottle or flask. You can boil the container for about 15 mins as I did, or put it into the oven at around 120 C for 10-12 mins. Just make sure that your cap or top won’t melt in the oven, they are often best boiled separately. Another word of warning, make sure you let your  sterilised container cool a bit before trying to handle it or pour into it! No burning of hands or melting of plastic funnels, please!

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You should end up with a lovely golden and pleasantly almondy smelling and tasting syrup. This can used as a cordial, used over ice cream or pancakes, or added to sorbets, cakes, or hopefully, made into a filling for a spring chocolate! I have plans to make a Blackthorn flower cold infused cream, to make into the ganache and use the syrup as part of the sugar component for a filling for choccies, nom nom nom.

Happy foraging and creating.

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Fermentation class with Russell James and Amy Levin

The day after my raw chocolate course with Amy (https://hedgetables.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/raw-chocolate-course-with-amy-levin/) I had a class on fermentation. This was held in the same place; in the lovely, light filled kitchen cum studio of Russell James.

Now I’ve never had much luck with yeasts and fermenting – be that from a bread or alcohol producing point of view, but looking into the raw food phenomenon and it’s health benefits I was seeing articles on Kombuchu and Kefir all over the place. I’d had some difficulty in imagining the taste so it was hard to know if I wanted to make it. The course also encompassed lacto-fermentation. A lot of foragers know of this and it had also been highly recommended in various books as a method of preserving seasonal greens,lacto-fermentation is more commonly known as the method for producing Sauerkraut. So, definitely wanting to know about the Sauerkraut method and curious about a couple of other things that the course was offering, and not wanting to go to London for just one day, the decisions to go the fermentation class was a pretty easy one.

The day was started with James going into the benefits of making nut cheeses. Nut cheese I thought, I’d barely heard of them… wonderful things. Not as bland as I thought they’d be as nutritional yeast is added for flavour along with any spices, dried or fresh herb you want. They take only a couple of days to make – and that is due to overnight soaking first, then after blitzing in the, you guessed it – the Vitamix (getting one for sure! ), there is the process  of pressing the nut pulp to get excess water out; which takes several hours.

There is no waste – the water and ‘milk’ that is pressed out – effectively the curds and whey, is bulging with healthy bacterial cultures from the probiotic powder that was added to the nuts when they were blitzed in the blender. This curds and whey can be added to smoothies and drinks, or used to start another culture of cheese.

The almond cheese is particularly good, in that it can be aged to give a cheese that is genuinely tasty and can be cut like cheese, unlike the others, like macadamia, that make a soft cheese that is best made and eaten frequently.

The cheese can be used for sweet as well as savoury, as James proved with a wonderful, coffee, maple and vanilla almond nut cheesecake, needless to say it was deemed likely to get damaged in transit and had to be disposed of immediately :-), sorry HH – just have to make another one now…

Kimchi was not something I’d even heard of, but loved when I tasted it – a hot, tingly, zesty dush made from sturdy vegetables coming from Korea, so lots of chillis can be added.

We tackled the weird fungal bacterial hybrids that makes Kombuchu and Kefirs and got to sample lots. Amazing the differences that the second fermentation makes. You can add herbal and floral infusion, spices and all sorts here to make really flavourful, refreshing drinks.  We not only got to taste lots of variations but got to take samples of the cultures and ‘mothers’ home with us. Lots of practicing to be had…

IMG_3954  Kombuchu ‘scoby’ – the bacterial/ yeast symbiote floating in black tea and sugar mix to ‘feed’ it.

IMG_3957  the kefir grains that grow in water with sugar medium. They feel quite firm and gelatinous.

The lunch provided was flavourful and healthy. We were given a tasty raw salad and cumin-y dressing with a variety of the chutneys, cheeses, krauts and salsas that were also to make that day.

I left the class fizzing with kefir juices, excitement and new ideas. Thanks you James and Amy for an enlightening and tasty day.

