Wild Blackberry Wine

Many older foraging books, and my childhood memories of the 1980’s, insist that blackberries are an autumnal fruit rarely seen before the end of August. These days if you wait until autumn to pick blackberries you will be disappointed. The changing climate now means an early August harvest.

Wild blackberry wine

Blackberry wine photography Roy Hunt

For most, the blackberry is the first (and often only) food that will be foraged. It is my hope that it will become as popular to ferment as it is to turn into a crumble, as Blackberry wine is one of the best homemade wines.

Blackberry wine has a robust, fruity flavour and bouquet, while slipping down a little too easily. And start one now and it will be more than ready for Christmas.

Brambles can be found on wasteground, parks, and in hedges. Picking the fruit is not without its hazards, and the thorns make plastic bags a no-go – one snag of your bag and a day’s pickings are lost to the hedgerow. Indeed, it is the thorns that give blackberries one of their country names, “lawyers”; once they trap you in it is very difficult to get loose.

Andy Hamilton picking blackberries

Andy Hamilton picking blackberries taken by Roy Hunt

Blackberries (or brambles) tend to take over wasteground if left unchecked. They can also be found on the edges of parks, in wooded thickets, by railway lines and cycle paths, at field edges and as undergrowth in forests.

BLACKBERRY WINE
2kg blackberries
Half cup of strong black tea
1.5kg sugar
4 litres water
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp pectolase
Red wine yeast
1 tsp yeast nutrient

To extract more juice from the fruit it helps if you keep the berries in the freezer overnight, then allow them to thaw before using. Ensure they are clean and place into a fermentation bin. Crush with your clean hands or a sterilized stainless steel/plastic potato masher. Pour over 1 litre of boiling water and the sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the further 2.5 litres of cold water then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Cover, and leave to stand in a warm place for 3 days.

Strain into a demijohn and attach the air lock. Rack after a month and allow to ferment out. Enjoy your blackberry wine with a blue cheesecake.

Natural hangover cures

Andy Hamilton with a natural hungover

My book, Booze for free is now the estimated cause of over one million hangovers*. So, to pay back my karmic debt I thought it time I shared how I deal with my monumentous hangovers, naturally.

The best natural hangover cure should really start the night before by drinking a glass of water for every unit of alcohol consumed as a preventative anti hangover measure. Alcohol acts as a diuretic increasing the flow of urine from the kidneys leading to dehydration. It’s this dehydration that causes some of the tell tale signs of a hangover such as dizziness, dry mouth and nausea. What’s more increased bladder flow can deplete valuable vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin C and various B vitamins. To further these feelings an increase in REM (rapid eye movement/dream) sleep means your brain has been falsely excited and this can lead to depression.

These vitamins and minerals have to be replaced in order for you to start feeling human again. Potassium can be reintroduced by eating bananas and I like to have two the morning after. Vitamin C can be found in pine needles so a pine needle tea or cordial will help. Pick the greenest looking pine needles from any species of pine. Place a large handful into a bowl and pour hot water over them. When the water has cooled strain through muslin cloth and drink. Equally and if you have it to hand a few mouthfuls of rosehip syrup will help.

The loss of B12 when drinking can bring on feelings of guilt which sometimes plays a part in the psychological side of a hangover. B12 can be found in eggs, bacon and black pudding which is why, if you can get it down you, a fry up always helps. Or if you want to try an ancient Greeks hangover cure, how about fried sheep lungs?

If even the thought of sheep lungs are causing your stomach to churn then a dose of ginger and cardamom tea will help. If you can’t even get that down you then pour the tea onto a flannel, let it cool and place it directly onto your stomach.

Each of these remedies will work on different types of hangovers, but for an all round general hangover cure all I have devised the following tea.

Ingredients

  • Thumb sized piece of bruised root gingerAndy Hamilton natural hungover
  • 10g Rosemary
  • 10g  Nettle leaves
  • Handful of pine needles
  • 3 Green cardamom pods
  • 500ml hot water

Method

Boil kettle. Put all the ingredients into a tea-pot and cover with hot water. Allow to infuse for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, hold head and say, “never, ever again”.

Pour and sip. This will make two cups and you can also keep topping up the tea-pot and drinking all day until you start to feel a bit more human. Couple it with drinking plenty of water.

If nothing seems to work then go back to sleep for a bit and try to get some normal sleep. Of course if any of my sensible suggestions don’t sound like your bag you could always try a hair of the dog method; my favourite is a Roman one which consists of 5 liters of wine infused with 16 bulbs of garlic.

Andy is the author of Booze for Free published by Eden Project Books with a cover price of £9.99. Or much cheaper if bought online.

*Estimated by me and I tend to exagerate.

