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! 🙂

Breathe


The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.

Barry Commoner

I have loved language for as long as I can remember. It’s a very simple thing, really: words fascinate me. Take the origins of ‘inspiration’ for example, a word that came into Middle English via Old French from the Latin inspirare, meaning literally ‘to breathe or blow into’ and figuratively ‘to excite or inflame’; in English, the original meaning suggested a divine being imparting a truth or idea to someone (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the same root). I love the idea of taking a deliciously deep breath of sweet fresh air and filling my very core with the excitement and challenge of a new idea to try . . . and isn’t it fascinating how inspiration can sometimes come from the most unforeseen sources or at the least expected times?

My inspiration in recent weeks has come from a book first written in 1978, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I’d actually read much of it in bits previously but after a long-needed nudge (thanks, Sonja!) I finally sat down and read the whole work . . . and as I did so, I felt that wonderful tingling breeze of inspiration in the air. I’m not planning to rush off and grow rice on a Japanese mountainside, but there is certainly plenty of Mr Fukuoka’s wisdom and experience that could be applied to life here on our Asturian mountain.

The first point that resounded with me was the idea of using everything we have here as much as possible; we aren’t – and won’t be – self-sufficient, but we do go a reasonable distance in that respect, and it’s important that we make full use of what we have. For example, it’s so easy at this time of year to look at the garden and think we’re short of things to eat as we’re edging towards that awkward ‘between seasons’ hungry gap and yet, looking again, we still have plenty. The salad leaves in the polytunnel seem for all the world to have gone over but setting out with open eyes to pick something to accompany a barbecue last week, I wasn’t disappointed.

There might not be huge quantities of anything but a combination of young chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, wild rocket and mizuna with spearmint, lemon balm, flat-leaved parsley, marjoram and chives, the first tender kohlrabi for some sweet crunch and a splash of colour from nasturtium, pansy, borage, rocket,violet and coriander flowers was a fresh and delicious bowlful of nutritious beauty. It didn’t need anything else, no extra bought ingredients just for the sake of it. So simple. Just perfect. (Still lovely the next day, too, the leftovers refreshed for lunch with our first spears of lightly steamed asparagus.)

I’m inspired to look further afield, too, and see what possibilities foraging for wild food might offer. If the salad leaves had been thinner on the ground, then young dandelion leaves and chickweed would have added a whack of spring goodness. It’s so easy to dismiss things as weeds when in fact they have great value; it’s time to wander through the meadow and woods and see what overlooked treasures we could be putting to good use in the coming months.

In our holistic approach to simple living, making good use of our resources extends beyond the food we grow. The days when we will be lighting The Beast, even just briefly in the cool of morning or evening, are now numbered so making the most of that free heat is essential, especially when it comes to preserving foods we have harvested. I caught a snapshot of our kitchen worktop which says it all: the jar of sourdough starter out of the fridge, fed and working on a a bubbly sponge for breadmaking later; jars of peach marmalade made from a bonus bag of fruit we found lurking in the depths of the freezer; a tray of roast squash cooling before freezing for soup (two more in the oven) and the rest of the squash ready for processing; a tray of seedy crispbreads fresh from the oven for lunch. It might be a simple life but it’s also a busy one!

Sam and Adrienne, who love all things Scandinavian, introduced us to Trine Hahnemann’s multigrain spelt crispbread recipe. It’s taken me a while to get round to making them as I couldn’t find rye flakes anywhere but a substitution of a Spanish organic five cereal mix seemed like it might work. Oh my goodness, these crispbreads are the cat’s pyjamas! They are so easy to make, in fact I loved the therapeutically tactile business of pressing the warm dough flat with my hands so much that I was quite sorry when it was done. They just ooze good health somehow, are completely delicious and I have serious plans for them this year. In the garden, the rows of carrots and beetroot have germinated, the broad beans are dripping with flowers and the first peas are literally days away from eating . . .

. . . bring on the veggie hummus. This is such a brilliant way of not only enjoying fresh garden produce but using up bits and pieces of leftovers, too. To get us started, a sultry, spicy, caramelised roast squash hummus zinging with the heat of homegrown chillies. Fantastic.

