The Rhubarb season is upon us and I for one rejoice to eat the first fruit or vegetable of the season.
I love Rhubarb it takes me back to my childhood of pink Rhubarb pies and tart crumbles, yum. As a vegetable or a fruit and there is quite a debate on that topic, it’s been seriously out of fashion for a number of years, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence with trendy TV cooks reintroducing it to the nation’s palates. In fact Rhubarb can be hard to get hold of, when researching this post I found that Tesco supermarket were offering none for sale and Ocado the Waitrose’s online brand were offering Rhubarb at a whooping £7.50 a kilo no wonder they are keen to sell it!
I don’t think my Mum was paying the equivalent of £7.50 a kilo back in the day, the truth was that we had loads of rhubarb because as any rhubarb grower knows if you have a plant you have a glut, so any friends with a garden or an allotment would drop some off.
Rhubarb has a long history even it’s name is of note, Rhu refers to the river Rha the Roman name for the Volga right on the eastern edge of the Roman empire where wild Rhubarb grows on the banks. Barb refers to the barbarians on the edge of the empire, therefore ‘the plant of the barbarians’.
References to Rhubarb as a medicine go back thousands of years in Chinese history, where it was taken as a laxative amongst other uses. Rhubarb was imported along the silk road in the 14th century and was on par with silks and jewels. A Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo’s report of his embassy in 1403-05 to Timur in Samarkand: “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”
£50 worth of Rhubarb!
Rhubarb became popular in the 17th Century when sugar became affordable and consumption reached it’d peak between the wars. A relic of these times hangs on in the famous Yorkshire triangle of Wakefield, Leeds, and Morley, all flat caps and whippets where forced rhubarb is harvested by candlelight in huge forcing sheds. I force my rhubarb but I don’t have a forcing shed or a whippet but I do have several rather fetching flat caps, I just use an old inverted black water butt. I picked the first crop this weekend, hence this post. As you can see from the photo at Ocado’s prices I picked about £50 worth!
The one problem with Rhubarb is getting young people to eat it, in a corn syrup world they find even the taste of even the sweeter pink stalks too tart. At best I get a begrudging push around the plate until they decide that they are full and they raid the fridge for a proper pudding after a semi-respectable pause.
In fact rhubarb is so part of UK culture the very wonderful Eric Sykes filmed Rhubarb, a short film in which the only word spoken was rhubarb. Then he remade it years later as Rhubarb Rhubarb, here’s a link to the film here. Enjoy.
If that is not enough there was the 1970′s tea time joy of Roobarb and Custard one of the best children’s programmes ever made a youtube link to an episode is here. Enjoy again.
As this is a food blog I should write about the culinary uses of rhubarb and if I can get organised I will write some follow up posts on this theme. To start off we can remember that the simplest way of eating rhubarb is to dip tender young shoots in sugar something commonly given to children over the years. Some people believe you shouldn’t do this because rhubarb is poisonous uncooked because it contains Oxalic acid which is destroyed when cooked. This is correct but you would need to eat over 5 kilo’s of uncooked rhubarb at a sitting to cause any harm which is an unlikely event.
Here’s a simple and slightly unusual recipe for Rhubarb Schnapps
- 1 Kilo Rhubarb cut into 2/3 cm lengths
- 300 grams sugar
- 1 bottle of vodka (as cheap as you like)
Put all the ingredients into an old sweet jar or similar and stir daily until the sugar is dissolved. Ready to drink after 4 weeks. You can serve your Schnapps straight from the jar or decant into a bottle. It has a lovely colour and is delicious served chilled.
I am thinking about popping in some Orange peel in my next batch as orange and Rhubarb are good partners, I’ll give it a go, I’ve got loads of Rhubarb!
Lily Bollinger 1899 – 1977
“I only drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.
When I have company I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I’m not in a hurry and drink it when I am, otherwise I never touch the stuff unless I am thirsty”.
