Category Archives: Book reviews

Hydrangea season

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I told my dentist last week that I see hearts everywhere. 🙂

The hydrangeas in the front of the house are spectacular this year, such a vibrant blue. Two years ago I had cut them back too severely so that last summer we only got a couple blooms.

I have not heard a peep (i.e. received any mail) from O since we dropped him off at camp. He had told me not to expect anything because he doesn’t like handwriting letters (the camp doesn’t allow computers/e-mail), but his counselor assured me I’d get a couple letters anyway. I’m trying not to get antsy about it … as long as he’s having a good time, that’s all that really matters. Plus the camp does a great job updating their blog every night to let parents know what’s going on. I can tell from the activities they describe that O is most definitely enjoying himself. He’s not super athletic but he’s “sporty” and loves to run around and participate in physical activities/games. They had a “marathon” the other night where kids could run a course through the woods, and I can guarantee he was ALL over that.

I’m picking him up this Saturday. I can’t wait to see him and hear all about his adventures!

Crafting

Melody and I are becoming fast friends, maybe even BFFs! Last week I took one of those “get to know your new sewing machine” classes at the dealership where I bought her. A lot of the class was fairly basic–how to thread the machine, how to wind a bobbin, etc.–but I did learn a few tricks and became comfortable with some of the advanced functions on the machine. Like buttonholes…as I said to my husband last night, I will never get sick of watching Melody sew a buttonhole!!! What used to be an exercise in frustration is now a matter of letting her do 90% of the job…my only task is to move the fabric around and press buttons. It couldn’t be easier.

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This week I finished the Roman shade for the dormer window in our bedroom and a pair of swimming trunks (Kwik Sew 3421) for my husband. I’ll talk about the Roman shades in my next post as I need to take photos. Both were straightforward projects, except for sewing the power mesh lining on the trunks. So slippery and fiddly and tricky to work with, especially when joining elastic around the leg holes. Luckily that part of the suit isn’t public. I used a medium-weight cotton twill I bought on sale at JoAnn’s for the outer fabric; my husband does not like synthetics, so cotton it is. Today’s job is to purchase a navy cotton drawstring to finish them off. The pattern, like all Kwik Sew patterns, is easy to follow. The only thing I would do differently is use my own way of inserting elastic in the waistband casing (sewing up the casing except for a 2″ gap, threading the elastic through as one long piece, sewing the ends, then sewing up the gap). The KS way is to sew the elastic into a circle then wrap the casing around it to sew it into place. Too fiddly for me!

Now it’s time for some selfish sewing. Today’s project is preparing fabric (lavender twill) for a my own pair of shorts.

I’m just over 80% done on the Pebble Beach shawl, which should be finished over the weekend at the rate I’m going. Each row is over 400 stitches long, and there’s a picot bind-off.

At last week’s knitting group I got my yarn to knit a 12″ x 12″ block for a blanket we’re making for an ailing group member. We get our choice of stitch patterns and I’m pretty happy with the one I chose. As soon as the block looks like a block, I’ll snap a photo. My goal is to have the block complete by next Thursday’s meeting.

Sequence Knitting got an excellent review at Knitter’s Review. Now I am tempted by Susan Crawford’s vintage Shetland knitting project/book, which is being crowdfunded. She has reached her goal, but is still accepting funding. I could have the book in my hands before the holidays, but honestly, will I really get around to knitting Fair Isle before then? I don’t think so.

I missed our Forrest family reunion and my Aunt Pam’s interment up in Vermont this weekend–my back was giving me trouble, then the car started making funny noises–but I did get to talk to my cousin Sherry at some length Saturday night. She said she sent an enormous amount of Aunt Pam’s yarn home with my father for me to have. Wow, I was so touched! I’ll probably pick it up on Saturday when I get O from camp…she says there’s a lot of it, so maybe I’ll have to make two trips. My Aunt Pam was a spectacular craftswoman; not only a first-rate knitter, but she painted, did cross-stitch and crewel embroidery, and quilted … and other crafts/art endeavors, I’m sure! At some point I will show you some of the projects she did. They are truly beautiful.

