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For me, the first sign that summer has really arrived is that the garlic is ready for harvesting. It goes without saying that tomatoes are the best crop to grow yourself in terms of superiority over shop bought versions, but garlic comes a very close second. Fresh garlic has a slightly milder, less pungent flavour than dried garlic and the newly harvested bulbs exude an amazingly vibrant aroma more akin to wild garlic leaves than shop bought dried bulbs. Fresh garlic works really well in an alioli or just lightly fried in olive oil with some other summer vegetables (baby courgettes and broad beans) and served with pasta.
The other amazing thing about growing your own garlic is that it keeps really well. They don’t need to be kept in particularly special conditions. I usually keep mine in a wooden box in the kitchen (which is not the driest room in the house) and I find that a crop of about 30 or so bulbs lasts just about a year until the next crop is ready. They don’t start sprouting until the last few weeks which just goes to show that the garlic you buy in the supermarket is probably about a year old as it usually starts sprouting after a few weeks if you haven’t used it. After about a month of storage the flavour has really matured to the strong, sulfurous, pungent smell that you expect from a good garlic.
Garlic is also pretty easy to grow. The key is to get it in the ground early- ideally October, or at the latest November – so that they can benefit from a good frost. Plant each individual clove about 4-5 inches apart in reasonably well drained soil. We grow ours in a clay soil with some compost dug in and have a fair amount of success so don’t worry when you people tell you it has to be really light free draining soil. You should see little green shoots sprouting in December or January. Keep them weed free, and make sure they get a reasonable amount of water later in the spring. There are two important things for ensuring a successful crop. Do not let them flower – if you see a flower forming cut it off. Once the flower sets in, the plant puts all its energy into this and the bulb will shrink leaving you with something resembling a spring onion. This tends to happen when it’s hot and dry. The second thing is to harvest the crop once the leaves start to turn brown and wilt. If you leave them too long after this the bulbs will start to split open and sprout again from each individual clove which is not a disaster but leaves you with slightly weird looking garlic that retains a lot of soil. I have also found that garlic is great to plant near lettuce as it seems to deter the slugs. Once they are ready to harvest, pull them up gently using a hand fork, gently brush off the excess soil and leave them to dry a bit for a week either outside if you know it’s not going to rain or, if you live in the UK, in a greenhouse or shed. After then you can give them a good rub to get the soil off and bring them inside and start using them. You can also use any left over cloves to plant the next year and start the cycle again. You may never need to buy another bulb of old, dried, woody garlic again. Oh, and you won’t have any trouble with vampires either.
It’s time for an update on the brew. After about a week in the demijohn the bubbling stopped, indicating it was time to measure the specific gravity. This showed a reading of 994 which was a good bit lower than the target of 1010. To remedy this we made a sugar syrup of 240 g of sugar in about 200 ml of water and added this to the demijohn (once the syrup had cooled down). We followed the guideline of adding 100 g of sugar per 5 litres to raise the SG by 7.5 points. When we remeasured the SG it showed a reading of 1015 which was probably fine given that the solution will ferment a bit more in the bottles. So we then siphoned the solution into sterilised plastic bottles, screwed the lids on and left them to ferment further to add some fizz. You could see that the yeast was settling out to leave a slightly hazy solution.
Whilst we were doing this we also started another brew up as there were still plenty of flowers on the bushes. We followed the same procedure as before except that we used a different champagne yeast which required rehydrating beforehand. We also measured the original specific gravity. This was 1075 which should give us a final alcohol content of 9.7%. When we came to transfer the must to the demijohn we siphoned it instead of filtering through a muslin bag which was quite a bit easier, however we did notice a few of the elderflower petals made it through into the demijohn. I’ll update next when we crack open the first bottle for a taste.
The next stage of the elderflower champagne is well under way. After leaving the primary fermentation in the bucket for 4 days, we strained it through a muslin filter bag into the demijohn. Again, everything that is touching the brew has been washed and sanitised. The demijohn was fitted with a bung and airlock containing a few millilitres of sodium metabisulfite solution. For the first hour there wasn’t much activity, but after that the bubbles started appearing in the airlock, and after 2-3 hours they were coming at a rate of one bubble per second. It’s been going steadily at this rate for the last 5 days now which is a good sign.
The solution is also very cloudy. It has definitely settled since we transferred it to the demijohn but the is still a lot of suspended material in the solution. I guess this should clear over time, particularly as the bubbling subsides. In a few days time we’ll probably do the first specific gravity measurement to see how the fermentation is getting on.
