The Royal Bouquet

The royal bouquet

I do love a good wedding, but I have to say I was a tad disappointed by Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet. It was just so, well, tiny. It looked more like a flower girl’s posy. (A very pretty flower girl’s posy, nonetheless, but just a bit dinky compared to all the rest of the pomp and pageantry surrounding the occasion.)

Mind you, for such a small bouquet, it was oozing in symbolism. According to the official Royal Wedding website: “The bouquet is a shield-shaped wired bouquet of myrtle, lily-of-the-valley, sweet William and hyacinth.  The bouquet was designed by Shane Connolly and draws on the traditions of flowers of significance for the Royal Family, the Middleton family and on the Language of Flowers. The flowers’ meanings in the bouquet are:

Lily-of-the-valley – Return of happiness
Sweet William – Gallantry
Hyacinth – Constancy of love
Ivy: Fidelity; marriage; wedded love; friendship; affection
Myrtle: the emblem of marriage; love.

The bouquet contains stems from a myrtle planted at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, by QueenVictoriain 1845, and a sprig from a plant grown from the myrtle used in The Queen’s wedding bouquet of 1947. The tradition of carrying myrtle begun after QueenVictoriawas given a nosegay containing myrtle byPrince Albert’s grandmother during a visit toGothainGermany.  In the same year, QueenVictoriaandPrince Albertbought Osborne House as a family retreat, and a sprig from the posy was planted against the terrace walls, where it continues to thrive today. The myrtle was first carried by QueenVictoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, when she married in 1858, and was used to signify the traditional innocence of a bride.”

I love fragrant lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). It’s one of the classic perennials of spring, but it really needs a frosty winter climate to do well. I never managed to get these bulb-like plants to flower in my Aucklandcity garden, but we get wicked frosts here in Hunua, so I might just have another crack at establishing a clump under some trees this year. You can get the dormant rhizomes in selected garden centres now, or wait until spring for plants (look in the perennial section at your local garden centre), or check Trade Me for plants sold by hobby growers. Parva Plants also have an adorable pale pink-flowered form (Convallaria majalis var. rosea) but – drats – it has sold out for the season.

Apple Butter

Apple Butter

In my Down Country column in last weekend’s Sunday magazine in the Sunday Star Times, I wrote about making a batch of Jersey black butter, or nièr beurre. This spicy, treacle-coloured preserve dates back to the 1500s, when it was invented as a byproduct of the Channel Islands cider industry.

Here are the instructions from my column:

The traditional method is to simmer it for 30 hours, stirring constantly, in huge copper cauldrons over an open fire. You know it’s done when a wooden spoon, pressed into a sticky dollop on a plate, adheres sufficiently to lift the plate.

I don’t own a copper cauldron, and I doubt the council issues fire permits for preserving, so I made a scaled-down version in my slow cooker. Simmer 4kg peeled, sliced, cooking apples in 500ml fresh apple juice or dry, homemade cider for a few hours, till the apples turn to mush. Then add ½ cup caster sugar, a 40g log of natural liquorice, the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon mixed spice. Ignore for the rest of the day, apart from the occasional stir.

It took 12 hours for my nièr beurre to turn into thick brown sludge (anyone care to translate that into Jersey’s Norman-French dialect?). But trust me, it tastes far nicer than it looks. I’ve been spooning it over porridge, slathering it on hot cross buns and folding it into custard fools. It’s delicious stirred through thick Greek yoghurt, or, even better, local Clevedon Valley Buffalo yoghurt, the 2010 supreme winner in Cuisine magazine’s Artisan Awards.

An Easter delivery

A box of fluffies!

I was boiling up a batch of wild hawthorn berry jelly this morning when I looked out the kitchen window and saw… seven tiny fluffy ducklings running around the driveway! Way to go Mama Duck! (Forgive the sudden outbreak of exclamation marks but I’m excited!)

Our female Pekin duck (I call her Streaky-Beak because she has a few stripes on her snozz) has been sitting on a nest of eggs under the barberry hedge on our far boundary for at least a month. It’s her second crack at motherhood (our puppy defeated her first attempt last spring when he found her nest under the conifer shelter belt and ate all 14 eggs in one go). But given how cold it has been getting at night here now, I didn’t hold out much hope that she’d be able to keep the eggs warm enough to hatch. In fact, just yesterday I was thinking I really should get her off the nest before she loses all her condition before winter.

Baby ducklings are so adorable. Unfortunately, they’re also appetising to hawks. We rounded up the ducklings before breakfast, then turfed the chooks out of the chook run and locked the quackers in there as a temporary measure. Ten minutes later, I saw the first hawk swoop. My maternal instinct kicked in (I went a little bananas) and I rushed out in my slippers to scare it off. So now the ducks are safely ensconced in the haybarn instead and Dad’s on his way over to give us a hand to rig up a temporary mesh run out the barn door.

Meanwhile, my haw jelly stuck to the pot. But who cares? We have a box of Easter fluffies!