 

Sugar blues

O’s face looks completely normal now, not even a rash. The only itchy bits are on his arms and legs. We’re hoping everything will be healed up by the time he leaves for camp on Sunday.

Yesterday we went out to Target and bought what he needed to get him through two weeks at camp — mostly underwear and socks. We figure he can double up a couple days on stuff like shorts and sweatshirts, but not so much on underwear and socks. I also found some swimming trunks in his size for $6.50, so into the basket they went … saves me some time at the sewing machine this week. He was rather grumpy during our shopping expedition, as was I (sugar withdrawal), and we forgot to buy a couple extra beach towels. Otherwise we’re all set to pack him up … except for the stuff I have to sew.  Oh, and he needs a haircut. Hopefully we can squeeze in an appointment before the end of the week.

I survived Monday without eating any sugar. My sugar cravings hit mostly in the evening, so the last couple hours before bedtime were misery. As I was driving past Bedford Farms on the way back from the gym, it took every ounce of self control not to drive in there and order a cup of Muddy River ice cream … I would have dived in with gusto! I stuck with it, though, bypassing my evening cup of warm chocolate malt Ovaltine with more than a little regret. My thinking was definitely foggier yesterday … I’m hoping after a few days, I’ll be able to think a little more clearly. Just happy I’m not teaching this week; I’m not sure my students would appreciate my incoherent thinking!

A couple days ago when I was waiting for a prescription to be filled at the grocery store, I spent some time looking through the paperback books and actually bought one. I usually take books like this out of the library or buy them used, but I was so in the mood for a summer read. It’s a James Patterson bio/thriller called Zoo, and as usual with his novels, it’s fast paced and just what i need intellectually right now … meaning I don’t have to think too hard as I read a couple chapters before bed each night. The only problem is, I’ve been having disturbing dreams. The other night I dreamed a rabid bat attacked me, so I fed it to a flying skunk. (Yes, you read that right.) And last night marauding bears and tigers made their appearances … so I’m not sure this is the best reading before bed. Maybe I’ll have to finish it up by reading in the morning. (Just learned this book as been made into a tv miniseries, which I think I’ll skip.)

Crafting

Not much to report on the sewing front. Taped the pdf pattern for O’s board shorts together. Today I’ll be cutting out the fabric. I also signed up for a free sewing class in early July at my local dealer. She told me I probably won’t learn that much, but I figure if I learn a couple tips or two, it’ll be worth my time.

Pebble Beach shawl

Because of my sugar withdrawal yesterday, I had to rip back on my Pebble Beach shawl a couple times. (Missed a couple yarnovers, grrr.) It stinks when I have to rip back a row because now each row is over 200 stitches. Yes, I know I should use a lifeline, but weirdly enough I don’t mind tinking, especially when the yarn is easy to work with as this yarn is. It’s hard to see but the color of the yarn is starting to change from cream to pale mint. Lace is so not pretty before it has been blocked. 😉

One of the pattern books I ordered off eBay showed up yesterday. It’s from the 1960s, a collection of cabled cardigans put out by Reynolds yarn under the name “Mary of Holland.” I did a bit of poking around to find out who, exactly, Mary of Holland is, since the pattern book doesn’t say. The only thing Dutch about these sweaters are their names: Rotterdam, Utrecht, Dordrecht, even The Hague.

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The model on the cover looks a lot like my college friend Staycee. 🙂

I thought the cabled designs were really pretty. I’m sure my brother will deem them “Denchy.” 😉

Oh my aching tooth

I decided last night that I’m going to post more regularly, if only to keep a record of my days, so fair warning!

This morning O woke up with his face red and swelled up. A closer inspection showed tiny blisters all over his face, arms, legs, neck, back, etc. so the culprit was determined to be poison ivy. He and his friends spend a lot of time in the woods climbing trees and building forts, so it was only a matter of time before he ran into problems with this noxious plant. (We since found out the friend he was with actually had to go to the doctor today as his poison ivy was even worse.)  Poor O was in misery, so I gave him some allergy medication, then headed off to CVS downtown and dropped $40 on assorted creams, sprays, and washes. Once he applied them he felt much better, and after a couple hours, the swelling and redness had been reduced significantly. In the meantime, I stripped his bed of sheets, blankets and pillowcases and gave them a good long wash in hot water, and also did the same with the clothes he was wearing while he was in the woods. Although the oils in poison ivy don’t seem to bother my skin, I know repeated exposure can cause a reaction, so I made sure to use rubber gloves. That’s all I need, a new medical condition!