Lunchbreak forager – Plums and some quick and easy plum recipes

Lunchbreak forager– Plums

damsons on a plum tree

damsons on a plum tree

Juicy Victoria plums, or wild sweet purple damsons and greengages; plums have to be up there as one the greatest foraged foods (and plum wine is a great wine too). A heavy branch of damson hangs over my back lane and the plums are rich for the picking, although in doing so I am breaking the law here in the UK. UK law states that fruit on an overhanging branch (from a tree, not a bush or shrub) is the property of the land owner. Apparently, you should offer the fruit back to the owner. But this is just fruit growing in gardens, what of the law of the land with regards foraging on other land both here and stateside?

UK plum law and hedgerow foraging

I once had a letter from an angry landowner who suggested by talking about foraging I was advocating stealing. The law on hedgerow picking suggests that anyone can pick as long as it is not for commercial gain. That is not to say that you shouldn’t be courteous, don’t over pick one area (which also leaves some for the birds) and stay on public footpaths/areas. Most landowners are happy to have you pick but like apples you should always be wary of the odd crabby one!

Foraging plums and other fruit in the USA

There are some American state laws that prohibit foraging in certain areas so check  before foraging in municipal parks and other state owned areas. Mind you Steve Brill was arrested in Central Park before being employed by them, it was enough to be the making of him. Also, if you can it is best practice to always ask permission before foraging on someone’s land.

What to do with your plums – Quick Plum recipes

If you have managed to outwit a judge and have gotten away with a big haul of plums then you are going to want do something with them on your lunch break. The obvious choice would be just to stuff your face there and then but if you have so many you may want to try out drying them, making microwave plum jam or even sugared plums.

Microwave plum Jam

250g Pitted Plums
1 lemon
250g Sugar

Method

Wash the plums, if you haven’t already pitted them then get someone else in the office to do it with the promise of jam, it’s a boring task! The easiest way of doing so is to cut them in half and pull out the pip. Chop up into quarters and squeeze the lemon juice over them in a microwave proof bowl. Microwave on full power for 5 mins until the plums start to soften.

Stir in the sugar and microwave for 20 mins again on full power, checking every 5 minutes or so to ensure they are not getting totally nuked. You could then worry about the setting point like most English people are obsessed by, but this is microwave jam for God’s sake – chill out a little!

Leave to stand for 5 mins and then stick into one large or two smaller sterilised jars*. You could then make some microwave porridge and add it to that, yum! Or even, as the Russians do, try adding a spoonful to hot water and having it as a drink.

* Jars can be sterilized using homebrew sterilizing solution or by putting in an oven, on low, for 20 mins.

Sugar Plums

This recipe happens to be raw and vegan but don’t let that put you off as they are delicious. Actually, many raw vegan cakes and sweets are pretty delicious. Not that it’s a diet that particularly attracts me! Might be a bit tricky to dry the plums you your lunch break as it takes some time (see below sugar plum recipe for drying instructions). So really this is a lunch break recipe with some home work.

Ingredients

170g almonds
200g dried plums
200g dried figs
50g brown sugar
1 crushed star anise
Quarter of a tsp caraway seeds
Quarter of a tsp fennel seeds
Quarter of golden syrup
200g caster sugar

Method

Chop up the fruit and almonds, if you have access to a blender then this job will be infinitely quicker. Combine the fruit & nut mixture and everything but the caster sugar. Roll into balls the size of bulls testicles and roll in the sugar.

Invite your workmates to get their laughing gear (mouths) around your balls.

Drying plums

Dried plums

Dried Plums

Dried plums are very morish and great to get your gums around; they can be hidden away and snacked on throughout the day. What’s more they will keep for a long time and are pretty healthy to boot.

Once you have picked the plums then put them on a baking sheet and dry at 80°c/175°f for 12 hours, prick (the plums, I’m not being abusive), and put them back in the oven for another 12 hours. Bigger plums may need a further few hours but you should monitor them carefully to ensure they don’t turn to dust.

Booze for Free PDF

Booze for free PDF – Should everything be free?

Booze for Free and its Author Andy Hamilton

Booze for Free and its Author Andy Hamilton

Everything should be free is an argument that the internet has most certainly perpetuated. Authors Neil Gaiman and Paulo Coelho both agree to a certain extent, but does that mean its curtains for less established writers? Should Booze for free PDF be free?

When Booze for Free was released back in September 2011 I felt proud to have helped people help themselves to a cheaper and boozier existence. Myself and the publisher worked hard to keep the price low too, so that it was accessible to more people. Indeed, within days of release some internet sites were selling it for practically half price, a bargain indeed.