Raw Chocolate course with Amy Levin

Whew! just back from a great but intensive weekend in London.

I follow ‘Oosha’ ( ooosha.co.uk/‎) and had seen that they run courses as well as post good things about raw chocolate, so it was a no-brainer for me, I had to go.

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Going was the hard part. I’m reluctant to say ‘never’ ; as in “I’ll never do this again”- but I’ll have to (a) think long and hard, or (b)be desperate, or (c) have given enough time for me to forget the experience of going down via the night coach. The night coach has the appearance of being great value for money compared to the £250 quoted for the sleeper train, and when I heard it had actual beds not just recliners I thought “that’s the biz!” Hmm.

Several points to bear in mind – brush your teeth before you get on, – don’t go for a bottom bunk if you’re the slightest bit claustrophobic, go for a single bed side, not the double as you’re stuck there (unless on you’re on VERY good friends with the person on the aisle side), practise a very low limbo so you can get out from under the hammock above and above all leave something trailing that you can recognise by feel if you leave your coffin, sorry, bed, to go to the toilet, as you could get cosy getting back into a wrong bunk….

Let’s put it this way, after the course (finishing around 3.30-4) and realising I had 7 hrs to kill before bracing myself for the return trip on the night coach, it didn’t take  much persuasion after HH provided the information that there was a regular train leaving around 6pm from King’s Cross, to find myself reduced in cash but in a happier frame of mind and body and settled in a train carriage by 6.15!

Anyway, back to raw chocolate. I’ve had a couple of requests for them and after having tasted some wonderful spiced raw chocolate fudge that Alison Mountain had provided on the fabby textile courses over at Hat in the Cat and their Big Cat textile centre (textilecentre.co.uk  -go check them out if you’re at all creative, they host paper making, book making, dyeing, sewing, felting, painting etc classes with teachers that are excellent, from all over the world) I really wanted to try my hand at raw chocs. My attempts from books have been tasty but not entirely successful as I couldn’t get the textures and temper right for them.

Amy Levin of Oosha quickly sorted some of my issues out. Use powdered sweeteners such as xylitol, not the big crystal grains I’d used, or indeed the liquid sweeteners like Yacon syrup (doh! – fats and water don’t mix!) Use a Vitamix blender to do the powdering of ingredients prior to making the choc. Make choc in said Vitamix, temper in said Vitamix, note a theme here, guess what I’ll be getting soon 🙂             https://www.vitamix.co.uk/

We used silicon moulds mainly but Amy showed the class the polycarbonate ones that I’m used to using.

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Natural colours are used such as beetroot powder for reds and pinks, spirulina for green and Turmeric for yellow.

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While I’m used to using essential oils, we also used Medicine flower essences and extracts (http://www.medicineflower.com/flavorextracts.html) which were strong, fresh and zingy, and apart from the usual fruit flavours had coffee, caramel, butterscotch and other moreish flavours.

Textures were added with nuts – preferably soaked then dehydrated, this makes them more digestible and changes their consistency, dried fruits ( some of which can be soaked in alcohol then dehydrated – hmm, food for thought there!), buckwheat, all sorts really.

The finished chocolates had the snap of tempered chocolate on the outside which was great as I’d not got that before on my own. I’m still adjusting to raw chocolate as opposed to my usual ones, so I find the coconut oil that is often present leaves a different, lingering after feel in the mouth, though I could see that it was still be easy to infuse flower/ spice/ plant flavours in the coconut that would carry into the finished filled chocolate.

While there wasn’t as much hands on as I would like; this was understandable due to the expensive nature of the blender, and there was a wealth of information, a good handout backed up with the e book by email when I got back from the course and the invitation to join the facegroup page of people who have done the course this time and previously – which helps in troubleshooting and sharing information. All in all a good time was had – with the added bonus of taking chocs away for later!

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There is a nice wee park around the corner to walk in during lunch break; lunch was a wonderfully tasty raw salad with buckwheat crackers. The park hosted a windmill!

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