Dried Acorns and Mirabelle Vodka

Of all the things dropping to the ground this summer, rain was particularly scarce.

The area of eastern France where we live is always hot in August. This year, though, after a rainy spring, June started heating up. And then July was hotter. As hot as August, but weeks early.

#wheat #wildcarrot #summer #sunshine #flowers #countryside #running #France

Wild carrot blooms along the verge of a wheat field just before harvest.
Photo: PKR

The minimal amounts of rain we got weren’t enough to keep the fields irrigated, so like other farmers around Europe in this hot season, our local farmers brought in the crop early to salvage what they could.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

The dry running path beneath gathering clouds.
Photo: PKR

The sunny mirabelle plums on our garden tree ripened weeks ahead of time, as did the wild blackberries all around the area. Tasty and delightful, but almost unseasonable in their timing.

#vodka #plums #mirabelles #garden

The last two mirabelle plums picked from the tree, and a bottle of some plums from earlier in the season. They’ll steep in vodka with a sprig of garden thyme and some sugar for a few months.
Photo: PKR

Acorns, too, carpet my running path – they should be hitting the ground in late summer. Hopefully the squirrels and other animals have noticed the weird clockwork of this year, and are taking a cue from the farmers by harvesting early.

Out on runs, I sometimes hear the boom of thunder somewhere in the mountains, and I watch for signs of relief. Often, the skies cloud over, and I’ll see rain falling somewhere nearby – but only for a few moments, and only over a limited area.

Of course, it’s not that there haven’t been heatwaves in the past. But even in the twenty-odd years since we moved here, the heatwaves have gotten more frequent, hotter, and longer.

This week, the heatwave finally broke and we’ve gotten a few evenings of rain and wind. It’s a welcome change to listen to rainfall rather than the constant thrum of fans, because of course an old place like ours doesn’t have central air conditioning.

The stone walls were usually enough to take a few weeks of August heat and still stay cool inside. We used to be able to lean against them, bare skin on stone as a quick refreshment. Not anymore – the stones of our house are heated through and radiate inward.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

A rain cloud brings a bit of relief.
Photo: PKR

Of course, we aren’t alone with our heatwave – it’s a phenomenon shared around the world this year. With any kind of luck, the slow climb of temperatures will come in fits and starts. With any kind of luck, we’ll have some time to take action, to adapt, to correct. With any kind of luck, a bit of luck will be on our side.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep using the luscious mirabelles for making plum vodka cordial, something to keep the winter nights warm once the heat has left the stones again.

#summer #acorns #oak

Acorns picked up during a run.
Photos: PKR

A Whisky Woman and a Spring Cordial

I finally bottled a batch of elderflower cordial yesterday, after letting the brew steep for a couple of days and then rest in the fridge until I got around to cooking it up.

One of the bottles I used – I’d actually saved it for use as a cordial bottle – reminded me of a whisky woman I’ve been meaning to mention for a long time.

Anyone who knows Japanese whisky has at least heard of Jessie Roberta Cowan, better known as Rita Taketsuru (1896-1961), or as the Mother of Japanese Whisky.

Born in Scotland, Miss Cowan met a young Japanese man named Masataka Taketsuru who had come to Glasgow to study chemistry and Scottish whisky-making. They married, and she went with him to Japan, where he dreamed of creating a real Japanese-made whisky.

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru Source: K&L Wine

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru
Source: K&L Wine

To make a long story short, they succeeded after overcoming many obstacles on the long road to achieving their goal, from prejudice in both their native countries against an interracial and international marriage to the task of establishing a whisky empire. The Nikka distillery in Yoichi, Japan was founded in 1934, and continues today as one of the world’s top whisky producers.

I’ve written previously about the kind of determination it must have taken for Masataka Taketsuru to leave Japan and study in Scotland, and to use traditional Scottish methods in Japan to make whisky.

But as a long-term expat myself, and as one who once worked in Japan in a town that boasted only one other foreigner at the time, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been for a young Scotswoman in the 1920s, when foreigners were a genuine rarity.

Rita Taketsuru Source: Japanese Whisky

Rita Taketsuru
Source: Japanese Whisky

The cultural divide must have been daunting, to say the least, especially once World War II was underway. However, the war had the effect of increasing domestic whisky business in the face of an import ban.