Cheap or even free is good and Most of my public work, including my latest book Booze for Free, has been about getting things very cheaply or for free. The Selfsufficientish ethos was and is geared around doing as much as you can for yourself whilst consuming the least amount of resources. I enjoy being part of this movement as there are many things I believe should be free. Gathering herbs to enhance food or for medicine, picking fruit in from the wild, growing your own vegetables or making your own booze are a few things that spring to mind.

But should we be getting books for free and what does that mean for the author? According to a report from ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collection Society)

The first ten years of a writer’s life are the hardest, even more so in the UK. The annual median income for professional authors from writing in the UK age group 25-34 is only £5,000 – one third less than for the comparable German category. Over the life-time of an author, earnings increase until the mid-fifties, and then decrease again”. Also, “A typical professional authors’ income is 33% less than the national average wage”.

Yep, most writers are poor. You may hear about £1 million book advances but I assure you that most of my writers friends are jealous of £5,000 book advances! Yet, before I started writing I thought that every writer was loaded, I thought that having a book out meant you could go off and buy that 6 bedroom house you have your eye on. Well you can’t, not unless you write a book about dirty Grey men!

It looks bleak now, but what about the future? In the last 10 years or so the music industry changed beyond all recognition with the advent of the MP3 player. The book market too is changing with the advent of tablets and e-readers. There is fear amongst authors, publishers and agents that the same thing will happen, pirated books will become as common as pirated music. That the industry will no longer be able to sustain itself. But music can carry on as musicians can be paid for gigging or getting radio airplay; authors can only really get paid when they sell books. Some book festivals will get authors to appear for free and another income stream many authors would sell their work in, the national newspapers are hemorrhaging money at the moment so even they will ask writers to blog for free or at greatly reduced rates.

But this won’t happen for years, will it? I certainly thought so and I also thought that my book didn’t lend itself to the e-reader. My ebook sales have always been very poor in comparison to my book sales. In the period between its release in September 2011 and new year just 5 ebooks were sold in the UK.

The other Andy Hamilton its (no) curtains for you

Andy Hamilton its (no) curtains for you

This is because no one wants a “cookbook” as a download right? Well, I thought so until I Googled “Booze for Free PDF” and checked out the number of illegal downloads my book has received. I found from just one torrent site that around 2000 ebooks had been downloaded. Now, is there a correlation? As an author I’d make around £2000 out of that many books. As I look into the shallow pool that was once my bank balance I start to fantasize about what I could do with the money. I could fix the shower and buy some curtains for the bedrooms, or perhaps life with a new child on the way be a little more comfortable rather than a little fraught!

But have I really lost two grand? Paulo Coelho the bestselling novelist suggests that pirated books will make him more money, he urges readers to who like his book to go out and buy a hard copy if they like it. Neil Gaiman agrees and argues that, for example, in Russia where his books were being pirated the most he was also making more sales. In his case his books were working as adverts. The more people that saw his books the more people would buy them.

Will that be the same for me? Well, my next royalty statement arrives next month and if the page Rank on Amazon has anything to go by my ebook sales are still looking poor. Perhaps if you already have a few books out then pirated books are a good thing, but I’m not so sure for those of us who are only on our first or second book.


I’d like to keep on writing for as long as people like what I write (and perhaps just a little bit longer). The free model does seem attractive especially if it sells more books and helps people who can’t afford books. So I too have thought about offering my first book, The Selfsufficientish Bible as a free download, or at least the parts I wrote (its co-written with Dave Hamilton, my brother) . But then I do already offer free content I have added some recipes and pages from Booze for Free all over this blog and even added new recipes. On top of that I may still turn my Lunch break forager articles into a book and by that point I’d have given most of that book away for free! (incidentally authors also get 5p every time one of our books is taken out at the library, remember libraries?)

I have to admit I do need at least some cash and believe it or not so do most other writers. I guess what I’d hope for is if a pirated book is read and especially if its been enjoyed then the reader should find a way to support that writer. Without book sales we writers can’t buy new curtains and we like new curtains (as least I do).

If you wish to keep Andy in curtains then you can find his latest book Booze for Free at Beetroot books, on Amazon and from your favourite bookshop or even as an Ebook. His other Book The Selfsufficientish Bible is available at Amazon too.

You may also notice a lot of opportunities to donate. If you did download Booze for free and now think, you know I’d love to give Andy £1 or even a bit more then any donation will be most gratiously recieved. You never know I might even send you a photo of me with a lovely new set of curtains.


Dock – The Lunchbreak forager

Docks are in the same family as buckwheat and sorrel. Docks are most famed for their

dock leaves

Dock edible with some preparation

use in folk medicine to help when stung by nettle. Personally I find that a plantain (plantago) leaf is far more beneficial than a dock due to its anti-histamine properties.

