Drink up!

If you are living in the Northern hemisphere you have just experienced the summer solstice a few days back which means the summer is officially here. For the lucky ones who live in southern climates, you‘ve been enjoying high temperatures for what, about two months now? For us, living in countries with very schizophrenic whether, we can only hope that the 20+ degree days are still to come. Either way – forgive me now, all you Irish and Brits – it’s time to swap your cup of tea for something more refreshing to keep you hydrated!

Early Summer is a great time for harvesting some of nature’s reserves and making the most of them. Elderflower is one of my personal favourites. From late May to early July, you can pick the white flowers full of yellow pollen and with a beautiful aroma. There is an abundance of recipes to use them with. The timeless classic which keeps the summer flavour for the longest is a cordial. ‘Bazovy sirup’ (in Slovak) or elderflower cordial is easy to make and very rewarding to use.

I started experimenting with it last year when I realised that we had an elderflower tree (or rather a big bush) growing in our back yard. The internet provides countless recipes and variations of this syrup so you can pick and choose which one suits best. Usually you will need: elderflower heads, sugar, lemons, citric acid and water. Combinations of all of the above depend on how strong/sweet/durable you want your final product to be.

Methods of preparation vary too – you can make it raw or cook it and treat it like a preserve (by water-boiling it after it’s canned). I have chosen the middle ground – cooking it for durability but without the subsequent bottle boiling. This year, I followed a recipe that seemed to work the best and here it is…

Elderflower cordial

Ingredients
30 big elderflower heads
60g citric acid
2.5kg sugar
2 lemons
3 litre water

Start by boiling 2 litres of water and leaving it to cool.

Prepare your bottles/jars by washing them in hot soapy water, rinse properly  and place in a cold oven which is then turned to about 100℃, so they heat up gradually and all the water dries out. If you are using the spring cap bottles, make sure that the caps can take heat – I made a boo-boo and one of my caps melted on me. (Lesson learned!)

Tip: If you don’t have suitable bottles already, buy some French lemonade (or other drinks you can find) in bottles you like. These are often cheaper than special preserving bottles and work as well! Also, their caps can stand the sterilisation process in the oven 🙂  

Pick the elderflower heads. Since it’s the pollen that brings the flavour, try to pick them on a sunny day and not straight after rain. Don’t wash them, just get rid of any little bugs by slightly tossing them. Remove the thick stalks and place in a big enough pot or any container you can find.

Elderflower heads

Collected elderflower heads…

Slice the lemons and squeeze the juice out of them before placing them in the pot. (If you can’t get unwaxed lemons, place them for about 10 minutes in lukewarm water mixed with some vinegar which will get rid of the nasties. Wash, rinse and use them.)

Pour in the cooled water – 2 litres – mixed with the citric acid. Squash the flowerhead so that they are covered in liquid. Cover and leave in a cool dark place for about 24 hours.

After a day strain your liquid into a pot through a muslin cloth or a fine sieve. You should always have two litres of liquid so measure and add cooled boiled water if necessary. Some say that not squeezing the mixture when straining prevents clouding of the cordial later and there might be some truth in it. If you can’t resist squeezing it just go for it 🙂

Straining

Creative ways of straining!

In another big enough pot, place 1 litre of water and all the sugar. The rule of thumb seems to be 1kg of sugar per 1l of water. I, however, think that’s too much and used only 2.5kg for my final 3 litres of liquid. It’s still a lot of sugar! You have to remember though that sugar is also a conservant so if you are making your cordial to keep (it lasts up to a year), it helps to keep  it from spoiling. There are some alternatives if you don’t want yours want to be too sweet – you can swap it for brown (muscovado) sugar or stevia and as for preserving, you can increase the citric acid a bit – don’t forget that this will make it more sour as well. Warm up the sugar and water mixture on a medium heat to get a sticky syrupy liquid.

