Cordial relations

Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin corcord- ‘heart’.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.

Rosemary and friend

Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.

Flat-leaved parsley ~ volunteers appear all over the garden.

Herbs

  • Rosemary*
  • Sage*
  • Thyme (common and lemon)*
  • Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
  • Fennel
  • Dill*
  • Parsley *(flat-leaf)
  • Coriander*
  • Chives
  • Basil*
  • Comfrey
  • Lemon balm*
  • Lavender*
  • Hyssop*
  • Marjoram
  • Chervil
Thyme

Flowers:

  • Sweet violet
  • Pansies
  • Rose*
  • Primrose
  • Wild strawberries*
  • Pot marigold (calendula)*
  • Nasturtium*
  • Feverfew
Wild strawberry

Trees

  • Walnut*
  • Eucalyptus*
  • Bay*

Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.

Wish list

  • Tarragon
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon verbena
  • Purple sage
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea)
  • Chamomile
  • Angelica
  • Peppermint
  • Salad burnet
  • Savory
  • Myrtle
  • Sweet cicely
Borage

Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.

Marjoram

This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.

Bits and pieces

  • Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
  • Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
  • Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
  • Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
  • Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
  • Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
Honeysuckle ~ so much kinder on the nose than tansy!

The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?

Calendula and sage

Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.

Wild things

  • Dandelion
  • Nettle
  • Chickweed
  • Self-heal
  • Cleavers
  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Red clover
  • Daisy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
Plantain

I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.

Daisies, red clover and buttercups

On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.

How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.

Apple mint

I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.

Dill

The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.

Nasturtium

Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Spearmint

My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!

Double feverfew and nasturtiums

Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.

Passionflower

Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!

Coriander flourishes outside all year round.

Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?

Hyssop

In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.

Lemon balm and rosemary cordial ~ disaster free!

I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂

16 thoughts on “Cordial relations

  1. Photos of the moonlight dance essential to next post!! Ah how I’ve laughed- I remember the ginger beer incident! But I don’t remember the elderflower cordial one…!
    Just what I needed to cheer me up today – it looks like we’ll have to continue shielding til August 16th 😦

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    1. I’ll have to persuade someone to take the photos, then! 🙂 Mmm, the famous ginger beer, never to be repeated! I’m glad it cheered you up, that’s terrible news. Perhaps you should have stayed in Asturias in November . . . 😉

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  2. We usually pour boiling water over the herbs, cover with a towel and leave to sit for a day and then brew on into a beer strength drink with 500g sugar per 5 litres and 1tsp general wine yeast. This week we bottled our first herb beer made with wild yeast recovered from mugwort. Lemon verbena is particularly good for a refreshing summer drink. Don’t like rue either, it actually attracted flies here and the smell, we pulled it out. Do like the pine scent of tansy though and it grows like a weed here. Yarrow is another useful herb. And we’ve been drinking feverfew tea for muscle pain instead of taking painkillers. I’m on my second attempt for echinacea, fingers crossed. And you have to add Korean mint aka agastache rugosa, it’s a lovely flower and has a delightful liquorice flavour.

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    1. I should have put yarrow on the list, there’s a lot coming up in our wild patch which I have my eye on. I had agastache rugosa in a previous garden but like the echinacea, it never thrived. Time to have another go, maybe? Wish I could get ‘pine’ out of tansy!!!! I take it your herb beer is alcoholic? One of the biggest problems I had with cordial recipes was the level of sugar used, one had 1kg for every litre of liquid which I would find completely undrinkable. I’m relying on the fact that as long as I keep it in the fridge and use it quickly then natural yeasts and the like shouldn’t be an issue. Builders’ merchants are open to the public again here so we’re off today to fetch materials to finish all those outside projects at last! 🙂

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      1. We’ve stopped making cordials as they are just too sweet for us, but refrigerating and drinking quickly is the way to go. Could always do the iced tea thing instead. Glad I’m not the only one struggling with echinacea, this is the final attempt. Hyssop, sage and thyme are not doing too well either, but the agastache rugosa is thriving, I have added another 24 plants.