I don’t run to Bollinger champagne, or any champagne for that matter, I am supposed to be the Frugal Gourmet! A nice Cremant Bourgogne same grapes, same method, slightly different place and a fraction of the price; or even more affordably cheap fizzy generic wine 2 Euro a bottle and a dash of home made fruit sirop to make a Kir Royale. Lovely and very affordable
Hello, Sandra here again for a guest spot. It’s been ages since I blogged and a lot has happened in the meantime. One major change is that Jim and I are now spending lots of time in Kent, it does have some drawbacks (e.g it’s not France!) but we are lucky enough to be on the very edge of some beautiful countryside and I’ve been going out walking every day (mostly) spotting lots of lovely free bounty as I go.
A couple of weeks ago, taking full advantage of some late summer sunshine,I went out armed with a backpack, secateurs, gloves and my Mum and her friend, Cherrill (left). We were a sociable little group of three but it’s quite amazing how many people stop on those windy country lanes, to ask what you’re picking. Some are just intrigued; others have foraging tales to share. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours.
Messing about in the kitchen is one of my favourite things so two days later, I treated myself as it also happened to be my birthday, and set about transforming my harvest into yummy things to eat and drink. Mum helped me strip elderberries, prick sloes and chop rosehips all jobs which can be tedious and time consuming but we chatted and she told me tales of jam making in her mother’s kitchen (I know it’s now starting to sound very sugary but on this occasion I’m not going to apologise, it was my birthday after all!)
For me, one of the pleasures of cooking is the anticipation, reading recipes and planning. There are some great food blogs out there (including yours of course, Colin.) Whilst searching for recipes I found myself wandering along the Folsom Way down by the American River where one such happy blogger found his elderberries. Now I have never been there but I could just imagine it. And then of course Johnny Cash popped into my head to provide the soundtrack to my little adventure. Who ever knew how exciting foraging could be!
Several hours later I had sloes steeping in gin, elderberry cordial, rosehip syrup and four blackberry and apple pies, one to eat straightway, the rest for the freezer.
The recipe for sloe gin is dead easy and can be found at
The only thing I would say, is double the amounts given; it is so delicious and makes fab Christmas presents – if you can bear to give it away. Most people drink sloe gin as a liqueur but I like mine as an aperitif, long, with tonic and ice.
Blackberry and apple pie, you’ll have your own favourite recipe so I won’t go into one here only to say that I add an egg to my shortcrust pastry to make it that bit richer and I favour the deep-fill option. It looks so impressive and you get so much more of those lovely autumn fruits.
Elderberry cordial….hmmm. It’s the first time I’ve made it and I have to say I’m not convinced. So far I’ve only tried it as a soft drink, I haven’t yet got round to drizzling over pancakes or the like but I am disappointed, particularly as the elderflower is one of my absolute favourites. The jury is out on that one.
Rose bush laden with hips
Finally to the rosehips. For the recipe I turned to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and although I made it slightly differently to him, the end results are amazing. The syrup looks beautiful and has the most amazing subtle but distinctive flowery/fruity taste. I’m planning on jealously guarding the syrup until December when I shall transform it into a sorbet – literally just pour the syrup into an ice cream maker and churn – and we’ll savour it between courses on Christmas Day.
Rosehip Syrup Recipe
1 Kg Rosehips
1 Kg Castor Sugar
Wash and chop the rosehips (after battling with a knife and chopping board, I threw mine into a food processor and pulsed until they were randomly chopped, much easier).
Bring 2 litres of water to boil in a large pan, throw in the rosehips and bring back to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for an hour. Strain the rosehips through muslin or a clean cloth, squeezing out as much flavour as you can. Reserve the liquid.
Transfer the rosehip pulp back to the pan with another litre of water and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse overnight. Strain the rosehips as above. Add the liquid to your reserved amount and discard the pulp.
Bring the liquid to the boil and continue boiling until it has reduced by half. Add the sugar, stir until dissolved and boil hard for 5 minutes. Bottle into sterilised jars or bottles.
Coming up soon: Damsons and Retro Puds!
My good friend and neighbour in the Touraine, The Frugal Gourmet, has invited me to make the occasional guest contribution to his blog. We share a passion for yummy food and frequently swap notes, recipes, meals, produce etc. It’s a great honour, thank you Colin.
In the spirit of the blog and its frugal focus what better than an aperitif which is local to the area, and features, as a principle ingredient, free food!