Add the elderflower water and bring to the boil. You can just bring it to the boil and turn off or boil it for up to 30 minutes to make sure it lasts, it’s up to you. I chose the former…we’ll see what happens!

Leave it rest for about 5 minutes. Pour, still hot, into prepared sterilised bottles or jars. Turn upside down to seal properly and let cool. I wrapped them in tea towels for slower cooling and left them like that overnight. Once cool, store the bottles in a dark place for up to a year.

Bottles upside down

Cooling upside down…

The best part is using this cordial up – let your imagination run free. Mix with still water, sparkling water, prosecco, gin, pour into your tea or on top of your porridge. My personal favourite is a shot of the cordial and ½ cup of white wine topped with sparkling water. Summer feeling in an instant.

Elderflower cordial

Final yield – about 4l of cordial

If you don’t like elderflower or can’t get any where you live, perhaps another herbal concoction might be of interest. If you like mint and happen to grow some in your garden or windowsill, you know how rapidly it multiplies. If you’ve had enough of mojitos, mint sauce or mint frozen in ice cubes, you could try a mint cordial.

Mint cordial

The preparation of this is very similar to the elderflower cordial. You will need:

Ingredients
2 big fistsfuls of mint (about 20 biggish stalks)
2 lemons
2 l water
1kg sugar (or 500g and some stevia to taste)
15g citric acid

Boil 2 litres of water and leave to cool. Prepare your bottles (as above).

Wash the mint stalks and leaves and roughly chop them. This will help releasing the essential oils from the leaves. Don’t waste anything, use up the stalks as well!

Slice the lemons and place them with the chopped mint in a pot. Pour over the cooled water, stir and leave to rest for about 24-48 hours. You can stir it once or twice while waiting.

Strain the mixture into a biggish pot through a muslin cloth or a fine sieve. Slowly heat up adding the sugar and citric acid. Warm up to 70-75℃ to retain aromatic materials and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

Mint cordial prep

Mint cordial preparations…

Pour into prepared bottles, turn upside down and let cool. Store in a cool dark place afterwards. Once open, store in the fridge.

Use as you wish – mixed with water, in cocktails, in tea, poured over a fruit bowl or just like that, a bold glug from a bottle 🙂

Mint cordial

Pink mint cordial 🙂

Finally, if you don’t want to mess around with pots and pans, sieves and spoons but still want something more than just a plain water, here are 5 tips for sprucing up your aul jug…

  1. Cucumber – orange – ginger :: Put a few slices of cucumber, orange and a piece of peeled ginger in a jug of water. Leave in the fridge for a few hours to mix. Drink. If the day gets too much, add a shot of Pims!
  2. Strawberry – basil :: Add a few freshly sliced strawberries and ½ cup of basil leaves to a jug of water. Drink straight away. Instant summer hit.
  3. Apple – cinnamon :: A few slices of a sour apple and a cinnamon stick. Leave to infuse in the fridge for a few hours. Unusual combination of soothing and refreshing.
  4. Lemon – ginger :: Slice half a lemon and place into a jug with a thumb-sized peeled piece of ginger sliced thinly. A cold version of this power drink.
  5. Lavender – lemon ::  Slice half a lemon and add to ½ cup dried lavender (or fresh if you have it) into a jug. Let it infuse and drink in the afternoon to relax. Good sleep guaranteed.

Have fun and mess around with more flavours if you want: cucumber & rosemary, pear, cranberry & mandarin, melon & mint – the sky’s the limit!

Incredible bulk

Shopping in bulk and without packaging greatly reduces the amount of waste produced by any household. That is a fact. But what do you do when there aren’t many options for buying food from bulk bins into your own containers?

The Zero Waste trend of dry goods sold unpackaged has not really reached Ireland yet. The things I can buy loose or unpackaged in Dublin may be few but I can at least try!

Bread & pastry

This one is probably the easiest. Aside from packaged sliced pan which is not really my type of bread anyway, it’s pretty easy to pick up some lovely bread, baguettes and pastries into your own bag. Just have to remember to bring it with me!