If you live in a temperate climate you won’t ever be too far away from dock leaves as they populate almost everywhere. Neglected areas of parks, wasteground and graveyards (avoid near to Victorian graves due to high levels of lead), are all places to search.

Dock leaves need careful preparation in order to make them edible. They need to be flash boiled in two changes of water (see below for preparation). Dock contains oxalic acid which is where that sharp lemon like flavour comes from and this is reduced when cooked. However, people with a tendency to rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should take care if considering including this plant in their lunch box as it can aggravate their condition. Pregnancy and breast-feeding women should give it a miss too (sorry, I know its boring try to make up for it by getting those around you to pass you random things for your own amusement).

The dock leaves can then be used filled with a spiced rice mixture rolled up and served as

Andy Hamilton in a hat

Andy Hamilton man about the forest

stuffed vine leaves. Here is a brief recipe of mine originally on the BBC food website, but it was in need of a few tweaks so I’ve pasted below a tweaked version. The first flush of growth on any dock plant can also be eaten raw, hunt around in the spring (again avoid if you have an underlying health condition).

Stuffed Dock leaf

Dock leaves are available at almost any time of year. Their strong texture makes them ideal for stuffing and making a wild food version of stuffed vine leaves.

Ingredients

      16 dock leaves, washed well
      4 tbsp walnut oil
      500g/1lb 2oz lamb mince
      1 onion, finely chopped
      1 lemon, juice only
      100g/3½oz bulgur wheat
      1 large tomato
      1 tsp mixed spices
      400ml/14fl oz cold water
      1 tbsp tomato purée

Preparation method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. Boil the dock leaves in water for a couple of minutes and repeat. Drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.
  3. Meanwhile, mix two tablespoons of the walnut oil with the lamb mince, onion, lemon juice, bulgur wheat, tomato and mixed spice until well combined. Add a little of the water to loosen the mixture if necessary.
  4. Roll sixteen equal-sized balls from the mixture and wrap one in each boiled dock leaf. Place the stuffed dock leaves into a large cast-iron casserole (or saucepan).
  5. Mix the remaining two tablespoons of oil with the tomato purée and water and pour the mixture into the casserole.
  6. Put the casserole onto the hob over a medium heat and gently bring to the liquid to the boil. Remove the casserole from the heat and transfer to the oven. Cook for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly before serving.

Deceptively delicious dock tortilla (or The Wild Tortilla)

It is easy to dismiss dock and even curse it. There doesn’t seem to be a patch on earth that does give a home to dock. As a gardener I curse it, letting its long root down into my veg patch. Persisting and giving no other use than its dubious fame to neutralize a nettle sting. It does however, add a taste and texture to dishes when there are next to no other leaves around and high in iron it can be a nutritious addition too.

Ingredients

100g dock (curled or large leafed) prepared as below

1 x Wood aven root
3 eggs
2 generous dollops of double cream (4 tablespoons)
1 sweet potato
1 tsp nettle seeds
Oil for frying
1 small leek

Method

Bring a pan of water to the boil and throw in dock leaves. Boil for 3 mins then rinse leaves. Nibble on a leaf and if still very bitter repeat the process. Rinse leaves in cold water then chop.

Beat eggs with cream and put to one side

Meanwhile heat oil in a 25cm pan over a medium heat and grate in cleaned wood aven root and sprinkle in nettle seeds. Chop the sweet potato into 1cm rounds and fry in batches until crispy brown  blisters appear. In the last batch also fry leak until softened.

Stir the dock in with the egg mixture and pour half into the pan. Add the extra layer of sweet potato and more nettle seed if to hand and pour in the rest of the mixture.

Cook on a medium heat until a bit wobbly, constancy of vodka jelly, then finish off under the grill.

For a lighter version swap the dock for 150g of chickweed.

The Great British Beer Festival – GBBF – Is it the best festival beer model?

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited to the trade session at the GBBF. The movers and shakers of the beer world were there from beer Bloggers like Rob from Hopzine, professional beer authors such as bestselling Pete Brown and most of the brewers from around the UK (including Sue from Waen who invited us). This is an epic beer festival and you could easily spend a month there and still not have the same beer twice. Although, you might not necessairly survive the experience!

Andy Hamilton at the Great British Beer Festival GBBF

Cheers

The atmosphere at such an event is electric. We dodged between men dressed as old maidens, brass bands, tin hatted folk, balloon hatted folk and hords of drinkers (some without beards) to find beers from almost every corner of the UK and beyond. The two stand out beers for me were The Boggart rum Porter and I’m sure say this without the obvious bias, The Waen Blackberry stout.

