Hoping I’ll be nuts about this liqueur

Washed beech leaves

SOMETIMES EVEN I am surprised how stupid I can be. I was out collecting nettles for beer (post coming up) and keeping an eye out for a likely looking beech tree. I fancied making noyau, that liqueur made from its leaves.

Of course, I didn’t find one and only later did I realise there was one less than 20 feet from my kitchen door – my neighbour’s but one which I had paid expensively some years ago to lower and give me a little more afternoon sun.

That realisation stung more than the nettles.

I am posting shortly after picking the leaves and before the noyau is ready to be drunk but if I leave it until then your chance of following suit will be over until next year.

There is only a short ‘window’ when the leaves are fresh, green, tender (and edible) and delicate enough to make this drink. That is now. So I will update this post as the drink develops.

In a nutshell (pun!) the idea is to macerate big handfuls of beech leaves in gin (or vodka) for five to six weeks, strain, add sugar syrup, fortify with brandy, mix, leave for a bit longer and drink.

Leaves in the Kilner jar

They say you can eat the young leaves in salads or sandwiches as they have a citrus taste. I chewed through five or six and only got the merest hint of lemon although that could have been auto-suggestion.

Now technically a noyau is made from nuts and this uses leaves. They say it was devised by foresters in the 18TH century who used beech to make furniture.

First find your tree. Then stuff as many leaves as you can into a carrier or paper bags, avoiding as much as possible any detritus such as the flowery bits which would eventually become nuts.

It’s a faff picking the leaves but as the tree badly needed a prune I broke off twigs and branches and sat down to strip the leaves. I quite like tedious routines but prefer to do it seated.

They need washing. Put them in a bowl and hopefully some of the detritus will float off. Wash them again and then drain, each time picking off bits of flowers or brown bracts.

I finished them off in the salad spinner. If you have any detritus left at least it will be clean.

Every recipe I have seen uses the phrase ‘pack loosely’ when putting them in your sterilised jar. I have only heard one dissenting voice. As I had a two litre Kilner jar my 80g of leaves was never going to fill it.

I poured in a 70cl bottle of cheap gin (you can also use vodka) and kept the leaves submerged with an old yoghurt pot lid before sealing the jar.

It is now in the cellar with a note to go on to stage two in a month’s time: I have yet to decide how sweet I want it and how much brandy to add.

So if you’re up for it, go out and find those beech leaves. I’ve read you can also make a liqueur from the nuts so I may give that a go later in the year.

Either way, I hope to be raising a glass of noyau to the tree at the bottom of the garden come summer.

I’ll keep you posted.

My neighbour’s beech tree

Like salmon? Here’s a cure for it!

IT was a bargain too good to miss: a whole side of salmon, weighing a kilo, for just £10 using our Tesco Clubcard. But we only wanted a couple of fillets to steam for tea and the small ones on the lower shelves cost a fiver.

Naturally I bought the side, cut off my two fillets and didn’t really have to think too much about what to do with the rest.

A nice plump section would make me gravadlax, cured pressed salmon, an excellent alternative to smoked, with the chance to add subtle flavours. The rest went in the freezer for a family dinner later in the week, cooked Chinese-style, with even more, the tail end, reserved for soup.

It was the Scandinavians who came up with gravadlax as a way of preserving salmon, smothering it in salt and herbs and burying it in the ground. That’s why you’ll see it alternatively translated as buried or pressed salmon. I have heard it had a bit of a reek!

Things have moved on a bit since.

Essentially you cut your salmon into two equal pieces, leaving the skin on, smearing it on both sides with sugar, salt, herbs (fresh dill gives that distinctive flavour), peppercorns, and a splosh or two of spirits, in my case gin, although alcohol is not essential. If you’re teetotal crushed juniper berries will give the same kick.

Now sandwich the two pieces of salmon together, fleshy sides inwards, wrap in clingfilm or put in a ziplock bag and nestle the whole thing in a handy container. Raid the pantry for two or three tins to press down on the salmon and pop it in the fridge.

Curing can take between one and four days, depending on the result you want or how long you can wait. Just remember to turn the salmon every 12 hours.

When ready, drain the liquid from the salmon, wipe clean and lay on a flat board. Now find a very sharp knife (I use a fish filleting knife) and cut the thinnest slices you can, on the slant, starting at the tail end. Hold the salmon still with a pad of kitchen paper.

Don’t worry about the skin. Curing will have toughened it up and you won’t slice through it, cutting at an angle.

You may disagree but I think gravadlax, as with smoked salmon, gains in texture by being sliced as thinly as possible.

I like it in thinly cut sandwiches with cream cheese or on blinis, little buckwheat pancakes (recipes are everywhere on line) with sour cream.

It’s improved by marinating briefly with a little lemon juice but taste first for pepper.

My cure is taken from Shaun Hill’s Salt is Essential but it is much the same, whatever your reference. Quanitites are for a kilo fillet, scale down if necessary.

You need 4 tablespoons each of rock or sea salt and granulated or Demerara sugar, a bunch of chopped dill and a tablespoon of crushed peppercorns. He adds two tablespoons of brandy to the mix. I used gin plus crushed juniper berries.

Now enjoy it. Gravadlax will keep for at least a week in the fridge, depending on the length of cure, and will freeze, keeping it in one piece. Obviously you won’t refreeze it.

The Stinky Buds of April

WILD GARLIC pesto is in season but so last year these days. Well, it is for me. Pesto goes with pasta but having been recently diagnosed as diabetic my tortellini days are over, at least for the moment.

There are only so many grilled chops you can smear pesto on, soups to enrich or plates to dot artistically with the emerald green paste when in cheffy mode.

Luckily it’s not just the leaves you can harvest. Everything about wild garlic, or ramsons, is edible, from the flower to its bulb.

I’ve been pickling the buds as a kind of caper, or caper berry because they are around the same size, and have an experimental jar on the go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I already make capers very successfully from nasturtium seeds and elder buds so am hoping for good results. In fact, I don’t bother buying the real thing these days.

You may look at a swathe of ramsons (of all its folk names I prefer Stinking Jenny) and wonder where the buds are. They turn into the beautiful white star blooms later in the season. Right now they are at the bottom of the plant, among the leaves.

You will have heard of the Darling Buds of May; well these are the Stinky Buds of April!

Pick one and enjoy the crisp, garlicky taste which would make, in moderation, a great addition to salads.

I picked 70g (precisely 101 buds, I counted them), enough for a small jar. Now you can ferment them, apparently, but I stuck to pickling. After a good wash they were packed into the sterilised jar and I made up a pickling vinegar by heating up 250mls of white wine vinegar with bay, peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel and two tablespoons each of sugar and sea salt, leaving it to infuse before straining and pouring over.

You need to pack them very tightly as they float up and the top layer will not be fully immersed. I found a plastic lid which went neatly inside the jar. I’ll give it a couple of months before trying.

I’ve flavoured vinegar with the flowers in past years and used the broader leaves to wrap soft cheeses stored in oil so it’s a pretty useful plant.

At the end of the season you can also pickle the seed heads when the flower has faded. I might give this a go but have been warned it’s a fiddly job.