Thursday, March 12, 2009

Time for my Window Herb Garden - Herb and Flower Syrups

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Living in a country house in Provence, I am blessed with hardy bay laurel that is thick and nearly ready to overtake my garden (and serves as a superb hedge between me and my neighbor's horses). I also have thyme, rosemary, absinth, lavender and mint that winter very easily. I had a very happy plant of lemon verbena last fall.. I cut it back late October, so at the moment, I'm crossing my fingers that it will send out young shoots in another couple weeks. In the meantime, the more delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives are best started indoors in my window and transfered to the garden in May, well after the date of any last-minute late season freeze.

I'm actually pretty much a novice at this growing thing. I'm a taurus, and supposedly, that means I've a green thumb. But, only in the past two years since I purchased my house in Avignon, with a real garden attached to it, have I been able to indulge in the dirty hands/green experience. Being a multi-tasker by nature, and a mother of two growing boys, housing three extra kids, trying to reinvent my business, cope alone etc.,... these efforts have been very much in fits and starts. I am my mother's daughter. The devoted regular gardener I am not, but every once in awhile, when the weather is absolutely gorgeous and I just can't bear to be indoors anymore, I head out in jeans and gloves and start weeding and planting away. It feels so good, and I feel so proud. At least these efforts won't be erased by the arrival of my boys (in contrast to getting the house particularly clean and dust free). The feeling of satisfaction is there, and will be so till the weeds grow again to untold heights. And, contrary to my mother's experiences, there is no poison ivy here, so I won't need to go running for the caladryl tomorrow!

I'm proud to say that my crocuses and tulip bulbs, planted last year, are coming up nicely for their second year. Yes, this is a neophyte being proud of the simplest of gardening efforts. But hey, why not? The rose bushes and jasmine that I transfered to the East facade last year are also doing far better this year, as is the pink-flowered Japanese cognassier. I've four very happy butterfly trees with different colored flowers that grew like crazy last year, and will soon block the view of our pool completely from the terrace. I've pruned them back a bit... wondering just how much they'll grow this year (they more than tripled in size last season!).

My little vegetable patch is in nice rich dirt (I live on the Ile de la Barthélasse, flooded back in 2003, so I've some dark alluvial soil to work with), but under the future shade of the fig tree. So, I plant primarily spring vegetables and fruits in hopes of harvesting them before the shade overwhelms the sun. I put the peas in a couple weeks' ago -- late I know, but last November I just didn't have my act together-- and now I've a bunch of potatoes to add to the tiny patch. My strawberry plants, now two years' old, are looking sturdy and ready for the soon to arrive season.

Soon, the Elderberry tree will be in flower, and I'll make elderflower syrup for my boys. Rather than having fruit juices or sodas (God forbid!) in the house, I supply them with mint and elderflower syrups made with my bulk non-bleached cane sugar. They happily drink these throughout the hot months.

Foreign guests, tasting these simple home-made syrups for the first time (which we drink extended with either still or bubbly water) write ecstatically of these delicate floral flavors as they slip over their tongue. T'is true that they are delightfully refreshing, simple to make and fun.

My basic recipe for the syrups is this:

A simple syrup of 3 liters of water to 2 kilos of sugar (these proportions can be changed to one to one to make a more stable syrup. In either case, I store these in the fridge).

1 lemon cut in rounds
handfuls of elderflowers plucked off their branches -- at least 3 cups of the blossoms. If working with mint, 2 cups of mint leaves is fine. You can also make a syrup with thyme or rosemary or lavender. The possibilities are endless.

Heat your sugar and water till the sugar has fully melted, bring to a gentle simmer and add the lemon rounds and the blossoms or herbs. Cover and put in a dark place to infuse for 24-48 hours. Bring back up to a simmer, strain out the blossoms or herbs and pour into four sterilized (as well rinsed as you can) wine bottles that can be closed with either a cork or a screw top or another method. Let cool and then store in the fridge. You can store them in a cool cellar, particularly if you drink them quickly.

Occasionally, as this is a rather artisanal recipe and the variables such as the corks, etc., are not that easy to sterilize, a bit of fermenting gets going, or a wee bit of fuzz grows on the surface. This is not cause for tossing out your precious liquid, simply strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan and bring to a boil for a few minutes and then pour it back into the bottle.

Enjoy on your back terrace this spring!

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