Fruit and veg

The supermarkets are a hit-and-miss here. You can find loose apples, lemons, potatoes and the lot but they vacuum-pack the broccoli and I can never find celery or lettuce without a plastic bag in a supermarket. I compromise on those – lettuce is essential in our house!

jahody

Strawberries in a bag 🙂

I don’t have a good farmers’ market nearby so I have to rely on the supermarkets and my local Fresh – a fruit and veg store where, as I mentioned last week, they package almost everything. They recently changed owner though so I might talk to them to see if they would loosen up a bit and sell the produce as is. The other day I bought some strawberries there (which they pack themselves in the shop), put them in my cotton bag and returned the box for their reuse…sorted.   

Meat

We do eat meat and when I want some free-range or organic stuff, I’ve found it’s best to go to a good butcher shop. Flemings just around the corner from our house is one of them. One day I went in, armed with my empty glass jar and asked for some chicken. At first, I got the classical confused look but I duly explained why…We ended up chatting about how this not only prevents waste but how the meat keeps better in glass than plastic! Since then, I‘ve barely bought any packaged meat – maybe just a whole chicken or a piece that is too big for my jar. They pack the meat in aluminium trays so at least I can reuse them for roasting and then recycle. I also used some of them for planting seeds – and reuse them each year.

meats

The infamous meat jar

Encouraged with this success, I tried to bring my jar into two other butcher shops and they happily obliged! In one of them I am officially known as the ‘Lady with the Jar’. Happy days.

Nuts & dried fruits

The one type of dry goods that is available in bulk in supermarkets are nuts. Lidl started selling these some time last year. The selection might be limited (roasted almonds, salted cashew and salted pistachios) but hey, it’s something. The only thing that baffles me is that the bulk stuff is more expensive than the packaged stuff. That’s nuts.

Nuts, dried fruits and sweets in bulk are also sold at some markets and country fairs. I just remembered that when my supply of dried apricots finished. I might do some research to see if there any on a weekly basis that I could replenish from regularly…and perhaps pick up some more natural sweets 🙂

Sweets

pickmix

Cinema’s pick & mix

When we go to the cinema, we get easily tempted (and seduced) by their pick & mix sweets selection. They have paper bags for it but the last time, I remembered to bring my own little cotton bag and used it – it even brought a smile to the cashier’s face! Refined sugar crush all the way!!

The above selection is not what it could be but, actually, it’s not that bad. It also depends on the type of diet you are on. It’s definitely easier for a vegan but we are not there yet. We cut almost all processed food but do buy the occasional pack of biscuits or crisps. We also eat dairy and despite my efforts, I couldn’t find any milk sold in a glass bottle. Our favourite cheese (Dubliner) is also only sold in plastic bags. I tried to switch to another type of cheddar but it just didn’t work. Compromise it is then!

teabox

If packaged stuff is the only option, I always do two things. First – ask if I really need it. Second – if I do, check if there is a recyclable packaging option. There are often feasible alternatives to plastic, be it cardboard, paper, glass or metal. Then buying ‘in bulk’ means to buy the biggest package of the thing there is. I buy the biggest pack of the cheese, a 240-tea bags pack of tea rather than the 40-tea bags one. The idea here is to cut down on the amount of packaging if I can’t avoid it. Other examples from our house are buying the whole leg of ham (free range serrano ham from Spain no less) or toying with the idea of buying a 20kg bag of rice from an Indian shop. It might mean a bit of research before I buy something but once I know, the next time it’s easy!

 

All that said, it makes me thinking that opening a bulk shop here in Dublin might not be a bad business idea!!! 😉

Know your enemy

If you want to combat any enemy, first you have to know what you are dealing with. So when I wanted to scale down the waste our household produced, I went routing through the bins. Literally.