Rita helped keep the household afloat by teaching English and piano lessons, and some of her clients ended up becoming investors in the distillery.

There is a new Japanese television series about her life, and I wonder how much that series manages to convey the challenges and rewards of living in another culture over the course of decades.

The 'Mother of Japanese Whisky' Source: Matome

The ‘Mother of Japanese Whisky’
Source: Matome

One of the things I’ve learned during my long time as a foreigner in rural France, at least, is an appreciation of the seasonal joys of homemade jams and cordials. Sure, my grandmother was master of the art in Washington State, but I grew up in the supermarket Sixties and Seventies. I had to relearn everything for myself.

And so to the elderflower cordial.

It’s an easy enough process. Pick some fresh flower heads, shake out any bugs or debris and give them a quick rinse.

The elderflower heads.  All cordial photos: PK Read

The elderflower heads.
All cordial photos: PK Read

Put them into a bowl with lemon zest and orange rind. photo 2-1

Cover the lot in boiling water, and let it sit around for a few hours or a couple of days (in the fridge, ideally). Strain through a cheesecloth.photo 4

Bring it to a gentle simmer with sugar and lemon juice, and funnel it into sterilised bottles or jars, cap them and store them cool.

I used brown sugar, which is why the cordial turned out a bit dark and hazy instead of a nice flowery yellow. If I make another batch this year, it’ll be with white sugar.photo 3-1

A couple of bottles to keep, a couple of bottles to give away.

Perfect in cold sparkling water with a sprig of fresh mint, or in a prosecco cocktail. Ready for summer.

It’s no whisky empire, but it’s not bad.

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial

A small herd of new cattle appeared along my running path a few weeks ago, several cows and a single bull. All of them have thick, dark red hair that tufts up in waves like a field of wheat in the wind. And within a short time, there were small calves.

They graze in a triangular field not far from where my running loop begins, and are separate from the black-and-white herds in the surrounding meadows.

Taking the shade - some new faces on the running loop. All photos: PK Read

Taking the shade – some new faces on the running loop.
All photos: PK Read

There are several red, massive breeds that look a bit like them on a site that describes dozens of cow breeds, but the breed that comes closest is in description is the Salers – a very old breed of southern France, with a history that stretches back 7000-10,000 years to prehistoric times.

They’re bred for climates at low mountain altitudes where the winters can get cold, and they are known for being excellent milk producers – which makes them good for cheese production.photo 1

This group was escaping the sunshine in the one sliver of shade available on the entire meadow, and they didn’t take very kindly to my approach. There was a fence between us, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

After the run was accomplished, I decided to make some elderflower cordial. The word ‘cordial’ is one that is falling out of fashion these days, at least in its meaning of ‘strongly felt’ or ‘warm and friendly’.

When it comes to its meaning as a sweet-flavored fruit drink, the word always carries with it a scent of Victorian gentility for me.

Elderflower trees are considered little more than giant weeds here in our corner of France, growing rampant in the hedgerows between the fields. The wild one in our garden is no different.

It bursts up through a yew bush recklessly as if it has every right to be there. Up until a couple of years ago, I would cut it back to the ground during the spring and winter chops.

The stray elderflower tree.

The stray elderflower tree.

Here’s a recipe for non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, should you feel inclined and have the opportunity.

Like many things, making elderflower cordial is dead easy, it just takes a bit of patience.

With all the development of new houses in our area and the rapid disappearance of meadows and hedgerows, I’ve come to look on our little elderflower with some sympathy. I’ve started to treat it with a bit more…cordiality.

The bees like it, it smells nice, the flowers are pretty – and I can make a cordial that will bring fragrance and flavor to hot summer days in the months to come.

Simple, Slow, Good

We harvested the last of the mirabelles today under heavy skies and to the sound of rolling thunder, the first raindrops already falling as we packed away the ladder and hurried inside with the last couple of kilos of yellow plums.

There’s something so simple and satisfying about making old-fashioned jams and cordials, a word that has a distinctly Victorian ring to my ears. Or at least, it’s simple and satisfying once the pots have all been put away and the kitchen is clean.