So … we had to cancel O’s hair appointment this afternoon, and instead he headed off to a friend’s house for a sleepover. I guess he was feeling well enough to go see Jurassic World with him tonight.

Tomorrow I have an appointment to get a new crown on one of my back teeth. My dentist told me the old one needed to be replaced, even though it wasn’t bothering me. I grit my teeth (no pun), shelled out the $1200, and last week went in to get a temporary crown put on … and darn, wouldn’t you know it, but I’ve had a toothache almost every day since then. I’m hoping when the new crown goes on tomorrow that the pain will go away. Tooth pain makes me exceedingly cranky.

We’re planning a family reunion for July 11 up in Vermont that I’m very much looking forward to, along with a memorial service for my Aunt Pam, who passed away in January. I started a private Facebook group to keep everyone posted about times and gathering places, and wow … almost 40 family members have joined! I often hear people complain about family reunions, but I love them. Part of it is I like knowing that I belong to a tribe, but it also makes me feel connected to family who have passed away and who I loved very much. Those memories are precious, and I think it’s important to keep memories and stories alive, moreso as I age.

Crafting

I finished knitting a feather and fan baby bonnet last night/early this a.m. (I couldn’t sleep because of said tooth) and plan to give it to my knitting group friend K for her daughter’s Girl Scout project (sending knit caps and mittens to Syrian refugees). I knit one a couple weeks ago with a pink ribbon, so this one I’ll festoon with a blue.

Feather and fan bonnet

I’m between knitting projects, except for a pair of “vanilla” socks, and am itching to cast on for a sweater. I did some swatching last week for an Amy Herzog/Custom Fit sweater (“Charlie’s Cardigan“), but haven’t yet mustered the energy to do all my measurements. Plus, I’m still waiting to see if anyone from my Thursday a.m. knitting group wants to knit along with me. Now I’m toying with the idea of knitting Meg Swansen’s Garland Necklace Yoke sweater. I have a bunch of cream Paton’s wool, and was thinking a delft blue wool would look nice as a contrast.

Last night during my late owl web surfing on eBay, I ordered two vintage 1960s Reynolds knitting pattern books I’ve had my eye on for some time. When they come in, I’ll do a review.

As for sewing, there’s nothing to report. Still giving Melody a wide berth. My husband left a pair of chinos and two shirts for mending on the back of my chair. (I love to mend/fix/repair stuff … it’s in my frugal Yankee nature.) These tasks don’t seem so daunting so I’ll get on them after my dentist appointment tomorrow.

Speaking of mending … I noticed that Jean Miles had ordered a new book called Sequence Knitting, which sounded interesting. About five minutes later, I stumbled upon a comprehensive interview with the author, Cecelia Campochiaro, on Tom of Holland’s mending blog. I think this is the Universe telling me I need this book. Sixty dollars is a lot but I like how the author put her book together, with a lot of care and detail.

The Gentle Art of Knitting

When I heard/read that Jane Brocket was coming out with a knitting book, I got pretty excited. The Gentle Art of Domesticity keeps a prominent place on my livingroom bookshelf and gives me that boost I need when the house needs a little TLC.

The Gentle Art of Knitting was released in England a few months ago. I considered buying it sight unseen, but then I read some negative reader reviews of it and scratched it off my list. The complaints were that the knitting projects were too basic and not very revolutionary. (Those are my words/impressions of the reviews.) I buy very few knitting books, and only buy them for reference .

Though I’d resolved not to buy the book, I was thrilled to find a copy of it at our local library on the new titles shelf.

