Monday 21 September 2015

Blackberry Vinegar

Autumn is a time for harvest, a time of natural abundance. The brambles in the hedgerows are decorated with juicy blackberries and there is little more satisfying than a stroll in the countryside on a sunny, autumn day to collect a bountiful harvest of blackberries, elderberries and sloes. In England, the blackberry season can begin as early as June, but they are most abundant in late August and September, but the can carry on fruiting until the first frosts arrive.

Photograph by Syd Spence

The Latin name for blackberries is Rubus fruticosus and, believe it or not, is related to the rose (thorns), and is an aggregate fruit. The plant will grow in poor soil, hence its abundance by the roadside.

Interesting fact: Archaeological records show that as long ago as 8,000 B.C Europeans were eating Blackberries.

During the First World War, school children were given time off to go out collecting blackberries and blackberry juice was sent to serving soldiers to help maintain health. Little wonder as they are rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin E. They are high in fibre and have only twelve calories per ounce. To read more about blackberry picking in the First World War, please click here.

Blackberries are most commonly associated with apples, also in autumnal abundance, and a home-made blackberry and apple pie completes any Sunday lunch.

However, a fine, old-fashioned recipe for using up those plump, juicy blackberries is: 

Blackberry Vinegar.

It’s a really simple recipe and all you need to do is:

Put your blackberries into a bowl – any amount. 

Pour in the vinegar until the blackberries are all submerged – I like to use red-wine vinegar, but you can use ordinary malt vinegar, white-wine or cider vinegar.

Cover the bowl and leave for a few days (I like to leave them for 5 or 7). Stir daily.

When it’s time for bottling, mash the berries in the vinegar and strain them.

First through a colander, 

then through a fine sieve, or a jelly bag if you have one.

Put the liquid into a large saucepan and for each pint add 1lb of granulated sugar.

Bring to the boil and simmer for around 15 minutes. The longer you simmer, the thicker the liquid will become.

Pour into sterile bottles and label.

Blackberry vinegar is very versatile and can be used in many ways, for example:

Poured onto Yorkshire pudding  or pancakes as a dessert;
As a cold remedy mixed with a little warm water and honey;
On salad as a dressing;
On chips;
On strawberries with clotted cream;
Instead of Balsamic vinegar

Sunday 20 September 2015

University Application Guide: 2016 Entry

Anyone preparing to apply to be an undergraduate at a university in the U.K. would benefit from reading this inexpensive book. It does exactly what it says on the cover - guide applicants every step of the way from registration through to sending off the completed form and accepting and declining offers.

It's affordable, accessible and indispensable for assisting with that step from sixth form to undergrad. It is full of tips and information in a straightforward, easy-to-follow guide. A small price for a huge piece of helpfulness.

I know from experience how stressful a time it can be for young people, and the knowledge and experience in the book has been gained over twenty years. I've even known students refuse chocolate treats because they were too worried about completing their UCAS form.

The paperback version is available here and there are even pages for your own notes.

The ebook is available for download to Kindle - and if you haven't got it yet, you can easily get the Kindle app for your ipad or iphone. 

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Runner Bean Harvest Festival

The North-South Beanstalk Divide

Having relatives at opposite ends of the country doesn’t bode well when they are also competitive gardeners.

Our Family’s southern contingent live in Devon where it’s warm, sunny and almost frost-free. The northern cohort are in Cumbria where it’s always wet, cold and frequented by late frosts.

We are happily situated in the Midlands and enjoy a fairly temperate climate.

The issue of competitive gardening first arose when it was time to grow runner beans. May the 12th was the designated date for planting and we Midlanders happily sowed the seed and left the rest to nature.

The southerners paid a visit in August and on seeing slender beans hanging in clusters from our plants, which still had masses of red flowers on too, declared that their bean harvest was over and green beans had been enjoyed since June (not sure I believed them, but all’s true in love and garden-war).

Then in September the northerners visited and were astounded by how many beans we had as theirs hadn’t even started cropping, but a smugness then settled upon them as they pronounced that they will be enjoying beans long after ours had turned ‘stringy’ and tough. (Not sure I believed them either.) Their parting words were: “They’ll all be over in Devon, you know!” – Yes, we know.

Mum, also a Midlander, always used to say that it was a sure sign that Autumn was on its way when beans were part of every meal, so along with the Last Night of the Proms, enormous house-spiders, harvest festivals and misty mornings, a bean-fest is a great way to enjoy the transition from summer sunshine to autumn leaves.

I put this recipe together to encourage vegetable-hating, bacon-loving offspring to enjoy what has to be the best vegetable ever created and its short-lived season makes it that much more celebrated than those available all-the-year round.

Autumn Bean, Bacon and Tomato Festival


A pan-full of prepared runner beans (topped, tailed, stringed and sliced)
4-6 slices of bacon, chopped into pieces the size of a postage stamp*
1 onion, sliced
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, crushed (optional)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon sesame seeds (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
Vegetable oil
A handful or two of cherry tomatoes, red and/or yellow, halved
Soy sauce

* For vegetarians, slice and add a courgette or two instead


Pour boiling water over the beans and simmer them for about 20 minutes.
Whilst the beans are cooking, pour a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil into a large frying pan or wok and heat for 30 seconds.
Add the onion and bacon, and cook gently until onion is soft and bacon is starting to crisp.
Next add the garlic, mustard seeds and sesame seeds, if you are using them.
When the beans are cooked, drain off the water and add them to the pan along with the toasted pine nuts.
Shake Soy Sauce over the beans (about 5 shakes should do it) and combine all the ingredients.
Add the tomatoes and stir them in.
Serve into warm bowls.

For a more substantial meal, serve with rice.