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      2. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the warmth lovers are growing so much better here than they did in Wales! Very excited to have tiny oranges on our tree for the first time. I’m drinking a lot of unsweetened iced tea, I just thought a cordial would be nice as we can dilute it with sparkling water. We should be landing at Gatwick about now for two big family celebrations tomorrow then on to our holiday in Norway on Sunday . . . very sad not to be there, but forget the cordial, it’s bubbly all the way tomorrow! 🙂

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  3. What is it about echinacea? It always looks so lovely in cottage-style gardens, but I have tried to grow it a number of times, and each attempt has ended in a slow and sad death.
    Congratulations on the cordial success. It sounds delicious.

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    1. I wish I knew, Jane! It became very fashionable in the UK some years ago when ‘prairie planting’ was all the rage. I wasn’t a fan of the ornamental grasses but loved verbena bonariensis which I’ve always been able to grow (it’a a real weed here, in fact!) and echinacea which I’ve lost more times than I can remember. In the end it just seems cruel to keep trying and killing healthy plants but I think one more go is called for. Watch this space . . . 🙂

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  4. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Sam’s great ginger beer event – sounds hilarious and gave me a good chuckle (maybe it wasn’t so funny at the time though!) 😀 Lemon balm and rosemary sounds like a tasty combination, and what a lovely thing to experiment with. Think I vote for the moonlit dance experiment next, with photos please! 🙂
    Sam and I made elderflower cordial with no citric acid (funnily enough after struggling to find in the UK I can buy it everywhere here, just can’t get my hands on any elderflowers…) and it kept in the fridge for a week or so with no problem. We turned most of ours into sorbet though so that it kept for ages, and then would put a small scoop into a glass with some sparkling water to make a cordial whenever we fancied some. Not sure what we did wrong though as ours was rock hard, it had to be left for a good half an hour before it could be chiselled out of the tub – maybe we just didn’t put enough sugar in? Could be worth having a go at that if you’re feeling brave, although your last experience sounds quite off-putting!

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    1. I can’t believe you’ve never heard about the ginger beer, the marks were all over the ceiling at Bryn Mawr! 🙂 Thank goodness his later cheffy experiments were so much better! I’m encouraged by your elderflower sorbet, that sounds like a great idea and I’m always happy to reduce the sugar as much as possible. There are a lot of flowers about so I might just be tempted to try again. You made that gorgeous elerberry sorbet as well, I think? Citric acid became a banned substance a few years ago for some unknown reason, we tried buying it for elderflower cordial in several places and not even pharmacies could sell it. Now it’s everywhere again, I have no problem getting hold of it for dyeing and Wilko sell it in big bags for domestic cleaning!

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      1. Sam is convinced that I must have heard about it, but I’m equally convinced that it’s never been mentioned… I’m not sure I’ll be encouraging him to have another go anytime soon anyway 😀
        Yes, we made the elderberry sorbet and it was amazingly tasty. I’ll send you the recipe if you fancy giving it a go this year 🙂 it was so easy too, particularly with an ice cream maker, although I’m not sure whether you’ve still got yours?

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      2. No, the ice cream maker bit the dust some time ago but I manage perfectly well without it – the recipe would be great, thanks. I have to agree, I think one foray into the world of ginger beer is probably enough in Sam’s lifetime but if he ever feels the need, make him keep it outside! 🙂

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  5. Well at least ginger beer was better than the sloe gin another family member had all over her brand new kitchen. All the tiles had to be re-grouted! And what a waste of sloe gin!
    Sue makes elderflower cordial and freezes it very successfully in plastic bottles, bringing us one when she visits. The elder flowers are lovely this year and our pink version is very pretty. Your photos are lovely, as always.

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    1. Ah, the joys of homemade drinks – who’d have believed it could be so perilous? 🙂 I think the ice cube trays were my big mistake, a bottle or tub would have been a much better bet. I will try again when I’m feeling brave enough. Pink elderflowers seem to be very much the vogue this year, Sarah and Vicky are both making cordial from theirs, it looks very pretty indeed. It’s definitely a night for bubbles here, though, with so much to celebrate – even though at a distance 😦 – we’re playing it safe with some from the Cava experts!

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