I spent a pleasant hour or two reading through it, sipping tea, during one of the many drenching rain storms of May. Is there anything revolutionary in the book? Why, yes, there is. As the reader reviewers noted, there aren’t any patterns in here that will put Brooklyn Tweed out of business anytime soon, but what Brocket’s book does brilliantly is remind knitters to focus on the process, not the product. As someone who frequently gets impatient to finish a sweater or can’t wait to start some complicated cabled shawl, I appreciate this message. As soon as I put the book down, I cast on 37 stitches of red cotton and knit a simple garter stitch dishcloth. Then, I knit another, this time striping at random places with blue cotton.

It’s the kind of knitting book I like to have when my handwork is giving me fits and I need to be reminded why I knit … to create beautiful objects with care, to bond with friends (who knit), and to relax and enjoy the hours rather than wasting them idly in front of the computer or television set.

I do think I’ll be getting a copy for my own bookshelf. The library’s version was from England. Unlike British cookbooks, I like British knitting books to be “Americanized” with our needle sizes and dimensions in inches rather than centimeters, so I’m hoping they’ll come out with a Yank version soon.

While on the domestic subject, I was futzing around the Web yesterday and found this video about how to properly fold a t-shirt, hosted by none other than Anthea Turner:

When I wasn’t ironing and folding my extensive t-shirt collection, I was watching the Jubilee procession on the Thames, broadcast over CNN. My goodness, the British must be thrilled to have Piers Morgan off their island. The man DOES NOT SHUT UP. He interrupted every guest, including India Hicks, who was attempting to tell the audience what it was like to be in Princess Diana’s wedding party. Morgan kept butting in with his own memories of the day, none of which were as remotely exciting as being Princess Diana’s bridesmaid. I wanted to throttle him. So I ended up turning the tv off, and downed a glass of lemon barley water in honor of the Queen.

And how was your Jubilee weekend?

What I’ve been reading (and a giveaway)

My right hand has been giving me some trouble (too much knitting?), so I’ve been catching up on my reading while giving my poor hands a break.

First up is Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, a book I’ve had on my Goodreads list for a long while. If you’re the type of person who walks into a friend’s home and studies her bookshelf for clues about who she really is, you’ll like this book. Hill, the author of the The Woman in Black (yes, the scary film starring Daniel Radcliffe is based upon it), decided to spend a year reacquainting herself with her personal book collection rather than shopping for new books. Hill is a lovely, evocative writer; my only quibble —  keeping in mind that I haven’t yet finished the book — is that it reads more like a book of essays than a flowing narrative, which I’d prefer. On the other hand, since I find myself dipping into the book in the few short minutes I have reading in bed, I can get through a chapter and know that when I pick up the book again, I won’t have to backtrack to pick up. I’ve found myself making mental notes of books I’d like to read or re-read: Great Expectations, Enid Blyton’s children’s books, and yes, The Woman in Black since I don’t like watching ghost stories on film (too scary!).

I’ve written here about my enjoyment of Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity. It’s a book where I like looking the pictures more than reading the text: Brocket has a habit of dropping reference to her advanced degrees that I find a little offputting. I got to the point where I said to the book, “I get it! You’re educated! Give it a break!” She reminds me of a friend who cannot get through a conversation without mention of her Ivy League degree.

But I digress. So if you’re like me and like Brocket’s book sans copy or you hated Brocket’s book, you might like the book I picked up last week called Homemade: 101 Beautiful and Useful Craft Projects You Can Make at Home by Ros Badger and (the late) Elspeth Thompson. The book is set up by seasons, which I love, and most of the projects can be completed with found objects around the house. There are recipes (elderflower cordial, spicy chutney, pumpkin soup), as well as simple knitting projects and even household fix-its, like instructions on how to restore garden furniture, create planters, and build a pebble garden. But what I really love about this book is that none of the projects have that “cutesy” look I detest in so many modern-day craft books. Everything looks stylish, but organic if that makes sense. It’s the kind of book I can flip through to give me inspiration on decorating my home on a tight budget. For example, we have some dreadfully ugly floor registers. My hope was to replace them with some brass registers but they’re prohibitively expensive. While glancing through Homemade, I got the idea to clean them and give them a good coating of spray paint. I was going to do them in an antiqued brass, but decided to paint them glossy black to match the thresholds. I just finished the project this a.m., and while the registers don’t look as pretty as brass ones would, they’re 1000% better looking with a coat of paint.

