Thursday 30 November 2017

Mellow fruitfulness - autumn harvest

Along with the smells of mellow earth and burning leaves, autumn also brings aromas of vinegar, honey, sugar and fruits in our house. I only have a small freezer and no room to install a bigger one, so if I'm lucky enough to get a produce glut (and there's usually something that runs riot and produces far more than we can reasonably eat while it's still fresh), it needs to be preserved some other way.

Liqueurs, pickles, jellies and chutneys will use up a satisfyingly large amount of excess produce and keep for months - indeed, liqueurs and chutneys are often at their best if kept for months before you start to use them. You can happily experiment with ingredients and the balance of spicing to suit your palate and nearly always end up with something delicious - although I am still haunted by the spiced quince chutney which tasted fine but looked exactly like Pedigree Chum.


Jellies are I think particularly rewarding. They look beautiful: clear and in jewel-like colours. Quince jelly sets to a rich tawny amber colour; the golden lemon chilli jelly is almost irridescent when it catches the morning sun. They are versatile:can be spread on bread, rolls or toast, can accompany meats and cheese, a scant teaspoonful will lift a gravy and I did once, in extremis, use damson jelly as a filling for a Victoria sponge when I found the strawberry jam jar quite empty. They use up loads of fruit (and, it must be said, an industrial amount of sugar) and make good gifts for friends, school fairs and harvest festivals.

The quince jelly (above left) is made using the classic method: chop up quinces and boil in water with a little lemon juice for about an hour, then strain overnight through a jelly bag. The next day, boil up again using 450g sugar for every 600ml of juice, and boil rapidly until the setting point is reached.

The lemon chilli jelly (left) is made with an apple juice base: chop up apples, simmer in water with a little lemon juice* for an hour then strain through a jelly bag. Next day, boil up again using the same juice-to-sugar ratio as above - I find apple jelly very quick to set compared to others. While the liquid is boiling away, chop up around 60-80g of hot lemon** chillies and one yellow sweet pepper - I put them in the mini food processor to get the pieces very fine and it means I don't have to take my eye off the jelly pan for too long. Once the setting point is reached, turn off the heat and stir in the chillies. Stir the mix again when you're just about to pour into jars to ensure the chilli pieces are distributed evenly.

* This year's batch, very poncily, uses fresh bergamot juice as the citrus as I've had a big fat bergamot hanging from my Citrus bergamia bush all summer and hadn't yet found a use for it.

** I use yellow chillies to highlight the gorgeous honey blonde colour of this jelly, but finely chopped red chillies (and a red sweet pepper) would be visually stunning suspended in the pale jelly as well.


I'm not as adventurous with pickles as I could be: sweet peppers, and also chilli peppers, in glut years, will be preserved this way. I also regularly go through the shallots to pick out the smallest ones and pickle these in white wine vinegar, salt and tarragon. Peeling tiny shallots, even after they've been soaked in boiling water, is a pain, but once that's been done, it's a quick and easy method.

There is also always one pumpkin that you know won't be a keeper, whether it's been damaged, or as happened this year, because the fruit grew through the plastic mesh supporting the plants and ended up looking more like a Penny Bun than a pumpkin. Non-keeping squash will also be pickled: peeled, sliced into slim wedges and steeped in white wine vinegar, spiced with coriander, allspice, mace, ginger, chillies and a little star anise. This year I took inspiration from Karon Grieve's recipe at Larder Love and added a spoonful of sherry to the pickling liquor. Pickled pumpkin, served with pickled walnuts (sadly, not having a walnut tree, I have to buy these) and burrata or very fresh mozzarella, makes an excellent no-cook Christmas Day starter to keep everyone quiet while you finish off the main course.

Flavoured liqueurs are an rewarding way to use up a glut of fruit while creating something delicious. The basic method is to steep fruit, with sugar, in your chosen alcohol - I often use vodka because it doesn't have a strong flavour of its own but it's fun to experiment. Brandy and gin are both excellent vehicles for making a fruit-based liqueur and impart their own flavour to the finished drink.

You can leave the fruit and sugar gently infusing the alcohol for days, weeks, even months. The amount of sugar to add is really down to your own taste and also depends on the natural sweetness of the fruit. For the damson gin, shown here still at the infusion stage, I will add half the weight of the damsons in sugar, ie, 500g of sugar to every 1kg of damsons.

For blackberry vodka (creme de mure), below, you can use less sugar as the blackberries tend to be sweeter than damson and to use a similar amount would give you quite a cloying liqueur.

The infusion needs to be kept somewhere cool and dark and the process can't be hurried. At the beginning, you can up-end the jar every couple of days to get the sugar to dissolve; once it has, leave the mixture severely alone.

After a couple of months, you might want to taste the infusion - just to see how it's doing. It probably won't taste quite ready, so re-seal and leave alone again for another couple of months. But once it does taste a bit more rounded, a bit more full-bodies, strain the liqueur through muslin or a fine nylon sieve into a clean jar, reseal, put it back in the cool dark place, and leave again for a good couple of months before tasting.

I made the blackberry vodka at the end of July and I'm planning to use it in a celebratory Kir Royale to toast in the New Year. The damson gin above still has a way to go; I think we'll start sipping that with our first outdoor suppers next spring.

Note: when making any of these preserves, including the liqueurs for long-term storage and use, make sure all your jars, bottles, utensils, etc, are sterilised. This can be done easily enough in a hot dishwasher cycle, followed by drying them off in an oven at 120 degrees. Don't forget to do the lids as well!

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