Andy’s beery bits part 1 from Andy Hamilton on Vimeo.

As I’m currently writing a book about beer this was to be a mecca, indeed I was in the right place for a diverse range of beer. The trouble is, even when buying beers in third of a pint measures, it is difficult even for the most hardened of drinkers to try any more than 20 beers. I couldn’t help but wonder if a festival as described to me by Chad(an American homebrewer living in Brighton)  could work. You pay an inflated price to get in, let’s say £20 or £30, and you help yourself to whichever beer you fancy. There are massive bins around the venue, in case that you change your mind about what you have served. So there is a downside and that’s wastage. However, after going to the cancelled “Beer on the Wye” festival in Hereford earlier I saw how much beer could be wasted when beer festivals go wrong. Also, some of the beers are not popular, “it’s the first time I’ve pulled that one”, was a familiar cry when I ordered some of the more perculiar beers at the GBBF.

The Waen bar

The Waen bar

This idea of a fee on the door is not a new model, it was used in the 16th Century by local churches. Once a year the church would brew a strong beer, you’d pay once at the door and drink what you liked. The money raised would help with the upkeep of the church (sure beats a jumble sale)!

I’m not saying that CAMRA beer festivals are not great fun and I’m not bashing them. What I am wondering is if there is another model that some beers festivals could try out. It’s a model I’d like to see, you could try just a snifter of each beer and settle on the ones you like. Just think how many beers you could get through! The brewers would be happy too as they would all get paid a set price and no-one would be set on how well the beer selling. But I guess it promotes binge drinking and as that has become demonised so would an authoritative body licence such an idea? Well I guess we won’t know unless we ask for it.

Balloon Hatted man drinking at the GBBF

Beer festival attire

Andy Hamilton’s fireweed, bramble tip and Himalayan balsam wine

fireweed, brambletip and hymalyan balsam wineI love working with other home winemakers to come up with new wines and so would like to hear from you!  This month I have teamed up with Mike Griffiths from Nottinghamshire who has been making wine since before I was born. By combining a variety of edible flowers into Mike’s bramble tip wine it helps transform it from a white wine into more of a rosé. I’ve chosen to use Himalayan balsam flowers and fireweed both readily available at this time of year and both often to be found growing along riverbanks or in waste ground. Luckily this is also often the habitat for brambles (blackberry vines).

The great joy of using Himalayan balsam flowers is not only that they impart a lovely reddish-pink tinge to any wine, cordial or jam you are making, but by using them you’re also helping biodiversity. Himalayan balsam, an invasive interloper introduced by the Victorians, can produce up to 700 seeds per plant. It also fires these seeds up to 7 metres away from the plant. It grows tall enough to smother native flower species while being irresistible to bees – a double blow to biodiversity.

Ingredients
1 carrier-bagful of bramble tips dropped into the bucket and not particularly pressed down (The tip is the 4 or 5 inches on the end of a young bramble)
Juice of one medium sized lemon
1 cup of Himalayan balsam flowers
1 cup fireweed flowers
500g sultanas
1 kg sugar
1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
1 teaspoon general purpose wine yeast

Method
Chop or mince the sultanas add them to a big pan with the bramble tips. Add seven pints of water and bring to the boil, cover and simmer for an hour. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then replace the cover and allow to cool. Strain into a fermentation bin over the flowers, stir in lemon juice, yeast nutrient and yeast.

Cover the bucket loosely and leave to ferment in a warm place until any foaming has died down. Syphon into a demijohn, top up with cold water, put under an airlock, sit back and wait.

After about three months the fermentation will have finished and the wine will be clear. Rack off into a clean demijohn (there’ll probably be a decent deposit from the sultanas), top up again and transfer to the coolest place you have in the house. After another three months bottle the wine and leave it to stand for a further six months.

Andy Hamiton’s delicious alcoholic elderflower champagne

The fizz that characterises elderflower champagne is a result of bottling before the fermentation process has finished, normally this process is started by capturing wild yeast. This can cause problems: namely, lack of alcohol, exploding bottles and disappointing results.

(for more hedgerow drinks don’t forget to help fund my 3rd book – Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails)

elder champagne with elderflowers By using a bit of fermenting know-how you can make a sparking elderflower “champagne” every year that may rival any real champagne (though I am biased since it’s my own recipe).

The first problem to look at is using wild yeast. Some areas can be wild yeast deserts meaning your champagne will never ferment. If you do manage to capture a wild yeast you never know which yeast will get to work on your drinks. Each yeast works differently so you can be in for a lottery of flavours and alcohol strengths. The only way around that is to add your own yeast and champagne yeast is the best option; this has the added bonus of making your elderflower champagne alcoholic.