Last week the publisher of The Real Elizabeth by journalist Andrew Marr sent me a couple review copies. I’ve been itching to read this biography as I’ve heard that the Queen gave many of her staff and intimates permission to talk to Marr as he researched the book. I’ve also read excerpts on the web, which piqued my interest in Elizabeth’s 60-year-reign as Britain’s monarch. Last week marked the beginning of her jubilee year so in celebration, I’m giving my other copy of The Real Elizabeth away to one lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is tell me, in the comments below, what you admire about the Queen … even if it’s just her corgis. I’m sorry but with this giveaway, I can only ship to addresses in the U.S. or Canada. The giveaway closes on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 5:00 p.m. ET, and I’ll draw a name at random early next week. Good luck … and thanks for entering!

What do you give the couple who has everything?

A couple days ago, the office of the Prince of Wales released lists of gifts given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (that’s William and Kate/Catherine) and a separate list of gifts given to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (or more familiarly, Charles and Camilla). There was the requisite round of grumbling from the British press, especially when it was revealed via another list that the Countess of Wessex had accepted expensive jewelry from the Crown Prince of Bahrain during an official visit. Bahrain’s human rights policies give Amnesty International plenty to work with, to put it mildly, so accepting such gifts seems a bit of a brow raiser to me. Kate and William also received some expensive gifts during their visits to North America, Australia, and New Zealand in 2011, but none from despots or dictators.

Much like the President of the U.S., British royals must declare gifts and they are not allowed to keep them, although they may use them. The gifts belong to the state, which is, actually, a very nice policy since I assume the cost of insurance and upkeep then falls to the taxpayers. Sweet deal!

If you want to check out the gift list, click here. So they got some nice gifts but they also had to lug home loads of hats, t-shirts, Vegemite, a ball point pen, three pairs of shoes, and a dog toy. It made me think of the crap I’ve lugged home from trade shows. At least they had some diamonds mixed in.

P.S. Don’t forget that I’m giving away a copy of Rose: My Life In Service this Friday the 13th. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment at the end of my book review.

Book Review and Giveaway! Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

ETA: I’ll be closing the comments section on this post at 5 p.m. ET on January 13

Here stateside many of us are eagerly counting the hours to the premiere of Downton Abbey’s second season on PBS (Sunday at 9 p.m; check your local station to confirm). The word from the UK is that this season is a bit of a dud, but I’ll still be watching simply because I love the cast of characters and am willing to give the anachronisms a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week I was contacted by Penguin Books to see if there was any interest in an autobiography they were reprinting called Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor. Written by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady-maid of decades, it details what it was like to work “in service” during a bygone era of British aristocracy.* Since Rose grew up in the village of Ripon, which figures in Downton Abbey, Penguin wondered if I would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. But of course!

Last night I crawled into bed early with my book, intending to skim a few pages, but I ended up reading a full three chapters. This simply written story starts by detailing Rose’s upbringing in a loving working-class family and how she knew from an early age her career would be working in service for her social superiors.

I was drawn in by the descriptions of Rose’s childhood and the expectations her parents — nay society — had for her. Children worked and worked hard at the turn of the 20th century. Almost as soon as Rose could walk, she was helping her mother with the backbreaking work of washing clothes (her mother, a laundress, took in the neighborhood aristocrats’ laundry). She was also responsible for polishing the stove each week (again, another grueling chore especially when you remember stoves back then ran on wood or coal) and helping her parents take care of their younger children. There’s no hint of complaint in her recollections, although she remarks:

“People have often said to me how lucky I was to be brought up in a village in the beautiful countryside with the freedom of the fields and lanes, the simplicity of life among animals and above all in peace. It sounds lyrical as I write it and perhaps in a way it was, but most people forget and sometimes I do that for the most part life was continual hard work even as a young child.”