Making Mulled Wine Jelly

My poshest preserve (scrummy on scones)

I’m off to the the preserving showdown Jam Off in Wellington this weekend with a special jar of sparkling red jelly packed in my hand luggage. (Here’s the background story, from my Good Life column in NZ Gardener.)

Figuring that the fancier a jam sounds, the more likely it is to appeal to the judges, I invented my own Elderberry, ‘Albany Surprise’ grape & Pinot Noir Mulled Wine Jelly. It’s my version of an uber posh preserve – and I have to say that it’s quite possibly the most delicious jelly I’ve ever made. Leaves quince jelly and crabapple jelly for dead, and not just because the colour is an intense ruby red.

The good thing about making jellies is that you really don’t need to stick to a recipe. Just bung any fruit you have – apples, crabapples, pears, feijoas, berries, guavas – into a pot, cover with water and simmer until the fruit is tender and pulpy. Then pour this pulp through a jelly bag or a double-folded piece of muslin (even a clean pillowcase will do the trick at a pinch) and let the juice drip out slowly into a bowl overnight. Resist the temptation to squeeze the pulp, as this can turn your jelly cloudy. The next day, measure the volume of liquid and bring it to boil in a pot. Then add an equal volume of sugar (ie, 2 cups of juice = 2 cups sugar). Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves, then boil rapidly until the liquid changes consistency and goes clear. (If you’ve never made jelly before, this is quite a noticeable change when it happens, and is usually accompanied by the sudden formation of scum on the surface, which is easily scooped off.) Test for setting point, then pour into jars and seal. And here’s my cheat’s tip: use Chelsea Jam Setting Sugar, which contains pectin and citric acid. It makes foolproof jelly in 5 minutes. Until I started using this special jam sugar, I could never get my red cherry guava jelly to set firmly (I just pretended I was making guava cordial or guava sauce).

To make my mulled wine jelly, I started with a few handfuls of dark purple elderberries off the scrubby old shrub in my city garden. I used them more for their colour than their flavour, which can be a tad overpowering. Elderberries are a roadside weed in most parts of the South Island, but if you want to grow a nice variety, Sarah Frater at The Edible Garden in Palmerston North has a beautiful lacy-leafed species called Sambucus laciniata. (It’s not listed in her mail order catalogue, but you can email her to request it. It has the same fruit as a standard elder but isn’t nearly as vigorous, which is a good thing! She also has the old-time variety ‘Adam’ in her Koanga Collection).

I placed the elderberries in a pot with 1kg ‘Albany Surprise’ grapes (the best variety for sweet, black, juicy grapes in late summer/early autumn) and lightly crushed them with a potato masher. Then I added 1 cup water, half a bottle of pinot noir wine, a cinnamon stick, half a dozen whole cloves and the zest of 1 orange (just peel it off in strips with a potato peeler, trying not to get any bitter pith). Add the orange juice too if you like. I also snuck in 2 star anise and a pinch of mixed spice (just because I had them in the pantry). Simmer over a low heat for an hour or so (don’t boil hard or the liquid evaporates and you’ll end up going through all this effort to make one miserable jar), then strain through a jelly bag overnight. Then measure the juice, add an equal quantity of sugar, and boil as per the instructions above.

(And if you’d rather just drink mulled wine, here is Jamie Oliver’s recipe.)

Red, red wine

Ravishing red rhubarb

Someone should invent an air freshener that smells like rhubarb. Our house smells deliciously fruity tonight, as I’ve got big buckets of rhubarb steeping in boiling water on the kitchen floor. I’ve just started my first batch of rhubarb wine (hic!) and fizzy but alcohol-free rhubarb champagne. I bought four bunches of red-stemmed rhubarb from Stella Christoffersen of Running Brook Seeds at the Clevedon Farmers’ Market this morning, which I’ve supplemented with a couple of kilograms of my own fat greenish-red rhubarb. (The really red stuff is hard to come by unless you know a friend with an old clump, as most of the plants sold in garden centres these days, despite being labelled as ‘Victoria’, tend to ripen to pale red at best).

I’ve got a big bed of rhubarb by our front door that’s looking huge and healthy. (I wrote about why it’s looking so good in my Good Life column in NZ Gardener a couple of months back. All I’ll say is that my formerly miserable-looking patch of rhubarb had a sudden revival in fortunes following a stag do involving beer, boys and their bladders. Click here to read more.)

Shopping for spring

My orchard will look like this in spring! Photos:

Our orchard is nothing much to look at yet. Two years ago, about two weeks after I met my husband, I suggested (some might say coerced with the power of fluttering, mascara-clad eyelashes) that he might like to put in an orchard of heritage apples, pears, almonds and crabapples in one of his paddocks. I’m glad I got in early, because orchards take years to stop looking like a bunch of lonely skinny sticks and start linking up their canopies in clouds of blossoms and fruit. You can’t let the sheep in to graze under the trees for a few years either (otherwise they’ll just eat the trees and ignore the long grass), so we’re mowing ours at the moment. But my aim eventually is only to mow long paths between the rows of trees, because I want to underplant them with hedgerows of wildflowers, rugosa roses, bulbs and berries, all mixed together in a sort of rustic, romantic, rambling fashion.