Elderflower champagne in a glass

Elderflower champagne in a glass courtesy of Roy Hunt

My recipe doesn’t resemble a normal elderflower champagne recipe and it is essentially a recipe for elderflower wine which is then re-fermented. This means more reliable results and if you change your mind halfway through at least you are left with some great white wine.

There was a pleasant country belief that if the flowers were put into ale, and a man and woman drank it together, they would be married within a year. – Lesley Gordon, 1985

ALCOHOLIC ELDERFLOWER CHAMPAGNE Grated rind of one lemon 1 litre/2 pints of elderflowers 3.5 litres/8 pints of boiling water 1.3kg/3 lbs sugar Juice of one lemon Champagne yeast, 1 tsp yeast nutrient.

Put flowers into fermentation bin and mix with lemon rind, lemon juice and sugar. Pour over boiling water and allow very gently stir until fully dissolved. Allow the water to cool to around 18°c – 20°c,  then filter through a muslin cloth and add the yeast and 1 tsp yeast nutrient. Leave in a place with a steady temperature of around 20°c for a 10-14 days or until the majority of fermentation has ceased.

When you are sure all the bubbling has ceased, strain in demijohn and allow to ferment fully. About three months should do the job, keep checking with a hydrometer. When you get consistent readings over 3-4 days your wine will have fully fermented.

Bring 200ml of water to the boil and add 70g of sugar. Allow to cool then strain the wine into a another demijohn leaving the sediment. Add the 200ml of sugar solution and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.

Siphon into champagne bottles seal with champagne corks and secure them in place with metal cages. The wine should be kept at room temp for the first 10 days. After this time it is moved to a cooler place, such as a cellar. They should initially be stored horizontally and over the next three months they should be gradually moved upside down. This can be done by placing the neck into sand. Chill for 24 hours before serving and do not disturb the bottle before opening.

Any problems making alcoholic elderflower champagne?

It’s funny how so many people have the same problems when making elderflower champagne. I’ve noted most of them and hopefully, you’ll find help on my article Elderflower champagne problems from mould, no fizz to exploding bottles.

Elderflower champagne problems from mould, no fizz to exploding bottles

Elderflower by Stephen Studd

Elderflower photo courtesy of Stephen Studd

For more recipes including an elderflower champagne recipe plus more problem solving have a look at my book, Booze for free.  Or if you are a lovely person perhaps you want to share that loveliness by helping to fund my 3rd book – Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails)

If you are put off by all the problems you might have making this, then perhaps you might want to try making Elderflower Liquor and an Elderflower Tom Collins.

Over the last few years I have shared a few elderflower champagne recipes. It is a very popular drink it and at some point many people will have a go at making some. Now that I’ve written Booze for Free I feel that I should help people a little more in their elderflower woes as even my Mum who’s been making elderflower champagne since before I was born is calling me up for advice! The thing is, and this is something not many will share, the traditional recipe is not without its flaws and things can easily go wrong. I’ll try to address the most common elderflower champagne problems below, if I don’t cover your problem please leave a comment and I’ll update the post.

Exploding bottles

Essentially elderflower champagne is still fermenting. The bubbles are formed when the yeast “eats” the sugar forming alcohol and carbon dioxide. This gas can build up in the bottle and as it has nowhere to go the build up of pressure can cause an explosion. You can deal with this in three ways, firstly return to the bottles every day and “burp” them by loosening the tops and allowing air to escape.

Secondly, you can put the “champagne” into a demijohn (secondary) with an airlock on it until you need it. The downside of this approach is that you may forget about it and the champagne will fully ferment, meaning no bubbles it is also more alcoholic. But don’t fear, you can treat it the same as you would with beer and add some sugar solution afterwards to get it fizzy again. About 8g of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water per 1L of champagne is a perfect amount.

Lastly, the fermentation process can be slowed by putting the bottles in the fridge. No fermentation, no build up of gas. Don’t worry you can take them out of the fridge an hour or so before you need them for the fizz to return.

For more recipes and problem solving have a look at my book, Booze for free.

No fizz and mould

As I said in the exploding bottles bit, essentially the elderflower is still fermenting. Most recipes call for wild yeast however, this can be a bit of a Russian roulette way of brewing. Some areas are wild yeast deserts and there won’t be any floating about. Some areas will have the wrong type of wild yeast which might get to work momentarily and then die off. If you get this problem you might have to consider adding some yeast, I find champagne yeast works very well.

If you want to save a mouldy batch, well then I don’t rate your chances but you could try siphoning into a sterilized demijohn, leaving the mouldy top behind, adding a campden tablet. Leaving for a day or so then restarting with a champagne yeast.  Once something has fermented you won’t kill anyone with it (other than alcohol poisoning), so don’t worry about that.

