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.

Roundabout Flowers

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering Photo: On the Verge

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering
Photo: On the Verge

It’s been a trend in recent years to replace the mown grass of urban traffic verges and roundabouts with wild flowers. The flowers require less maintenance, they’re easy on the eyes, and they are thought to provide habitat support for pollinators such as bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hover flies, all of which are under pressure for a variety of reasons, including pesticides, habitat loss and disease.

A University of Sussex study published in Insect Conservation and Diversity has quantified just what kind of impact this kind of wild flower intervention can have in a short time.

An initiative in Central Scotland oversaw the conversion of city areas usually covered in mown grass – roundabouts, road verges, parks, school grounds, the edges of sports fields. The study examined 30 of these sites over a period of two years after the flowers had been sown.

Bumblebee on cornflower.  Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

Bumblebee on cornflower.
Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

In just two years, they found 50 times more bumblebees and 13 times more hoverflies in areas that had previously been flower wastelands.

The seed mix used incorporated a variety of meadow flowers from the region. The project and its results show just how simple it can be to provide pollinator-friendly areas within cities.

This has been a trend in my corner of the world, as well. And looking at the lush, lively fields of flowers that fill most of the roundabouts in our area, I’m not really sure why we ever thought putting in mown grass was a better solution in the first place.

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland Photo: Caithness

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland
Photo: Caithness

Barley Doors

barley-field-3-lowresWhen one door closes, another door opens, in a quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell that’s meant to reflect an optimistic perspective on the ebb and flow of opportunity.

In the case of the spring barley intended for Scottish whisky production, a genetic door closing on one pernicious blight unexpectedly led to a door opening on another.

Ramularia effects on leaves Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

Ramularia effects on leaves
Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

For thirty years, the promotion of a specific gene in barley – the mlo gene – has shielded barley crops against what used to be one of the main pests for the crop, powdery mildew fungus, (Blumeria graminis f. sp. hordei). Unfortunately, in recent years it has become apparent that the very same barley gene that works as cell protection also renders barley more vulnerable to a previously minor pest, Ramularia (Ramularia urticae).

Ramularia under the mircroscope

Ramularia under the microscope

Ramularia, a leaf spot blight that damages leaves and makes the plant unable to absorb sunlight, has been responsible for ruining up to ten percent of recent crops.

And so, researchers are heading back to examine older varieties of barley to look for genetic strains that will help increase resistance to Ramularia. After all, barley grown for the whisky industry accounts for over £ 4 billion of the Scottish economy. Shortfalls in local production mean barley is imported for malting.

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

The study that identified the problem with Ramularia was also interesting because it states that it was the very introduction and success of the mlo gene around the world, combined with changes in the climate, that could have contributed to the sudden strength of the new threat.

“It has struck us that plant breeding relying on the successful use of a single major resistance gene can increase susceptibility to another disease,” said R&D breeder Peter Werner from KWS UK.

Through the use of genetic mapping, the research has already pointed the way towards resolving the Ramularia issue. And now, I suppose, it is just a matter of waiting to see which door closes next, and which door opens.

 

 

The Real Thing

Scotch whisky will soon have something else in common with Champagne besides being one of my favorite beverages: It will have protected geographical status.

Like many other coveted products, Scotch whisky is often counterfeited. Fake Scotch whisky is estimated to cost the industry £500 million annually, approximately ten percent of  overall sales.

Old Map of Scotland 1650 Source: Virtual Hebrides

Old Map of Scotland 1650
Source: Virtual Hebrides

A new Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme will require “all businesses involved in any stage of the production of Scotch Whisky to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by listing all their relevant sites within and outside Scotland, including distilleries, maturation facilities, blending and bottling plants. Bottlers of Scotch Whisky abroad will also be subject to controls.” (The Scotsman)

For the time being, this verification will only be required for Scotch whisky sold in the European Union, but will be extended to other unique UK beverages with a geographical origin, such as Somerset Cider Brandy and Irish Whiskey produced in Northern Ireland. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the certified Scotch label spread further.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in this case, it would be nice to know that you’re getting the real thing.

And to warm the end of this weekend like a dram of fine single malt Scotch, The Real Thing. Don’t watch if you can’t appreciate the rhythm and glamour that was the mid-1970s.

With thanks to Rachel MacNeill for alerting me to this story!