L’epine is an aperitif and as far as I am aware is unique to the Touraine-Poitou. Mention it to any of the locals and they will invariably start swooning with pleasure at the mere thought of it. Once a respectable period of reverential praise has been heaped upon the unsurpassed qualities of drinking l’epine the conversation will move swiftly to the recipe. This year, assisted by my husband, Jim and a French friend keen to share his knowledge and enthusiasm I decided to make my own.
The principle ingredients are universally agreed: cheap wine, eau de vie, sugar and l’epine (known to us as blackthorn). Also undisputed is when to pick the blackthorn. There are only about 2 or 3 weeks in May, when the stems of the blackthorn smell and taste of almonds and it is this which gives L’epine its unique, almost marzipan – like taste. Locations where the blackthorn grows are jealously guarded and it’s a race to get there first and bag the best pickings.
And this is where agreement ends, after that the variations are endless. You can use either white, red or rose wine – they all give quite different results. We conducted a survey of some French friends each of whom was adamant that their preference was the right one. The quantity of sugar varies depending on taste and that’s before we even start with the eau de vie. Then there is the number of days you leave it to infuse, the length of time maturing in the bottle……..
For the uninitiated, eau de vie is a clear brandy made with fruits, most commonly pear, plum, cherry or raspberry. It translates quite literally into ‘water of life’ the same linguistic origins as whisky. Historically every French household had the right to distil the fruits grown themselves up to a maximum of 10 litres. Unsurprisingly it was a huge cottage industry.
In 1952 the government of the day (who either wanted to preserve the livers of the nation or to make money from tax revenues, whichever version you choose to believe), changed the law. The right to make eau de vie no longer passed from father to son. Anyone with an existing right, passed it to their widow (if she survived her husband) after which the right died with her. A quick mathematical calculation then, anyone still making eau de vie today has to be aged 77 or older, assuming they were 18 and legally able to make it in 1952. Hmmm, that doesn’t quite tally with my experience but I’m saying nothing more, except that local lore suggests that a good number of octogenarians who were happily making eau de vie in 1952 are still alive and kicking today, their descendants never needing to register a death.
We could have course have bought eau de vie in the supermarket but it was much more fun to visit a jolly (and very, very, very, very old, at least 130 year old) farmer who was more than happy to let us sample his wares before we settled on the pear flavour. 1.25 litres in a plastic water bottle for a bargain 10 Euro’s.
This is how I made mine.
500g of blackthorn picked from the hedgerows near our house
5L White wine (I used Muscadet from a box)
1L Eau de Vie de Poire
- Mix the eau de vie with the sugar in a large, clean plastic bucket until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the wine and stir thoroughly
- Add the blackthorn and mix again
- Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a cool airy place
- Stir once a day for 15 days
- Taste every so often and add a bit more sugar if you want it sweeter
- Strain through muslin and bottle
- Store in a cool, dark place
- Leave for as long as you can (I shall probably open the first bottle at Christmas)
l’epine gathered from the verge-side
you need a lot of l’epine!
l’eping (blackthorne shoots)
See you again soon,
One of the presents I didn’t get at Christmas is in the photograph below. I am pleased not to get such a present as possessing it is unfortunately illegal, and if I was to receive such a present I would dispose of it quickly.
This is not a bottle of home distilled Eau de Vie
I am talking about homemade Eau de Vie or ‘Water of Life’ , the photo is of a small bottle of 10 year old Poire Eau de Vie, with age the drink takes on a golden hue, the taste mellows and becomes full, smooth and complex. Young Eau de Vie is as clear as water and has an assertive taste like pear drops, astringent, powerful and capable of animating a near corpse with a single gulp.
A little while ago my eldest son didn’t bring a bottle back from a teen drinks party that was so rough and ready that even a room of teenagers ‘going for it’ thought that discretion was the better part of valour and left the bottle well alone except for a small exploratory sip. If I had a bottle like that I would have tried in an act of bravado to drink and even enjoy the contents, but what would happen in reality is that after a spluttering glass it would be consigned to the back of the drinks cabinet where eventually my partner would use it as a degreaser for cleaning windows!