We’re making some elderflower champagne this weekend. It’s our first attempt at some home brewing so hopefully it will be successful. The recipe we’re following is from the River Cottage ‘Booze’ book and looks straightforward enough. We’ve also had some expert homebrewing advice from Hop Hackers so we’re in good hands.
The first step was to wash our brewing bucket and spoon in VWP solution which is a bleach based cleaner. Then we rinsed everything with sodium metabisulfite to get rid of the bleach smell (and also as a mild steriliser). Finally we rinsed everything with a no-rinse sanitiser which is a mix of phosphoric acid and surfactant.
With everything cleaned and ready to go the next step was to forage some elderflowers. The spring in the UK has been rather cool this year so the flowers are a bit late coming out but we managed to find around 15 medium to large flower sprays. We have an elder tree overhanging the end of our garden so we managed to get a reasonable crop from there and topped it up with a few more surreptitiously acquired flowers from down the road. We gave them a good shake to get rid of the aphids and a couple of caterpillars that were making their homes in there and added them to the bucket.
So in the bucket went the flowers with the larger bits of stalk cut off, pared zest and juice from 2 lemons, 900 g of sugar and 250 ml of grape concentrate. We added 2.5 L of boiling water to that, stirred it until the sugar dissolved and then topped it up to 5 L with bottled mineral water and finally added 1/2 tsp of yeast nutrient. The smell was amazing – very reminiscent of a Gewurtztraminer wine which bodes well!
We now need to leave it to cool before we add the yeast so I’ll update again later.
It took about 7 hours for the mixture to cool to room temperature at which point we aerated it (stirred it with a sanitised spoon), added the yeast and put the lid back on. Now all we need to do is wait for the magic to happen.
I did the first run of my cold smoker yesterday. I used a mixture of oak and silver birch logs for the fire and also chipped some in my garden shredder to use for the sawdust which I put in an old loaf tin above the fire. Once the logs had settled down to glowing embers the temperature in the smoke chamber was a fairly steady 25 C or so. I didn’t need to do much fiddling about to get the air (and smoke) flow through the system – the smoke chamber seemed to have enough natural ventilation.
I decided to do a test run by making some lightly smoked salmon for cooking (as opposed to just curing it). I dry salted a couple of salmon fillets for 15 minutes and then rinsed them and dried them off with kitchen towel before smoking them for 3 hours. They didn’t change colour much but had definitely absorbed the smell of the smoke. Today I roasted them in the oven as you would a normal salmon fillet and the result was amazing. It was easily the tastiest smoked salmon I’ve had. The flavour of the smoke was really fresh and much more complex than shop bought smoked salmon. It really was like standing next to a bonfire! I think you could probably get away with just a couple of hours if you only wanted a hint of smokiness, but I think three hours will be a good starting point for doing white fish (haddock, pollack etc). Next time I’ll see how much I can get smoked in a session.The grill should fit a couple of sides of salmon or 8-10 smaller fillets, or a decent size belly of pork. I’d also like to try some more unusual things like garlic, cheese and chillies.
Sorry for the lack of posting recently – I’ve been busy starting at Uni. This has, however given me a nice long Christmas break so I finally got some time to build my cold smoker. I already have a chimnea which I can use for the firebox after a bit of adaptation, a BBQ rack to hold the items for smoking, and I recently bought a flexible flue liner (10 cm diameter) for about £10 in France. The only remaining piece was the actual smoke box.
I originally planned on acquiring and old whisky or cider barrel for the smoke box, mainly because I thought it would be cool, but on reflection I think it would be too big as it is more suited to doing large items like whole hams. Seeing as I’m realistically just going to be doing a few small pieces of fish, bacon and chillies I had a rethink. I decided to test my mediocre woodworking skills and build a box myself. I’ve attached some photos below showing you how I built it. It actually wasn’t too difficult and only only took me a day or so.
I used sawn treated timber which came in planks of 2.4 m x 10 cm x 1.9 cm and started by cutting three 40 cm lengths for each end. I joined these together by screwing on some battens (29 cm x 3.4 cm x 1.8 cm) and fixed another batten across the two beams for the BBQ rack to rest on. I cut a 10 cm circle (sort of) into one of the end pieces using a jigsaw and then joined the two ends together with 60 cm lengths of wood screwed into the corner battens. A few 40 cm long strips were then nailed to the bottom to make the floor of the box and I made a separate lid with 60 cm lengths joined together with another couple of battens. I also used some larger pieces of wood (40 cm x 10 cm x 5 cm) to add two ‘feet’ to the bottom of the box. The whole box cost about £18 to make.
It all seems to fit together nicely, so now I just need to test it out to see how it draws the smoke through, where and how much it leaks and how hot the smoke box gets. Home-smoked salmon here I come!