We were in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to one of the fellows behind the bar at The Library in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

It’s a dimly lit place of deep leather seats and candles, with thick stacks of books piled up as table supports. The kind of place that invites spending more time than foreseen, and maybe a few unplanned confessions

After we’d tried the first couple of surprising cocktails, I had to go over and see what this guy was up to. I’ve never had such a bright pomegranate vodka martini; the margarita was spiked with unexpected cilantro and green chili.

As it turned out, the countertop looked more like a salad bar than a standard bar for booze. Fresh fruits, everything from pears and pomegranates to bell peppers and chills. Not to mention a wide variety of fresh herbs in bunches. Any juice for a drink is crushed or squeezed on the spot, the herbs mashed with a mortar and pestle.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.


What I liked even more was the time taken to really pay attention to each concoction, including the strawberry/balsamic vinegar/vodka creation I had (top picture), topped with a foam of elderflower St. Germain liqueur.

Sure, it all takes longer, just like cooking up and straining mirabelles for a couple of liters of sunny golden cordial. Still, so satisfying, a real pleasure.


Redcurrant Cordial

The cordial. A big bottle for the fridge, a small jar for gifting (well, there were quite a few of these, most of them already given away now), and a glass for the cook.

The cordial. A big bottle for the fridge, a small jar for gifting (well, there were quite a few of these, most of them already given away now), and a glass for the cook.

I’d had a romantic vision in my mind about making redcurrant cordial, something more in keeping with the  word ‘cordial’. What I hadn’t anticipated was the 7 kilos (15 pounds) of redcurrants my single bush would yield under not very thorough picking.

The simple recipe (see below) became a more complicated logistical matter of our largest soup pot, two other large pots, stockings, and four hands. I completely failed at finding the picturesque muslin frame for draining fruit, or for that matter, finding any muslin in our rural area. Wine making tools, beekeeping equipment: no problem. Muslin and jelly frames? Forget it.

The simple notion of boiling a few redcurrants with water and straining them became a multi-step event that involved my partner in crime holding open a pair of (brand-new) knee-high stockings over a pot while I skilfully ladled large quantities of currant pulp into the waiting stockings. After two attempts and three skin burns, he stopped me.

What I didn't have, but what I will be ordering for future cordial-making. Source: Eatweeds

What I didn’t have, but what I will be ordering for future cordial-making.
Source: Eatweeds

“Where are those weird potato peeling gloves your late grandmother gave us ten years ago?” The ones we’d never used until now, still fresh in their original packing, right under the sink where we parked them in bewilderment at what we would ever need them for. Thanks, Grammy!360545351573_6 A few iterations later, the stockings were harnessed to the handles of the large soup pot, merrily straining the rest of the juices from the thousands of redcurrant seeds and bits of skin left behind. Sadly, I was too consumed in the making to document the picturesque sight of stockings filled with current pulp. Also, by that time it was almost midnight.

But the cordial is delicious – sweet, tart, full of summer flavor. Worth the effort. I made this Swedish version of the cordial from SwedishFood.com, but used a bit less sugar than called for because I like the tartness of the fruit.


500 g (1 lb) redcurrants, 180 g (6 oz) fine sugar, juice from 1 lemon

1. Rinse the currants, leave them on their stalks but remove any coarse stalks.

2. Put the berries in a saucepan and add 120 ml (½ cup) of water. Bring to the boil and let simmer until the berries have burst (about ten minutes, much longer if, like me, you have several kilos worth of fruit).

3. Line a sieve with muslin (or use a stand as shown above) and strain the cooked currants. I don’t actually recommend knee-high stockings as a sieve, but they work in a pinch. Wear thick gloves if you are holding open the stockings.

4. Return the juice to the saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to boil and let simmer for 3 minutes. Remove any scum from the surface with a spoon.

5. Pour the hot liquid through a funnel into a sterilised bottle. (Sterilise by washing and then placing in an oven at 120°C (240°F, gas 1) for 5 minutes.)

6. Cool.

We’ll be mostly drinking the cordial mixed with sparkling water, champagne or prosecco (at a ratio of about 1:8) but it can be used in salad dressings, poured over ice cream, frozen, or added to hot water for a refreshing hot drink.