To get things started, I’ve taken elderberry cuttings from my city garden and we’ve strung up wires and waratahs to support boysenberries and raspberries (and possibly grape vines), plus I have plans to haul out all the cosmos and wildflowers from the wedding garden and use them as a seedy mulch around the trees. Plus there’s already quite a bit of red clover and ox-eye daisies growing wild in the paddock… which brings me to the bulbs.

Spring bulbs are simply gorgeous under deciduous fruit trees, so last night I succumbed to retail therapy and ordered a huge selection of white and cream daffodils, snowdrops, green-tinged tulips, bluebells, crocus and a few fancy frittillarias from NZ Bulbs‘ website. Now I’ve just got to rope in a team to plant them all. (When I visited Highgrove, Prince Charles’ private garden, a few years ago, he told us how he planted 7000 species tulips in his wildflower meadow. He gave sacks of bulbs to his team of gardeners and told them they couldn’t go home until they were all in the ground. I’m not sure that strategy will work on my husband and parents, but here’s hoping! I’ll treat them to apple tarte tatin if they agree.)

He’s got balls

Rambo, ready for action

We’re running a dating agency on our farm at the moment. “Ladies, meet Rambo. Rambo, meet our 12 eligible ewes. Now, go to it old fella. Make some lamb love.”

We’ve borrowed my mother-in-law’s ram to spice things up in the paddocks. Apparently Rambo spits out twins every time. He certainly seems to be blessed in the, well, balls department.

It will be intriguing to see what Rambo makes of Harold, the fat old ewe we inherited from my nephew Sam. (Harold was Sam’s first calf club day pet. I don’t think Sam fully comprehended the difference between girls and boys at that point.)

Harold is a rather unique sheep, and not just because of her manly name. She actually thinks she’s a cow, as she’s spent her entire life hanging out with heifers. When she moved out here with us, we initially put her in with the other ewes, but she didn’t seem to speak sheep. Instead she sat by herself, as far away as possible from the rest of the flock, and baa-ed miserably until we took pity on her and opened the gate to the cow paddock instead.

A romantic weekend with Rambo could be just what Harold needs.

Hop to it

I harvested my hops this week. I’ve got three hop vines crawling over the stables, where they’re battling for supremacy with the grafted passionfruit vine, but only two have flowered (perhaps the other vine is a male?).  My entire harvest came to half a bucket, which weighed in at just 100g. (Hop flowers are as light as air!) But 100g is enough to make 10 litres of home-brewed beer, so I’ve been boiling them up in a big  pot of water to extract all their flavour. The smell is just incredible. And as hops are a natural sedative, I bet I’m going to sleep well tonight.

The apples of my eye

Pregnant women should be banned from cookbook stores. I can’t resist a home-cooked pudding at the moment, so when I came across the apple dumpling recipe in Monty and Sarah Don’s new book, The Home Cookbook ($59.99, published by Bloomsbury and distributed in New Zealand by Allen & Unwin), I immediately headed out to our orchard to grab a few ‘Granny Smiths’.

My Mum used to make apple dumplings, just as her Mum did. Encased in pastry and swimming in a simple caramel sauce, they’re one of our family’s all-time favourite autumn desserts. (Oddly, baked apples – you know the ones that come stuffed with raisins and sugar – are one of my all-time least-liked desserts.) 

I was all set to try Monty and Sarah’s recipe for apple dumplings until I read the ingredients: 500g plain flour, 250g unsalted butter, 125g caster sugar, 2 eggs, 1 tablespoon iced water and 4-6 apples. A quarter of a kilogram of butter?!

The Edmonds Cookery Book recipe only uses 50g of butter, so I figured it was safer to stick to that as my belly is already bulging at the seams! The Edmonds recipe doesn’t use eggs though, and as we’ve got plenty of those at the moment, I figured I’d drop one in for a little protein in my pudding.

To make apple dumplings, sift 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3 teaspoons baking powder together. Chop in 50g cold buttter and rub it into the dry ingredients until they have the consistency of breadcrumbs. Now break in a large egg (if desired) and add up to 1 cup milk (enough to bind the mixture into a soft dough). Divide the dough into four pieces and roll out into a large circle shape. Then peel and core a whole apple and place it in the centre of each dough circe. Drop a spoonful of brown sugar down the apple core hole, then fold in the pastry and press the seams together. (If you’re feeling creative, trim off a little excess pastry and cut out some leaves and a stalk to decorate the top. And don’t laugh at mine: they look like they’ve sprouted nipples!)

Grease a deep baking dish (it needs to be deep to accommodate the sauce) and pop the dumplings in. Then make the sauce by combining 1 cup boiling water, 1 cup brown sugar and a generous knob of butter. Pour this around the dumplings and bake at 190C (or 180C in a fan bake oven) until the pastry is puffy and golden (about 30-45 minutes). Baste the pastry with the sauce a couple of times during the cooking process. Then serve hot with as much custard or ice cream as you can squeeze into the pudding bowl beside each dumpling! Delicious!