There are few plants more intriguing than Meadowsweet. Those clever gents in white coats that first extracted the plant’s high levels of salicylic acid in order to synthesize the first aspirin knew it, and shortly…so will you!
The wonderful fragrance they fill the air with just after the rain and on a scorching summers day, the large candyfloss flower heads look good enough to eat, there is no denying it is one of Britain’s finest wild plants in every sense. Over the last few years, I have grown bored of elderflower, indeed it’s flavour is unique and quite pleasant and I will always be a partial to a drop, but I have found meadowsweet all that much more rewarding when used in place of elderflower.
Fritters made with meadowsweet flowers don’t need sweetening with sugar to counter the bitterness and instead, you get delicate notes of vanilla. The cordial they produce is astoundingly refreshing and unlike anything I have tried before. A bunch of the leaves mascerated between the hands give off a hint of watermelon and the leaves make for a grand cuppa guaranteed to combat a bastard behind the eyes. So apart from delivering berries in the autumn and the lack of minute traces of cyanide, it certainly gives elderflower a run for its’ cashish. Oh and for all those elderflower appreciators, meadowsweet flowers appear as the last elderflowers are withering away…so what we have is a better seasonal extension, rather than a substitute.
Meadowseet has a fairly impressive curriculum vitae, especially in terms of its employment history: its name is derived from ”mead sweet” as it was once used by folk to flavour mead, a drink almost as old as the hills. It was also contracted as a “medieval air freshener” or strewing herb in ladies chambers to alleviate any squalid smells…which is exactly why I had a vase of it in the tree house and know two in my new dwelling, there are plenty of cows delivering stinking pats every morning when they come to drink from the trough on the otherside of my new pad.
In terms of hunting down a patch, the name gives the game away, its merely a coincidence that the plant favours meadows. You will almost always find it alongside on the riverbank in rural places and even roadside verges. The giveaway (at the moment) is definitely the creamy flower heads, let your sight and nose be the ultimate guide. The leaves are also unlike most in the hedgerow and hard to mix up with anything unpleasant,: a red stalk with a three-pronged leaf on the end and three sets of opposing leaves on the stalk itself.
Now, once you have done the meadowsweet fritters, cordial, fools and ice cream, brewing is the best bit! This post is a little bit bisexual in what it aims to deliver: the masculine beer involves using the leaves, whereas the more feminine champagne (yes, I know Sussex isn’t the region of champagne Mr Champagne maker, but trust me…I’m not worth sueing!) uses the flowers.
Last year, I experimented with a few methods based on my nettle beer recipe, the beer came out ok except for one batch (only using leaves) in that I ended up getting a fierce case of the runs if I drank more than a pint- but that could have been down to a dodgy batch as the first was fine and dandy.
I would suggest, just to be prevent a manic half hour back and forth to the thunder box, making the champagne with the flowerheads: if the quantity sounds a lot they are smaller than elderflower heads, here goes…
40 meadowsweet flower heads
12 litres (2 ½ gallons)
1 ½ kg (3lb) sugar
50g cream of tartar
15g brewers or beer yeast (available from all homebrew shops)
Once you have your flowers, place in a big pot with 12 litres of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
Strain the liquid into another pan/bucket and discard the flower heads
Bring the liquid to the boil again and add the sugar and cream of tartar, simmer and stir until dissolved.
Remove from the heat, transfer into a sterile brewing vessel/bucket and allow to cool to blood temperature- this may take some time… then add the yeast and stir well.
There is a lot of debate about the next stage, most recipes say to cover the bucket in muslin and bottle after 24 hours…with my limited knowledge of the mysterious art of brewing, even I know this is foolish: unless you want exploding bottles in the garage or a fizzy firework on opening- in which case you might get a shots worth…go ahead!
What worked best for me was to get out my hydrometer and take a reading every two days, I could also then calculate the alcohol % at the end. I covered the bucket in a pair of tights and left it in the cellar for about a week, until the hydrometer reading had dropped from 1.050 to below 1.000. This then told me fermentation had finished, bottling could go ahead and explosions would be kept to a minimum. If you can, leave the brew for 1-3 months, it IS ready to drink a week after bottling though! My brew came out at 6.4% (drop in specific gravity=50, 50 x 129= 6.450).
The last couple of weeks have been manic sourcing bits and pieces for my humble abode, picked up a fridge/freezer for £25 the other day- bargain! The bender was dismantled last week for a few reasons, and poor planning on my part. Crap security and the fact that it was like being in a greenhouse were the main concerns! See the video below to check out the new plan.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of flicking a fly across the gin-clear waters of the River kennet in persuit of trout of which we caught more than expected including one big bugger that made bow –waves as it chased my fly and gotof minutes after I hooked the beast…almost cried!
Oh and my Bro managed to sprain his ankle jumping over a barb-wire fence, I suppose that’s what 15 years of living in London can do to you!
Tally- ho, pip pip and Bernard’s your Uncle.