Autumn is here. My nightly need for fresh air with windows flung open, suddenly tempered by the realisation last night that I was not cool but cold. It’s curious the small cues that mark the seasonal change long before the leaves are turning and the plants begin their full on retreat back into the earth for Winter. It starts with the air. A change in the scent and an almost perceptible thickening of its texture as morning mists weigh heavy with moisture.
For me, Autumn is not heralded by the smell of wood smoke and bonfires, those come later, but rather that smell of slight dampness, of musty annuals having flowered all Summer, now largely spent, their foliage losing its sheen and structure. It’s approaching the last opportunity for annuals to drop their seed before finally being cut to the ground by the first frosts. It’s the slightly sweet fermenting smell of unpicked fruit dotting the ground under trees, speckled with holes from wasps and insects drunk and a little irritable on too much fructose.
It’s the pink hands from picking blackberries and separating elderberries from their stems, from pinching the ends from sloes ready for immersion in gin. It seems that much of September is about fruit and gathering. As the season changes so does the focus, away from the immediacy of working quickly with petals and on to the needs of preservation through the coming months. It is a season to settle.
For us, the flower harvest is all but finished, only a few stray plants still produce blooms, now we move on to hedgerows full of Hawthorn berries, rosehips bright red and lustrous and rowan berries almost ripe enough to pick. These fruit and seeds are used in the products of our sister company – as cordials, tinctures, tonics and distillates. I love the idea that our Apothecary is growing and developing, that we can make use of ever more seasonal produce. That more and more our work corresponds to our energy, ebbing and flowing in tune with the demands of the seasons.
I reflected on this when talking with a friend yesterday who described September as a month of new beginnings, of children returning to school to the start of an academic year and it struck me anew how curiously out of step academic years are. Just at the point in the year when our energy is changing, when we want to settle and slow, we expect our children to suddenly do the reverse; to summon up energy to manage a change of academic year, new teachers, homework, early mornings, large groups of people. It's a counter intuitive discombobulation.
So this month unusually, for all the tired parents and over excited children, I’m including a recipe to get us all through the Autumn and Winter in fine fettle. It’s for an elderberry tonic called Red Rob – it is a fantastic first aid kit addition and so simple to make. I use it at the first hint of coughs, colds or flu.
Start by picking a basket load of elderberries. Strip them from their stems using the tines of a fork (discard any that are green as they are not good for you), wash in cool water, place in a saucepan with a dash of water with a selection of spices – my favourites are cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and fresh ginger. Cover and very gently simmer for 30 minutes until the berries are well cooked and they have released all their juices. The next steps depend on how you feel about sugar (I do like raw cane sugar):
Elderberry syrup with sugar
Squash the berries with a potato masher and strain the liquid out into a measuring jug with a fine sieve. Measure out your strained liquid, for every 500ml of juice add 250g of raw cane sugar. Add a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, a five spice and a few slices of lemon. Simmer and stir until the sugar has dissolved then leave it on a low simmer for half an hour uncovered, stirring regularly until it thickens to a cordial like consistency. Pour into sterilised bottles. To use, take a teaspoon directly or stir it into hot water or a tot of brandy.
You can alternatively make a honey based syrup by taking your measured liquid, and mixing it with equal parts honey and stirring well. This mixture can then be placed in sterile jars and stored in the fridge. Once opened, use within 2 months.