When we research our ancestors we tend to look at them at one remove. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, but there is one time of the year when I feel the tug of the ancestral genes – Autumn. In particular the harvest to be found in the trees and hedgerows. Sometime towards the end of August I will notice the blackberries starting to ripen and look forward to the harvest to come.
The last few years I seem to have missed it. Dull wet summers and the sudden start of meetings and classes have distracted me, but this year was different. Good weather, at the right time, have produced bumper crops. The garden has produced potatoes (not many, but more than last year when they got blight) and beans – french and runner (the latter still going now). From the greenhouse came tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and I had to make a mousaka to use up an unexpected crop of aubergines (what else can you use them for?). Apples (no pears this year), plums and raspberries. There were a few puny fruits from a cultivated blackberry in the garden, but it was when my husband mentioned there were lots of blackberries in nearby hedgerows that I sprang into action.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the sun was shining. I packed several old 1 litre ice-cream containers into a bag, my husband querying why we needed so many for a few blackberries – just wait and see!
I quickly filled a container and while he, a bit slower, filled his, I had moved onto a bush full of beautiful sloes. It was several years since I had last made sloe gin and our stock was getting low! It seemed that someone had already stripped the more accessible branches but with a bit of balancing on the edge of a ditch and pulling down branches, I soon had two containers of sloes.
I had also noticed the elderberries were looking especially good, so on the way back I plucked handfuls of the juicy sprays of fruit. We had run out of containers by now, but these went into the carrier bag. So we returned home, hot, scratched, stung by nettles and dripping purple juice. What to do with all this bounty? Jam, wine or into the freezer for another day?
First I put the kettle on. No, not for a cup of tea – I needed a gallon or so of boiling water to pour over the 6lbs of elderberries which I had deposited into a bucket. The first stage of turning them into wine. The 3lbs of blackberries went into the fridge, they would be made into jam. The sloes, nearly one and a half pounds, also went into the fridge until I could get to the shops for gin (Aldi is the cheapest!).
While I was occupied with all this, my husband had decided to do a bit of pruning. We have an ornamental vine on the patio (Vitis vinifera Purpurea) which had made a lot of growth this year and was blocking light into the conservatory (useful in the summer but now we needed as much heat as possible). It needed cutting back and I emerged from the kitchen to find the stems, together with several bunches of grapes about to be consigned to the garden waste wheely bin. I quickly put a stop to this and found I now had seven pounds of grapes to deal with.
Opinion seems to be divided as to whether these grapes are edible, but I tasted one and although not terribly sweet it was palatable. I would make some more wine, but not “proper” wine from the juice, but would treat it as a country wine, like the elderberries. Cue another bucket and more boiling kettles.
The next day, after purchasing sugar and gin, I went into production. The result was five jars of blackberry jam and a large container of sloes, each individually stabbed with a fork and soaking in sugar, almonds and gin. I was getting into the swing of this – I could do with some more blackberries (blackberry brandy, anyone?), the sun was still shining, so out I went again.
Some of the blackberries went into another jar with sugar and the brandy, the rest into the freezer in half pound bags One came out a week later and made a very nice apple and blackberry crumble – using cooking apples from the garden, of course. The sloes also went into the freezer, in case I want to make more sloe gin – I can’t afford more than one bottle of gin a week!
By the end of September, the elderberries and red grapes had been strained, sugar and yeast added and I had a row of demijohns bubbling away. I couldn’t collect any more blackberries as it was now October, and as everyone knows you can’t pick them then, as they belong to the devil. Did my ancestors have this superstition or was it just my mother? It’s also good luck to catch a falling leaf in October – surprisingly difficult, considering how many there are about.
You might have thought my labours had ended, but no, I was keeping an eye on the vineyard. Well, it’s not actually a vineyard, just three Muller-Thurgau vines planted against the south-facing wall of the garage. Unfortunately, said garage is on a north facing hill, so usually mould, or the blackbirds get there first – in fact usually there are not enough grapes to bother with. This year however looked like being worth the effort. A couple of days ago, with the prospect of a violent storm, we harvested the grapes.
They then had to be crushed. The best way of doing this is the traditional one, by treading, so I climbed in. It really is the most efficient way of doing it – I even remembered to wash my feet first. I don’t know if this is something any of my ancestors did – perhaps some British slave on a Roman estate…
It then had to be strained and I discovered I had produced an amazing 10+ pints of juice. Then came the technical bit – messing around with hydrometer, thermometer and paper and pencil to work out how much sugar to add. This would increase the potential alcohol from 4-5 degrees to a more drinkable 10-11. The yeast was added and now there is a thick layer of froth on the top. When that has died down a bit, it will be transferred to demijohns to finish working.
I know that I don’t have to do all this. Unlike my ancestors, for whom all this effort would have been a matter of life and death – the ability to preserve food would help them survive the winter, I can just go to the shops to buy jam or wine, or even sloe gin. But it gives me a great sense of satisfaction and saves money. How else could you get several gallons of wine for the price of a few bags of sugar and a visit to the local hedgerows.
I’m now hoping that the elderberry or red grape wine will be ready for bottling soon. I am expecting the storm to bring down the fruits of the crabapple tree in the hedge at the bottom of the garden and I’m running out of demijohns.