Booze for free front cover

For more problem solving see Andy’s book Booze for Free

It helps if you make a yeast starter first. You can do this by putting warm water in a clean cup, adding half a teaspoon of sugar then sprinkling in the dried yeast. Make this a few hours before then pitch it (add it) to the must (champagne liquid).

Cat pee or cabbage smells

Always pick your elderflowers in the morning when the pollen is rich, before it gets deteriorated by the heat of the sun we’ve been getting it or the bees nick it or whatever it is that happens! After about noon they can start to smell of cat pee or some say cabbage, this is apparently due to the cyanide in the wood but I’m happy to be corrected on this as I can only find anecdotal evidence.

Whilst we are on the subject of smells, don’t shake your elderflowers to get rid of the insects as you will be shaking off the pollen and therefore the floral flavour. Instead put them to one on newspaper and let the bugs walk off by themselves, don’t worry they will!

When to use boiling water

As Russel has quite rightly pointed out in the comments below adding boiling water onto the flowers will indeed kill off the wild yeast. This is exactly what you are looking for when  you are adding yeast as you don’t want two yeasts competing. If you plan to let your champagne spontaniously ferment then do not add boiling water over the flowers. Hot water firstly disolves the sugar but then you need to add cold water before adding the elderflowers.

Alcoholic Elderflower champagne problems

If you have come here via my Guardian blog post about Alcoholic Elderflower Champagne as you are having problems I have to say that I have now tweaked the recipe here making it much more fool proof.

Solid jelly like


Bacterial infection, no cure. Wash and sterilize everything and start again.

Mousey flavours

A horrible smell not unlike the smell of hemlock or mice. It means your champagne is off and there is no cure, sorry! It happens due to unsanitary equipment.

Elderflower Cordial Problems

Elderflower cordial can often suffer the same problems as elderflower champagne. The biggest problems happen when there is little or no sterilization of equipment. See above for jelly like and mousey flavours/smells. Also see above for mould on your elderflower cordial.

Why would elderflower cordial blow up?

If you are worried that your elderflower cordial has blown up or started to overfizz it is because it has started to ferment. I remember making some elderflower cordial once, bottling it and leaving it out of the fridge. A friend opened it and got covered in half fermenting elderflower wine wine.

Wild cordials can start to spontaneously ferment when wild yeasts get to work on them. The fermentation process causes carbon dioxide gas. Left with nowhere to go in a bottle this can build up and cause explosions.

If you suspect that your has started to ferment you could put it in a demijohn and let it ferment out and see what you end up with. Or you could put it in the fridge. Yeast activity is suspended at low temperatures (well most yeasts) and bottles in the fridge are much less likely to explode.

For more recipes and problem solving have a look at my book, Booze for free.

Turning a different (darker) colour

Is this due to oxidation? A rusty colour and sherry like taste after fermentation is a sure sign that air has got into your champagne. Enjoy your elderflower sherry or kick yourself and tip it away. Next time ensure that there everything is sealed throughout the process or add a crushed campden tablet and see if that helps.

It could also be a problem with the recipe (I put my hands up here too), if it is suggested that you leave it to stand for a number of days before adding the yeast then ignore. The yeast should be added when the water has cooled to below 20°c.

Brown liquid It could also be a sign that you have not used any acid, squeeze in the juice of a lemon per (5L/1 gallon) demijohn full or half a teaspoon of citric acid.

 

The Urban forager by Andy Hamilton

Sloes by RoyIt often surprises people when they realise that urban environments can supply a more diverse range of foods than rural areas can. This mass delusion of the bio diverse countryside manifests itself when you see hoards of people flocking to country parks or pulling up on B road lay-bys at the mere mention of wild food on BBC’s Countryfile or Autumnwatch.

Urban foraging vs Countryside

I am not denying that you will get some food from the countryside, when looking for soles or hawthorns for instance the countryside should be your first point of call. Also, it can be simply a good day out with the family if you go foraging together.  What I am suggesting is that, before you do jump in your car or hop on a bus, consider a much more carbon friendly approach to foraging and wild food. That is to nip down to the local park, look on walls down your street and even ask the neighbours if you can help weeding.

Andy Hamilton the Urban forager up an elder tree, foraging by Roy Hunt

Andy Hamilton, the urban forager

Indeed I just have to poke my head out of my living room window on this (the day of writing) a morning in March to see ground ivy which used to be used in brewing in place of hops and can be used in a salad. Ivy leafed toad flax which is a great grazing food as it sets root in on walls and can be eaten as you wander down a street. Some thyme growing in the cracks in my pavement, a window box left over from the previous season giving home to some dandelions, sage, chickweed which can be used in a salad, goosegrass which makes a great detox drink, ribwort plantain that can be used in place of spinach. Finally there is hairy bitter cress which has a great peppery taste and can really jazz up a ham sandwich. Compare these crops to a conventional farmer’s field and you are likely to see just one crop, or if it has just been ploughed perhaps nothing growing at all!