Mr Fukuoka’s words also had me reflecting on herbs. When we moved here, we gave most of our books away, just keeping one small bookcase of treasured tomes; two of those are herbals and it was with great glee and enjoyment I dug them out and pored over them again from cover to cover. We grow a good selection of herbs and I’m planning to add several new varieties this year but I’m the first to admit they are an underused resource. On the strength of using calendula successfully in my recent batch of soap, I set out to harvest more flowers while they are in their prime.

Some of these I set aside to dry, the others were packed tightly into a jar and covered in sweet almond oil. I’ve put them in the polytunnel amongst my tender seedlings; there they can bask in the warmth, creating an infused oil which I can use for making toiletries (and new lip balm recipe is next on the list).

Herbal tea is something else I know I should be pursuing; after all, relying heavily on commercial tea produced on the other side of the world is hardly good for my green credentials when I have a garden full of drinkables. Mmm, there is a slight problem here, though: I love tea. Not the slightly flirtatious green tea or the almost-there oolong but the full monty, rich and malty, tannin-laden black stuff, brewed properly in a teapot and drunk a large mugful at a time (milk in first, no sugar). I cannot begin to describe how hard reducing my tea consumption is, especially as I have tried – really tried- to like herbal teas in the past and have failed miserably every time. Leafy, flowery, fruity . . . you name it, I’ve drunk it and hated every mouthful. However, I need to get a grip, especially as bought tea is not really the best of things: highly processed, over-packaged, racking up the food miles and – horror of horrors – some teabags contain plastic which leaches out of the compost into waterways and becomes part of the terrible microplastic problem in the oceans. So, deep breath: time to try the herbal stuff again. I decided to start with one of my favourites, lemon balm. I brought one small root with us when we moved here and in typical romping away and self-setting style, we now seem to have half a dozen good clumps spread about the patch, including the one below that popped up from nowhere beneath a clump of calla lilies.

Herbal teas require a lot more fresh leaf than dried so I picked a good handful, washed it thoroughly and set it to brew. The smell emanating from the pot could only be described as lemony spinach. Yuk.

It didn’t smell any better when poured into a mug (china, please note – I was trying very hard!) and there is just something about tea which is that insipid colour that really doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that . . . What can I say? Well, it tasted – um – okay. In fact, I’d go as far as admitting it was quite pleasant and very refreshing. There are many stories about this melissa tea being a source of longevity and that may be true; even if I live to be a hundred, I’m not sure I’ll ever really love herbal brews but I’m committed to keep on trying. Honest.

Eucalyptus is another resource of which we have plenty. It’s a controversial thing, introduced from Australia and grown in huge swathes of forest as a fast-growing crop. Like any monoculture, it has a dubious impact on the environment and offers very little to indigenous wildlife. About two-thirds of our 4-acre woodland has been planted with eucalyptus, no doubt with a future harvest in mind, but the saving grace for us is that there is also a good amount of mixed tree varieties in there, too – mainly chestnut, oak, birch and holly – and a healthy understorey of gorse, Spanish heath and the like. It can’t be denied, though, that the eucalyptus is useful and we keep finding more ways in which we can make the most of it. Having almost burnt all the old roof timbers now, it will be eucalyptus that forms the basis of our log pile next winter.

Roger has hauled several long poles out of the wood this week which we will use to shore up the vegetable patch below the terraces in the top garden – call it an anti-mole device in this respect! Having made eucalyptus oil from the leaves a few weeks ago, I’ve now discovered that made into a hot infusion, they create a powerful and effective household disinfectant, another useful weapon in my green clean armoury. I’ve also gathered fallen strips of bark, soaked them in water to make them pliable and used them to line hanging baskets.

The flowers sit so high in the trees that we don’t often have chance to see them close up. They look fluffy from afar but in reality, they are exquisite pompoms of filigree strands and smell of honey: little wonder the bees go so crazy for them. A single stem provided an aromatic and simply sophisticated centrepiece for the kitchen table and once the flowers had gone over, I simmered the leaves for cleaning purposes. Nothing wasted . . . and I’m sure there are plenty more uses yet to be discovered.