What I found was probably very similar to what you would in any western-world household. Most of it was packaging – for food, drinks or cosmetics. Then there were recyclable items like PET bottles, cardboard, magazines and papers, tins, glass bottles and organic waste.

Full-bins

Looks familiar?

I used to live in an apartment block where there were recycling bins but there was no option to separate organic waste. You can imagine the look (and smell) of the bins whenever they missed a collection. So I was very happy when we moved to a house where we could pick our waste collection company – and I picked one that collected food waste separately. Score!

That was even before I embarked on the Zero Waste journey so now I am pretty used to separation of green and other waste. With that sorted, there were the recyclables and the ‘general waste’ to plough through.

Soda Stream

Soda Stream & Aloe Vera King Mango

Recycling is great but refusing, reducing and reusing is still better. We try to cut down on buying stuff in general even though it comes in a recyclable packaging. One of the very first alternatives we adopted was switching from buying sparkling water in plastic bottles to the Soda Stream system. The gas cylinders are reusable and you even get a discount when you bring your old cylinder to the store. This had significantly helped reduce the recyclables because sparkling water is popular in our little household! An added bonus is that we don’t have to carry all the heavy bottles from the shop!

We also learned to love our tap water which (filtered) tastes great! This, in combination with reusable stainless steel bottles, cuts down another big batch of plastic waste! Oh and as for all the cokes, 7-ups and other sugary soft drinks full of god-knows-what, we just stop buying them. The only soft drink we buy in a PET bottle is a natural mango aloe vera juice.

Mango Fizz

“Mango Fizz”

“Mango Fizz” – the juice diluted with ⅔ of sparkling water – is my boyfriend’s beverage of choice :). You might argue that that’s also creating waste but I am trying to find a sustainable balance for our life that will work on a long-term basis and compromises are part of that!

So in this way, I went through all the recyclables and consciously divided them into two simple categories and courses of action: avoidable – stop buying – and non-avoidable (yet) – buy (much) less.

When I moved over to the ‘general waste’ pile, that’s where it got a bit tricky. Mostly because about 85% of it was packaging. A modern western life really seems to have an obsession in packing everything. Some of this might be necessary for transport but there is a lot of double or triple layers of ‘protective’ paper or plastic that is far from necessary. Take a simple pack of sliced ham or cheese. Not only are those 6 slices packed in a plastic box but they are separated from each other by a piece of plastic film. That’s such a waste! But sadly, it seems to be the norm.

Lettuce in a bag

Sadly, this is the norm…

The easiest thing is to buy less processed packaged food …you’d think. But here in Ireland it is quite challenging to buy even the ingredients for home cooking without layers of the wasteful packaging. Fruit and vegetables, which are perfectly fine in their own peels and outer layers of leaves, are often thrown into a plastic bag – just so that it’s easier to stick the label with a barcode on them.

It also depends where I want to buy my food. Farmers’ markets are great altogether but if there are none at a convenient distance from where I live or work, I will hardly visit them regularly. Burn the petrol in a car just to get some fruit and veg does not add up for me. There is one market nearby but it only opens one day for two hours. I went there a few times but it’s more of a baked-goods-and-preserves type of market – things I like making myself so don’t want to buy them. But I made a resolution to visit more often – especially during the summer when there will be, hopefully, more fresh produce to be bought. 

I really want to support my local small fruit & veg shop but they pack everything – 6 apples on a polystyrene tray wrapped in cling film and sold to you in a plastic bag. I had a chat with them about selling loose produce but it hasn’t stuck for now. If I am really in need, I buy a pack of apples in there, don’t take the plastic bag and bring the polystyrene tray back. Then the only waste is the bit of cling film. As I said, compromises.

There are no bulk bin sections in the supermarkets here or dedicated bulk stores like in other European cities and America. Shopping for things with no packaging (or with the least packaging possible) can be challenging…and it does take a bit of planning to not make shopping a chore. But it’s totally worth it.

Next week, I tell you more about my other shopping solutions!