Things are improving with the governments bio-diversity subsidies but the fact still remains that farmland in this country generally consists of huge swathes of mono-crops. Stand up on a vantage point in any county and you are likely to see fields and fields of just one crop such as rape, corn, maize or sugar beet. Even the grass grown for grazing on livestock farms is likely to be planted and therefore only around 3 or 4 varieties will be grown.  Also take into consideration the sheer size of the fields taken up by just one crop.

Urban foraging

Now compare this to the areas plants grow within a city. Cities are not made up of a few fields marked for a few uses they are as diverse as the people who live within them. We have gardens, parks, allotments, golf courses, football pitches and industrial sites all within our city walls.  If you walk around an allotment site or even peer out of your bedroom window to see what everyone is growing you are sure to see a whole host of plants.  This is because thankfully we are all different and so the whole range of tastes are catered for with each garden. When the green thumbs of our isle get into action it is possible to grow plants from all over the world and many gardeners do just that.

Yes, I am oversimplifying things and not mentioning woodlands, country parks, nature reserves, organic farms or even hedgerows around farms. What I am suggesting is that to really learn about wild plants you don’t have to go out and look in the countryside.

In fact a friend of mine who offers paid for forages also and lives on the south east cost, came to Bristol and we walked through an area surrounded by gardens, allotments, a couple of small holdings and a city farm. He was amazed at the number of plants on just two streets. Sure enough the diversity of human activity around this area has a direct correlation with the amount of plants on offer.

This, I think is why I am angered to see gardens being turned into off street parking place, new housing estates appearing on parkland and in place of allotments. Or people selling off parts of their gardens in order to squeeze in a few more houses into areas that already resemble a rabbit warren.  If the government insists that it is helping bio diversity should they not be looking into giving gardeners and allotment owners subsidies as well as to farmers? This could be a step towards preserving some of the plants that could otherwise leave our shores.

Andy Hamilton foraging for urban wild food blackberries

A spot of Urban blackberry foraging

Both the countryside and urban forager too must take a great responsibility to the plants that are around him (or her). Many people that first get bitten by the foraging bug will immediately run out and start tearing up the countryside in the hunger for new tastes. I too was once guilty of this when I found a patch of wild rocket growing by a river not far from my house and I then massacring the whole plant in order to make rocket pesto. It was not until the next year when I saw some wild rocket growing in a place further down river that I remembered this previous patch, I had not allowed any of the plant to go to seed and had deprived it from its sole and rightful purpose in this world, to reproduce. This mistake not only cost the plant’s children their future but it also forced me to walk further for my pesto ingredients than I needed to. This anecdote hopefully illustrates a far greater point, that of conservation.

It is possible to carry on eating wild plants without devastating your local stock. The foragers code suggests that you should leave the plant looking like it did when you first saw it. This means don’t strip all of it’s leaves off, eat all of the flowers pick the whole plant up by the root. In fact it is illegal to dig up the roots of any plant without the land owner’s permission and some rare plants should be left alone totally in order to preserve them.

You must also be very aware that there are some poisonous plants out there, plants that will paralyse you if digested, plants that will cause a slow lingering death and plants that will just make you ill. The old saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, rings true when it comes to foraging and you must always be 110% certain before you eat something that you find.

It is not that difficult to find a forager in your area to get some basic knowledge to get you started, just look out on notice boards, in health food shops and on the internet.  I taught myself using books and the internet.  The wild food section of our book, The Selfsufficientish Bible published by Hodder and Stoughton is set out with the novice in mind giving a brief description of various foods, information on where to look and a few recipes. My othe book Booze for freeOther books that have helped me are the classic Food for free, by Richard Mabey. I would try and source an older version of his book as it is a much better read and goes into more detail than later editions. By far the best Mushrooms guides are by Roger Phillips which have detailed descriptions, edibility advice and great photographs. I seem to collect wild flower guides too which can be found in good secondhand book shops and charity shops ensure that it has the latin names of each plant as many common names can vary.

I found that the more plants I learnt about the easier it became to identify them. I learnt by identifying the plants on my doorstep. I took out my digital camera took a snap and through a process of elimination worked out which each plant was. Over a few years you will be amazed at how many plants you can identify using this method and it can be quite a buzz knowing that you can identify most of the plants in a mile radius from your house.  Happy foraging