She later writes that people often dismiss the struggle and low wages as relics of a different era, but she wrote:

“Things were different. There was no National Insurance, so there was the constant fear of getting ill, of being out of work, of growing old without a family to look after you and being buried in a pauper’s grave. There was no electricity, no sewerage, no running water, no refrigeration; fruit and vegetables came and went with the seasons.”

It’s clear that Rose is a smart girl, which serves her well in service. Her parents scrimp and save so she can be tutored in French and acquire finer sewing skills to become a proper lady’s maid, which will afford her the chance to travel and see the world, something Rose desperately wants to do. As a knitter myself, I giggled at her complaint of having to knit her father’s socks, which seemed to go on forever, round and round, but seemed to get done as she kept him in new socks for years. I got as far as Rose’s first placement, a lady’s maid to two daughters of a wealthy London family. Her experience here gives her insight into her role as a servant to the upper classes. She describes her relationship with one of the daughters:

“We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us any loser [sic]; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at that time. That was the accepted way of things.”

I thought that was a fascinating illustration of how times have changed, especially with those words “miss it at that time.” Today, such chilly separation between employer and employee would be unbearable, don’t you think?

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor was first published in 1975 and is being re-published by Penguin this month. Along with my copy, Penguin has send another copy for me to give away to a lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is comment below, making sure you add your e-mail address to the appropriate field — it will not appear on the site! — so I can contact you should you win the book. I’d also love to hear whether you’ll be tuning into Downton Abbey this Sunday — or, if you’ve already seen it, what you thought of the 2nd season. I’ll be picking a winner a random next Friday (lucky Friday the 13th!) and yes, the contest is open to anyone no matter where you live, although if you’re overseas it may take some time for the book to show up. Just can’t wait? Order the book on Amazon.

I am counting the hours until bedtime so I continue reading this treasure of a book. I’m eager to find out more about the relationship between Rose and her witty, yet often tempestuous, mistress.

* An interesting note. Lady Astor, whose birth name was Nancy Langhorne, was a spirited American lass who moved to England in the early 1900s after a disastrous marriage to a fellow American. In England, she met Waldorf Astor, also born in America but resettled in England, and married him, thus becoming Lady Astor. Later, Lady Astor became the first female member of Parliament. Which just goes to show, with enough money, even an American can stand in Parliament.

Happy Christmas!

I was able to finish O’s sweater in plenty of time for his Winterfest program at school. He didn’t complain too much about wearing it — except to say that it was hot — but within seconds of the program’s end, he’d pulled it off and stuffed it into one of my tote bags. Harumph.

Anyway, it was a mostly enjoyable knit, nothing too strenuous/mindboggling for tv watching. My Ravelry details are here; closeup photos are forthcoming. Now I’m thinking about knitting a version of this sweater for myself.

Can you believe that Christmas is under a week away? I’ve been listening to Christmas carols in the evening as I work on the couch and it’s really getting me in the holiday spirit. My favorite is a CD my husband brought into our marriage:

It contains my favorite “carol” of all, Bach’s “Jauchzet, Frohlocket” from his Christmas Oratorio, but “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen” has grown on me, and now I love to listen to its soothing harmonies as I knit on the couch or read. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, I have less tolerance for the silly Christmas music playing in stores although yesterday I couldn’t help smiling listening to Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside”:

What’s your favorite holiday music?

O is off from school this week, as well as next, so today we’re going to work on decorating the Christmas tree. And then I need to focus on finishing up my knitted gifts.

More on The Worst Novel in the World

I confess … last night I’d had enough of Keith’s drug use (good grief, this guy must be a cat with his nine lives) and needed something less potent to draw me into slumber. I opened up The Worst Novel in the World (hereby TWNitW) and gave it another try. I thought I’d do what one of my Facebook friends suggested and skip over the boring parts. It ended up there were so many boring parts, my hand started to ache rolling the trackball on my cellphone. Which was kind of good because it was tiring work and I soon drifted off to sleep.

My friend Linda (the one who bravely plowed through the whole of TWNitW) pointed me to a New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece written by Nora Ephron. If you loathed TWNitW as I did, you’ll enjoy it.

