It’s a living.

October 16, 2014

I’ve spent the greater part of today packing our possessions into the car and transporting them through four miles of meandering, single-track lanes to a delightful cottage on the outskirts of a beautiful village in the loveliest part of Suffolk. My wife Mo and I will be living here for the next three weeks, looking after the house and three small long-haired dachshunds, while the owner, I’ll call him Justin, is working in Uzbekistan selling oil pipelines.

When Justin returns we’ll head back home for three weeks or so until the next tour of duty. It’s a living, and I love it.

It’s one of a number of occupations that bring in a trickle of income and prevent my brain turning to mush. For slightly less than thirty pounds a day I am required to do no more than feed and walk the dogs twice a day, and clear up the occasional indiscretion left on the living room floor. The cottage is warm and cosy, with a glorious garden of around a quarter of an acre stretching away to a wild flower meadow and bordered by high hedges on either side.

When we first came we found the trio of little shit machines to be undisciplined, ill tempered and sullen. The deeply unpleasant next-door neighbour, a crusty old lady who fancies herself as some kind of dyed-in-the-wool countrywoman, but is in fact an opinionated old busy-body who moved up from Essex in search of peace and quiet, hated them, perhaps not without good reason, for their incessant barking. She has, for good measure, a foul-mouthed thug of a son who arrives once a week to mow the extensive lawns surrounding her ugly little bungalow, and to hurl disembodied abuse over the hedge. Her unyielding, relentless complaining to Justin made his life a misery, as if his life wasn’t made awful enough by the death, just over a year ago, of his beautiful wife, Carla. For some time that was the downside of this idyllic commission.

But we’ve been coming here for nearly a year now, and in that time the dogs have transformed themselves into adorable, fun-loving companions.

Elderflower: I’ve really got mixed feelings towards the Elder which is flowering in abundance right now in the UK. I tend to regard the plant as little more than a giant weed that tenaciously establishes itself in some of the most unlikely places, although I’ll admit that it is only a problem when you have a small garden, where it can take you by surprise and spring up so suddenly that before you know it you can be looking at a sizeable tree that’s almost impossible to remove. On the other hand it is supposed to ward off witches and evil influences so we mustn’t be too hasty in our condemnation.

As a kid I used to love making whistles and pea shooters from the hollowed stem, and gardeners boil the leaves and spray the resulting liquor on plants to keep them free from caterpillars. I think I’ll try that on my cabbages this year. The leaves have also been regarded as an efficient fly repellent, and were at one time placed in the harnesses of horses for this very purpose.

But the creamy blossom of the elderflower with the rich fragrance of summer is one of nature’s triumphs. And its in the kitchen that this wonderful flower comes into its own. This week I’ve been making cordial and sorbet for family guests who arrived yesterday. The cordial in particular makes a great gift when presented in some kind of fancy bottle, and made up with sparkling mineral water, frozen lemon segments as ice cubes and a good slug of chilled vodka makes a wonderful summer drink. And let me tell you that a scoop of sorbet served with a measure of frozen vodka will give you a lovely instant dessert. Also, how about elderflower fritters? I’ll spell out a few recipes for you here:

Elderflower cordial

20-25 heads of elderflowers

3 1/2 lbs of granulated sugar

2 oz tartaric or citric acid (available from chemists)

2 lemons

Place 3 pints of water into a large saucepan with the sugar over a medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring more or less continuously. When the sugar is dissolved turn up the flame and bring to the boil, then simmer for about four minutes to create a syrup. While this is happening peel the zest from the lemons and slice the flesh. When the water boils remove from the heat and throw in the flower heads, lemon zest and sliced flesh plus the citric acid. Stir and leave to infuse for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Then strain through a sieve, maybe with muslin to remove all unwanted bits, and pour into clean bottles. Store in a fridge, or if you want long term storage freeze in smaller quantities. Easy. Drink with one part cordial to five parts sparkling or still cold water for a delicious and very refreshing summer drink. Not forgetting the vodka (or gin, or white rum) for an even more refreshing drink. Tip: I like to keep any surplus lemons cut into wedges and frozen in bags to use as ice cubes.

Elderflower sorbet

350 grams of sugar

20-25 heads of elderflowers

juice of 2 lemons

white of 1 egg

Gently heat sugar in 900 ml of water until dissolved, then bring to the boil and simmer for about four minutes to create syrup. Remove from heat and add the flower heads and leave to infuse for about an hour, then stir in the lemon juice. Allow the infusion to cool then place in fridge to chill. From here strain the mix and use an ice cream maker according to makers instructions to freeze, or if making by hand strain mix into plastic container and place in freezer for about an hour. Take out every hour or so to stir with a fork until set. Whip egg white to soft peaks and fold into mix just before final freeze.

Elderflower fritters

In a large bowl place 200 grams of plain flour, a heaped dessert spoonful of caster sugar, the juice of half a lemon and make up to a thin batter with chilled sparkling mineral water. Dip the elderflower heads into the batter and deep fry until crisp and golden. Dust with a little icing sugar to serve, and maybe throw in a few lemon wedges. Magnificent.