The second strand of Mr Fukuoka’s philosophy which appeals to me greatly is his ‘do-nothing’ approach to cultivation. Now that doesn’t mean lounging about expecting a garden (or farm) of plenty to miraculously present itself; growing food requires an element of work and that’s fine by me (actually, I’ve never regarded anything in the garden as work, it’s far too enjoyable). The idea, though, is that instead of forever creating more chores in an endless cycle of ‘What else could I / should I be doing? ‘ there is a shift to a ‘What happens if I don’t do something?’ mentality. In short, back off, stop trying to control everything and give nature free rein to get on with it. Music to my lackadaisical little gardening ears indeed. I have to confess I am some way along this path already, as the lemon balm tale above illustrates. I’m happy to let things spread and seed around the garden if that’s what they want to do; it’s no hardship to whip out anything that springs up in an awkward place but otherwise I believe self-set plants are happy plants and who cares if Californian poppies peep out from amongst the leeks or parsley settles itself beneath the roses? Last year I raised a handful of cerinthe plants from seed; this year they are everywhere, in every crack and cranny, jostling for elbow room in pots and troughs and colonising walls like there’s no tomorrow. I love them. So do the bumble bees. They can stay.

I’ve never seen the point of pulling plants out before it’s strictly necessary, either. For a start, it’s more possible than we think sometimes to gather our own seeds; of course, some things won’t come true but that’s half the fun. I also happen to admire vegetable flowers and like to leave them until the last possible moment. Could anything be more exquisite than the few remaining salsify plants now flowering?

The Tuscan kale which has fed us so well since last autumn is in full bloom; I’m hoping to gather seed but in the meantime those buttery flowers are a pollinator paradise mingling against a backdrop of clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ in a pretty colour combination I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.

Every gardener knows that when you clear a patch of ground, you’ve hardly turned your back before nature starts filling it again, as though bare earth is something that simply can’t be tolerated. Well, thinking about it, it’s not very natural, is it? A well-cultivated plot, all tidy rows with hoed bits between, might be a feast for the eyes but it’s purely an aesthetic thing: nature would not create the same left to its own devices. The ‘do-nothing’ approach advocates keeping as much ground covered as possible for as long as possible, using simple mulches, green manure and even – yes, it’s true – weeds. True, I struggle a bit with the latter idea but green manures are something I am definitely going to try. I have no problem with keeping bare earth covered, which is why I’m happy to let nasturtiums trail about the vegetable plots like jewelled carpets or turn a blind eye to the poached egg plants currently making a takeover bid on one of the terraces.

My plan is simple: to try six different green manures in various parts of the garden this year and see how we get on. Globe artichokes grow like crazy here; we are close to eating our first picking of the year and on the strength of their enthusiasm, I planted a hedge of them at the end of the garden last autumn.

My plan is to underplant them with white clover as a permanent thing; Roger is a tad nervous about the sense of this which I do understand, given how enthusiastic clover is, too, but I’m willing to take responsibility should we end up with clover chaos.

The other patch earmarked for the clover treatment is in the top garden, beneath and between fruit bushes; here we have planted three blueberry bushes and also two autumn raspberries which have currently pushed up over 40 new shoots. Yikes! Maybe the clover will meet its match up there. Note the self-set nasturtiums gathering strength in the foreground, too; something tells me bare earth will be a thing of the past in this area very soon.

I’m also planning to try sowings of buckwheat and trefoil between rows of vegetables and under the bean tripods – to be cut and left as a mulch before they seed – and a winter mix of Westerwold ryegrass and vetches to be dug in next spring. A patch of phacelia, too, but in all honesty I just know that will be left to flower for the bees! It’s interesting and exciting to be trying something new and different, to be putting a slightly different slant on how we do things . . . and why not? After all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain and if it helps the soil, the wildlife and our harvest, that’s fantastic news. Breathe in. Be inspired. Over to you, nature! 🙂