Allegedly the illegal production of various forms of Eau de Vie is quite common in rural France though I know nothing about it. People have been known to produce for family and friends a full range of Eau de Vie’s such as pear, apple, plum, and cherry and I have even heard of the production of Pastis a powerfully alcoholic aperitif from Provence. I have never tried such concoctions, but if I did I would drink with interest and with respect for the long tradition of home distilling.
The tradition of home distilling has strong routes in French rural society, until 1952, households had the right to distil the fruits of their own production, or wild plants from the countryside, tax-free up to a limit of ten litres (2.6 gallons) of pure alcohol. Travelling distillery would tour around rural communities so that local people had access to the specialist kit for a reasonable fee. Then the law changed: anyone who had distilled in 1952 or earlier retained the tax-free privilege; their heirs and all newcomers could still make their eau-de-vie, but were taxed from the first drop.
Oh well that’s progress I suppose but sometimes I think there’s something to be said for the old way of doing things.
I’m ill, Not man flu, it has got to rate as at least a mild cold or le rhume as they would say here in France. I had to pop out to get the bread order earlier today the serveuse enquired after my well being ‘comment ca va bien’ and I mentioned that I was fine apart from a ‘petit rhume’. She commiserated but pointed out that if I went on holiday to Angleterre what would you expect! Fair enough I suppose.
Discussing one’s health in France is entirely normal, it is the only country in the world that suffers from heavy legs, ‘Jambe Lourd’ that affects up to 20 million people! The French are justly proud of their medical system, but it costs a fortune and people are understandably keen to get something out.
Anyway I had to get up and at it, because any suggestion that I needed nursing would at best be greeted with laughter by Julie. I do however need to take medicine at regular intervals.
My preferred form of medicine is a Hot Irish Whiskey, fortunately easy to make and a prefect restorative, a glass of which in my hand is like holding sunshine on the darkest winter day.
Ingredients Hot Irish Whiskey
To make Hot Irish Whiskey you need
- Irish Whiskey
- A slice of Lemon
- Tsp of Sugar
- 6 Cloves
Heat up the stove in advance as you want to reduce the amount of alcohol driven of by heating. To a small pan add a good slug of Whiskey, a double measure if you insist on measuring it out and then some water, about 50:50 or 2:1. Take a slice of lemon and poke through half a dozen cloves through the pith as illustrated below, don’t miss this as out it stops you having to sieve the cloves out with your teeth when you drink it. Add a teaspoon of sugar (or more to taste) and quickly heat through but don’t allow it boil.
Lemon and Cloves
Tip the contents into a glass then take your medicine.
Getting the dosage correct can be a little tricky, a small measure through out the day is very effective but it does affect your capacity to drive or handle heavy machinery (a bit like nightnurse), but as the evening wears on I suggest hourly doses until you feel better or you don’t care anymore.
I know some readers will think all this is a lot of fuss over nothing but I would point out that the French medical system effective though it is, does use an alarming number of suppositories. Personally I am not going to risk it and have decided to stick to traditional cold cures, I recommend you do the same.
Hot Irish Whiskey like sunshine in your hand
My old school friend Kay sent me a request after my last post Something Fruity for the Cafe Sirop recipe, I am happy to oblige.
The method for making Cafe Sirop is different to making fruit sirops, its simpler and quicker
- 250gms of fresh espresso style coffee grounds
- 1 Litre of base spirit or vodka
- 300 gms sugar
- 200 mls water
- Tsp of vanilla extract (optional)
Cafe Sirop Macerating
Add the coffee to the alcohol in a large jar with a seal-able lid, and leave to macerate for 5 days stirring daily.
After 5 days filter the alcohol through muslin or a clean tea towel taking care to ensure the resulting liquid is free of any coffee grounds.
Prepare the sugar syrup by adding together the sugar and water and heating until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is clear, leave to cool. Add the Vanilla extract if using and add the sugar syrup to the coffee flavoured alcohol, stir and bottle. The recipe will make nearly two 750 ml bottles.
In theory you should let it mature for a month, but I use it when I need it.
Now that you are a prouder possessor of a couple of bottles of Cafe Sirop how are you going to use it? Well one way is to perfect the perfect Black Russian!
