Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Elderflowers, St Germain and Water Ice

Our hedgerows are festooned with creamy white elderflowers and their scent is hanging in the air all around us. I love their intoxicating fragrance and every so often I make Elderflower Wine (Frontiniac). (Elderflower Champagne is heavenly but after finding a lot of bottles that had exploded I play safe and make the still version).

Elderflowers are edible and are best picked in the last weeks of June or the first week of July on a sunny day when the clusters of flowers are in full bloom. Always smell the flowers before you pick them as some wild varieties can smell musty. The flowers are traditionally used to flavour cordials, custards, sorbets, fritters, vinegars, jams and jellies – they are lovely when used with gooseberries or rhubarb. In Alsace they are distilled to make a liqueur and a famous brand, St Germain, was so popular it was acquired by Bacardi recently.

Elder takes its name from the Anglo Saxon word for fire, aeld, as its hollowed out branches were used to blow the flames (the soft pith inside the stems is easy to remove and the Romans used to hollow out twigs to make into musical pipes, flutes and horns). The tree is steeped in folklore – traditionally it is thought of as the Witches Tree and even today some country folk are reluctant to cut it down (or even worse, burn it), lest they suffer bad luck. In times past it was believed that the elder guarded against evil spirits, thunderbolts and plagues if grown outside your door (the elder's leaves keep flies away and the diseases they carry. I have used elder leaves stuck into my horse's bridle to ward off flies – it does work!). It's said that if you sit under an elder tree on mid summer's eve you will see faeries.

I have a recipe for Elderflower Water Ice which is light and refreshing. The recipe uses dried elderflowers and if you collect your own, spread them out to dry on trays in a warm place out of direct sunlight. When dry the flowers can easily be rubbed from their stems and stored in airtight containers in a dark place. If you are unable to gather your own elderflowers you can either buy dried ones online or use elderflower cordial as a replacement.

Elderflower Water Ice

Serves 4

1 ¼ pints water (or if using elderflower cordial, 1 pint of cordial and ¼ pint of water)
4 oz sugar
6 fl oz lemon juice
2 tbps grated lemon rind
1 oz dried elderflowers (omit if using cordial)

Add the water and sugar to a saucepan and boil, stirring regularly, until the sugar has dissolved. Continue to boil for a further 5 minutes and then add the lemon juice and grated lemon rind.

Place the dried elderflowers in a cheesecloth, tie the ends with string and add to the mixture in the saucepan. Heat for 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from the heat and allow to cool. Remove the elderflowers and squeeze out excess liquid back into the saucepan.

Pour the mixture into a container and freeze. Stir every hour for 4 hours or until the ice is well blended and firm.

Wine Pairing

Sparkling wine is super with desserts and Cremant d'Alsace pairs beautifully with Elderflower Water Ice. Cremant d'Alsace Jean Baptiste Adam has a fine mousse of bubbles and expressive aromas of apricot, pear and lime blossom which compliments the fragrance and taste of the elderflowers. Rounded and well balanced with notes of spice and brioche it has a a delicious depth and is well worth trying if you haven't done so before!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

French Fresh Pea Soup (Potage Saint Germain)

Originally French Pea Soup, Potage Saint Germain, was made with fresh peas and it was only until later that the split pea version became more common place. The pea soup takes its name from Chateau de Saint Germain en Laye, a royal palace, about 11 miles west of Paris. The chateau was renowned for its gardens and was the birthplace of King Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) . . . who, as it happens, loved peas.

The King held his Court at Saint Germain between 1663 – 1682 and when he moved into Versailles his gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie developed the sweet green pea hybrid petits pois in the King's famous Potager du Roi, (the Royal Kitchen Garden) there. This garden produced fresh vegetables and fruits for the tables of the Court – it required 30 experienced gardeners to tend it, covered 25 acres and contained 12,000 trees. It still exists today.

Petis pois soon became a craze and Louis' mistress, Madame de Maintenon, wrote of the ladies who, “having supped and supped well with the King, have peas waiting for them in their rooms before going to bed – at the risk of indigestion. It is both a fashion and a madness.”

The old recipe for Potage Saint Germain contains fresh peas, lettuce, white leeks, a mirepoix (combination of diced carrots, bacon, onions and celery), pepper, chervil and tarragon. The recipe below uses fresh peas from the pod but you can substitute these with frozen petits pois.

2 leeks, white parts only, finely chopped
1 lettuce
½ cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped
3 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp butter
2 cups water
4 cups petits pois
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup double cream

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, add the leeks and cook until softened. Add the chicken stock and water into the saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the peas and lettuce, partially cover the saucepan with a lid and simmer for 7 – 8 mins until the peas are tender. Add the mint.

Pour into a blender and liquidise. Return the soup to the saucepan, season with salt and pepper and heat for 2 -3 minutes.

Ladle the soup into bowls, add the double cream as a garnish and sprinkle with peas or croutons.

Wine Pairing

Sauvignon Blanc is lovely with fresh summer soups and either a single variety wine such as Fleur de Luze or Montagnac Sauvignon Blanc from the Languedoc Roussillon (both of which are 100% Sauvignon Blanc) or a Bordeaux Blanc with a high percentage of this grape in the blend would be a good choice. Chateau Le Rondailh (80%) or Chateau Vrai Caillou (70%) are highly recommended.