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Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Preserving problems – elderflower cordial gives me the runaround

I often write about preservation and regeneration. It’s a hot topic in Berwick. Some say we have the highest proportion of listed buildings in the country. Above ground our archaeology spans the centuries and beneath lie treasures so precious that you can’t lay foundations without calling on Tony Robinson’s ‘Time Team’. It’s a battle against the clock to capture heritage before it crumbles away.

Hopefully a Berwick building that's on the way up.

City Electrical Factors – a Berwick building that’s hopefully on the way up.

And Kwik Save - one that could do with a bit of tlc.

And Kwik Save – one that could do with a bit of tlc.

I have been waging my own quiet war with preserving since we moved to Berwick and our lives became a cross between ‘The Good Life’ (hens) and ‘Yes Minister’ (The Husband on the town council). Each summer I have eyed the abundant creamy elderflowers and said, ‘This year I will make use of those beauties.’ Each year the flowers drift off the trees like dandruff. And I say, ‘Next year.’

I recently reconnected with a friend whose aunt is the legendary Beryl Wood. BeryI’s book ‘Let’s Preserve It’ (Square Peg, 2011) was first published in 1970 and my friend has worked hard to get it back in print. The book’s Facebook page is all things chutney and preserves. I feel a bit of a fraud ‘liking’ all these things. I mean, I do like them, it’s just that I don’t do much of them – despite abundant produce and good intentions.

I’m not totally inept, just prone to procrastination. The first year we arrived in Berwick, our plum tree was laden. We ate as many as we could. When the plums were almost beyond the point of preserving, I had a night of the long knives. My fingers were blackened with stoning, sticky pans, sugar and labels decorated the kitchen. But, by morning, I had rows of mismatched jars brimful of jam, ketchup, and the little darlings dancing in brandy. Next time I’ll be more organised, I thought. However, no new jars have joined my now dwindling supply.

This year I determined to make elderflower and gooseberry cordial. However, when I finally went to collect my gooseberries, there was not a berry in sight. Blackbirds, apparently. I was deflated. Chatting with Jane Lovett, the cookery writer and demonstrator who lives near Wooler, I was regalvanised. ‘Come on Jackie,’ she said, ‘forget gooseberries. Elderflower cordial’s easy and delicious. All you need is 25 elderflower heads.’  So, armed with a copy of Jane’s book ‘Make it Easy’ (New Holland Publishers, 2012), I resolved to get on with it. The elderflowers were beginning to turn, so The Husband and I, plus scissors and plastic bag, made an evening raid on the banks of the Tweed and harvested the last decent flower heads.

Then I read the recipe. Citric acid. It was 10pm. I chucked the bag of flowers in the freezer, thinking I’d sort it all out the next day. What could go wrong? For a variety of reasons, citric acid’s not easy to source in Berwick. Fortunately, Ross in the Green Shop, sent me to the Brew House near Coldingham, a cornucopia of all things home brew, including citric acid.

And so, on a Sunday morning in late July, I was poised. A huge bowl of sugar, citric acid, lemon juice and boiling water stood ready to receive my flower heads. Sadly, as they defreeze, elderflowers turn a grim brown. Would there be 25 useable flower heads left to scavenge? Out came the scissors. On went the wellies. Up the nettly banks of the Tweed I scrambled. Yes! Clasping my bounty, I rushed back home to the steaming bowl and tipped the blighters in.

So, I’ve done it. And my conclusion? Like regenerating Berwick, preserving takes time, patience, and careful planning. It’s an investment: and the benefits range from satisfaction at getting the timings right, to enjoying tasty and nutritious delights during barren times. And next year, I’ll do it properly. Perhaps.

Jax's brew: Elderflower cordial at last!

Jax’s brew: Elderflower cordial at last!

This article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser in August 2013

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2 thoughts on “Preserving problems – elderflower cordial gives me the runaround

  1. I did laugh at your post! When I first moved up here I came over all Barbara Good as well and managed a dozen bottles of elderberry wine. It took three years for it to become drinkable and then a mere three months more to become fit for nothing but cleaning drains.

    But still, the satisfaction from foraging and preserving is wonderful. It makes you feel… virtuous? Unbearably smug? Or, rather, living how we should be living — seeing the world about us and what it quietly offers in no expectation of return.

    Chastity x

    • You are so right Chastity! All this living off the land is hard work. However, along with the elderflower cordial, this year has been a bit of a personal triumph. As my three peas, five beetroot and 12 courgettes testify. Hasta manana, hey? Keep your fingers green and your nose clean.
      Love Jax xxx

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