A Black Russian cocktail is extremely easy to make but people seem to have an unlimited capacity to screw it up. First off as far as I am concerned a Black Russian is Vodka, Cafe Sirop and lots of ice. No Coke (I’m not a teenager), don’t stir it and definitely don’t use a cocktail shaker, you can possibly add a thin slice of of lemon if one is feeling particularly fancy free.
The correct ratio of Vodka to Cafe Sirop is the one you like. But 5:2 or 2:1 is about right. Use a nice stubby old fashioned glass as it will stop the ice melting too quickly. Fill the glass with a generous quantity of ice then pour your Vodka into the glass then pour in your Cafe Sirop, don’t stir the mix just drink it.
I have been busy using up the surplus quantities of Raspberries from the garden in the production of Sirop Framboise. A traditional drink made with a couple of kilos of raspberries macerated in base spirit and with sugar syrup added after filtering.
Ingredients Sirop Framboise
I use the Sirop mainly in making of Framboise Kir Royale which are yummy anytime of year and contribute to giving my liver some exercise, ensuring its continued healthy state.
The Sirop can be drizzled over fruit desserts, is superb in a trifle or as a posh raspberry sauce over ice cream, much better than the bright red gloop we used to be palmed off with when we were kids.
As well as making Sirop Framboise I have recently made or currently have on the go, Sirop Fraise (Strawberry, made with Marias Des Bois or woodland strawberries), Sirop Mure (Blackberry) and Sirop Cafe (coffee).
I was particularly pleased to dig out an old recipe for Sirop Cafe because for some weird reason we seem to suffer from Sirop Cafe droughts in this area from time to time. Sometimes I think my liver needs a stronger workout and the exercise equipment of choice is often a Black Russian, a cocktail made with 2 parts Vodka to 1 part Sirop Cafe.
Making fruit syrup is very easy, and is similar in method to making Sloe Gin and one of the principal benefits of making your own is you know you have a nice pure product. The recipe such as it is, is set out below;
To Make Fruit Sirop
- 2 Kilo’s of soft fruit (Raspberries, Strawberries, Blackberries etc.)
- 1 Litre of base spirit or Vodka
Raspberries Marinading in Spirit
Add the fruit and spirit to a large jar (an old sweet jar is ideal) and leave to marinade in the sun for about a month. Stir daily or as I do when you remember.
After a month or so, or two or three Strain the mixture through some muslin or a clean tea towel, press the fruit gently to release the maximum liquor.
Measure your quantity of liquid and make up a sugar syrup. The proportions are a bit important, for each 1.4 litre of liquid dissolve one kilo of sugar into 400 cc of water (or part of), heat until the sugar syrup is clear. Allow to cool and add to the fruit and alcohol mixture, bottle and try and leave it to mature in the bottle for a few weeks (I invariably ignore this instruction).
It is worth noting that many recipes books will tell you to skim the boiling sugar of scum and discard. I never bother, this instruction was necessary years ago when sugar refining was not as good as it is now, the sugar we buy is these days is so pure this stage is no longer necessary, merely tedious and wasteful.
You should have about 2.5 – 3 litres of sirop enough for a year or around of Christmas presents.
Fruit of my labours Sirop Framboise complete
A traditional drink here in France is Sirop de Coquelicot or Poppy Syrup, but commercially it is only found in specialist delicatessens at an eye opening price.
Common Field Poppy
The Poppy has a firm place in culinary culture, most people are used to the idea of poppy seeds which are much used in many world cuisines particularly in Eastern Europe. The petals make a colourful addition to salads, trifles and creams. so making a drink from Poppy petals should not be that unusual.
Poppies apart from their place in the kitchen also have a great deal of symbolism attached to them and have since ancient time been associated with death and blood. A connection reinforced in modern times on Flanders fields. The British fought wars over the Poppy seeking to control the opium trade in China for even greater profit and even now the British government will seek to use the Poppy for its own purposes as demonstrated in this great article written by Ben Goldacre in the the UK Guardian.
Poppies are also associated with sleep through the widespread use of the Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum, one of the most beneficial and most dangerous plants used by man. Fortunately for my continued liberty Sirop de Coquelicot uses the common field Poppy, Papaver rhaeas.