Making elderflower cordial

Every June I try to make a batch of elderflower cordial, the quintessential British summertime soft drink. I got hooked on elderflower cordial a few years ago when I found it in our local Whole Foods, sold under the Belvoir label. Suddenly, Whole Foods stopped selling it, but by then, I’d learned how to ID elderberry bushes that grow in profusion all over New England. They start to blossom in late May, their showy white blooms ubiquitous along country roads as well as major interstate highways. I tend to pick my blossoms at a local state park, far from the exhaust of roadways, and in a marshy area next to our town’s senior center , which cracks me up, because elder? Elderly? Get it? Okay, you get it. (Sambucus nigri is the Latin name for the elderberry shrub; weirdly enough, the liqueur Sambuca is anise-flavored, not elderberry-flavored.)  Once July hits, the flowers die off to reveal little green berries that will ripen into dark purpley-black elderberries by late August … just in time to harvest for my famous cough syrup.*

I made a huge batch of cordial last summer, and because I was working on a monster work project this June, I didn’t get around to making a fresh batch. But for the last year I’ve been meaning to blog about how I make this cordial, so I’m just going to do it now, even though it’s slightly past elderflower season. When next May and June roll around, you’ll be all set to make your own cordial. (If you are in Zone 5 and under — meaning the far north of the U.S. or Canada, you may still have a couple days to gather elderflowers.)

How do I use my cordial? Mostly as a syrup to add to sparkling water to create a grapey/floral kind of soda that’s oh-so-refreshing after a stint in the garden or a long day at work. I also use a teaspoon or two to sweeten whipped cream for desserts. You can also use it as a syrup to flavor cocktails. My concoction keeps for ages because I add citric acid as a preservative and store it in sterilized glass jars.

I use a Sophie Grigson recipe for my cordial. Chronicle Books just sent me a copy of The River Cottage Preserves Handbook (I’ll be reviewing this delightful little manual later this summer) that includes a recipe, which looks not be as sweet as Grigson’s version. (Some people don’t like how sweet my cordial is, so if you’re not in possession of a sweet-tooth, then try the River Cottage version.)

Elderflower Cordial

Yield: A lot

20 elderflower heads, picked on a dry, sunny day
1.8 kg sugar
1.2 liters water
2 unwaxed organic lemons
75 g. citric acid

Gently shake the elderflower heads to dislodge any small bugs or spiders that didn’t jump off during the free ride to your kitchen. Place them in a large bowl — there’s no need to pick off the tiny flowers. Stems and all into the bowl!

In a large pot over medium heat, add the sugar to the water and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Now take your lemons and, with a peeler or paring knife, remove the peel from the lemon in thin strips. Add the peel to the bowl. Cut the lemon into thin slices, and squeeze them over the bowl. Then add the squeezed slices to the bowl.

Pour the hot sugar syrup over the flower heads and lemon. Stir in the citric acid, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let sit undisturbed for 24 hours.

The next day, line a sieve with some cheesecloth and procure another large container to capture the sieved cordial. Pour the cordial through the sieve and toss out the spent flower blossoms, lemon peel, and lemon slices. Divvy up the cordial among smaller containers, preferably ones that have been sterilized (I use mason jars). If you use sterilized jars, you can keep the cordial in your fridge for a year, even longer. The shelf life of cordial in unsterilized containers is much shorter, maybe a couple weeks. You could also try freezing it, although I wonder if the delicate flavor of the elderflowers wouldn’t fare so well here.

Let me know how cordial-making goes for you in the comments below.

*Several years ago I read that elderberries are known to reduce the effects of flu, fevers, colds — even asthma and bronchitis — so I made up a thick sweet syrup in the fall out of elderberries I’d gathered around town and stored it in our freezer. My husband came down with a brutal cold that winter, and because he doesn’t like to take anything with alcohol, he tried my syrup. Within a day he was feeling  much better, and throughout the rest of his illness he took a couple tablespoons-full a day, usually stirred into a hot water. Hey, you can’t beat the price and it’s probably just as good — if not better — than the OTC stuff they pack with artificial sweeteners, colorings, and alcohol at the drugstore.