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.

Birch Sap Wine and how to tap a birch

Birch sap being collected

Birch Sap being collected

One of the first signs that spring has sprung is when small, neatly wrapped parcels of leaves start to appear on the trees. These buds indicate not only the start of spring but that the sap is rising, and the sap  from the birch can be tapped and drunk. The ambrosial birch sap need not be just a taste of early spring as it can be preserved as a wine. Any birch tree can be tapped, but ensure you tap an older tree of at least 25–30cm in diameter: any smaller and you risk damaging the tree before it has had a chance to grow. Drill a hole into the tree at a 30-degree angle facing downwards. The hole should just penetrate the bark and should be as thick as the piece of tube you will need to insert into the tree. Push the tubing right into the tree and put the other end in a bottle or demijohn. Leave for a day or two, returning twice daily to check on progress. If the sap that comes out smells and looks a bit like dog pee then the tree has been infected with a fungus and the sap should be discarded.

It can be difficult to tap a birch tree if you live in a town or city. My friend and fellow forager Fergus Drennan suggests that you climb the tree and tape or tie the demijohn to a higher branch before tapping up there. The sap rises right up the tree so you should still get a good amount.

When you have finished tapping the tree, make sure you plug up the hole. There are several ways to do this, including shoving a piece of cork into the hole and covering it with wax so you can come back on alternate years, pick the wax off, pull out the cork and tap again. Personally, when I plug a birch I find a small twig or branch underneath the tree, cut that to shape with a penknife then hammer it home with a stone. If you don’t plug a tree you leave it open to infection, which could kill it.

Birch sap does not keep very well and should be put into use as soon as possible. If refrigerated it will last for only a few days, but it can be frozen until needed.

Birch sap wine is certainly a delicacy of the woods, so much so that it is available commercially in many countries. By altering the amount of sugar used in the fermentation process you can determine how sweet or dry your wine turns out to be. This recipe will make a slightly dry wine.

BIRCH SAP WINE

4.5 litres birch sap
250ml white grape concentrate
1kg sugar
2 tsp citric acid
half tsp tannin
Hock wine yeast

Bring the sap, concentrate and sugar to the boil, remove from the heat and add the citric acid, then stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature then stir in the tannin and sprinkle the yeast on. Cover loosely and leave for ten days.

Siphon into a demijohn and rack after about four weeks. Allow to ferment out before bottling and age for at least three months.

First published on the Observer Organic Allotment blog