I was discussing Sirop de Coquelicot with Edith a French friend checking my pronunciation (mine was awful, of course) and the recipe. She told me that I should take care when drinking it and that her grandmother would serve it as a “treat” when Edith and her siblings were visiting when they where very young. Apparently the Coquelicot would ensure that every one got a peaceful and restful night. So for any stressed parents reading this post who’s children won’t sleep it may be time to get in the kitchen.
Making the syrup does require a lot of petals, but fortunately there are a lot of Poppies. In recent years most farmers have cut down drastically on the amount of herbicides that they use, in part out of concern for the environment and also because farm chemicals which are oil based and are now very expensive. Therefore Poppies are back and in some places big time
To make Sirop de Coquelicot you must start by picking 400 grams of Poppy petals, this is best done in the morning as Poppies petals dry out (and lose precious weight) through out the day and by late afternoon most petal will have fallen , you need a loose carrier bag full and some patience or help. It is a lot of petals and explains why commercial sirop is so expensive, but treat it as a good walk in lovely weather and in the right spot it will be quicker than you think. Don’t be worried about pillaging the countryside, poppies are not rare and each flower will only last a day or so, go back the next day it will look like you where never there.
To make a bottle of sirop you will need
400g of Poppy petals
500ml of Water
Bring water to a boil, and gradually introduce the mass of petals of Poppies, which will melt like snow in the sun in contact with boiling water. Stir gently so that all the petals are fully in contact with water.
Adding Poppy Petals to Boiling Water - Note to Self Clean the Bloody Cooker!
When all the petals are in the water turn off the heat, cover and let them steep for 10 minutes.
Strain, pressing out the petals to gather as much juice and taste as ;ossible.
Weigh the resulting liquid and add the same weight of sugar.
Return to heat gently, then to boil, put in small glass bottles previously sterilised in the oven and seal immediately
That’s it almost too simple, this delicious syrup can be used throughout the year to flavour pastries, yoghurt, make Kirs or colour a cream or rice pudding!
Give it ago and let me know how you got on.
As threatened (sorry I mean promised) I am just putting up a post about Elderflower Champagne.
Initially I thought about putting up the recipe, and describing my adventures in making it, but… there are recipes galore, a quick google will give you more than you need and making Elderflower Champagne is a pretty poor adventure.
After saying that I think that I measure the arrival of summer by making Elderflower Champagne. This year I came across Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall’s recipe which can be found here. I was attracted to it because it uses less sugar than my previous recipe, you rather expect Elderflower Champagne to be tooth rottenly sweet, one reason why it is served well chilled, but after a glass or two it gets a bit much, hopefully Hugh’s recipe will just take the edge of it.
Last years brew was very successful and was passed around friends and neighbours, our French friends where fascinated as the whole idea of Elderflower Champagne was a bit bizarre to them, but on a hot July/August day very welcome.
Elderflower Champagne is supposedly alcohol free, but this is not true, its just not very strong, in fact I think you would make yourself ill from a sugar overdose before the alcohol kicks in, mind you the effects on young children are entertaining and you can always put it down to a sugar reaction
In addition to the Elderflower Champagne I also made a batch of Elderflower Cordial which is due to be bottled tomorrow, the recipe for the cordial can be found here, it’s dead easy and you’ll save a fortune on the insipid poncy stuff sold in bijou green bottles. In fact the only problem is tracking down the Citric acid as many chemist refuse to stock it as Heroin users cook up with it. You could of course play up to this by wearing your scruffiest clothes, developing a sniff and asking for the Citric man. Alternatively you could just pop in to the home brew shop.
Snipping the Florets
Elderflower cordial is far more versatile than Elderflower Champagne as it can be used as a cordial (natch) and to flavour mousses , fruits and jellies etc. and most importantly as an addition to Gin and Tonic. It does not how ever look as spectacular as a glass of foaming champagne. Years ago when I was living in Bristol, England I fetched a 2 litre bottle bottle of Elderflower Champagne that was in an old Coke bottle. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen when it duly exploded, I was fine, the bottle was plastic after all, but two litres of champagne was instantly sprayed all around the kitchen, in a real life reenactment of a cartoon scene.
So there you are Elderflower Champagne handle with care but not because of the alcohol!
Filling the Bottles