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Spirited Gifts From The Garden


Homemade damson gin, as bright and cheery as the holidays

80-proof infusions may encourage family and friends to stay hopeful and close to home.


We don’t have a choice really, here on the edge of Vancouver, British Columbia. Gas is now rationed to just 6 gallons per fill-up until further notice, and many fuel stations have shuttered following the post-climate emergency shut-down of our oil pipeline. Hope too, for many, is in very short supply.


We are ‘hunkered down’ as they say, ‘holed up’, as municipal, provincial, and federal governments, plus the Canadian Armed Forces work together to dig our Fraser Valley and several southern BC communities out from under a giant mess of flooding, mudslides and landslides that ground life as we know it to a halt, just days ago.


I remain hopeful, ignoring for a time at least, the deluge outside. The first of several forecasted back-to-back atmospheric rivers made landfall yesterday in British Columbia, and we are expecting the worst yet again.


Just cracked frozen damson plums in their gin bath, ready to hide away in the cool dark

For many who have lost everything — their homes and their livelihood, their livestock and their farms — it must seem impossible to feel hopeful, much less grateful. I cannot imagine how they feel, this weekend especially, as millions of our American neighbours celebrate Thanksgiving and navigate the biggest shopping event of the year. I cannot imagine.


I worry that, ever more conspicuous consumption and the negative environmental impacts of consumerism, will make matters worse.


My American friends and colleagues tell me not to worry, that they too are onside. They assure me that like us, they are cutting way back on buying things that they want but don’t need. They are sharing ideas and inspiration for home-made gifts, and for reducing the sheer volume of gifts exchanged.


Making stevia tincture using remnant orange vodka distilled by a friend

Like our family, many of our friends are implementing gift-giving guidelines, encouraging home-made, vintage, recycled/upcycled, and sustainable/renewable choices, over mass-produced ‘stuff’.


With very few exceptions, I am gifting from our garden this holiday season. Those gifts are looking a bit different than anticipated, due to the record-breaking heat waves that arrived with the heat domes this summer. Nonetheless, they will be beautiful, delicious and spirited — representative of the hope and resilience needed to navigate climate change.


Since the element of time is an ingredient in most recipes involving steeping in or infusing alcohol, late November represents my last call to make spirits and spirit-based gifts for Christmas and holiday gifting.


Fresh picked stevia leaves for a tincture to sweeten herbaceous lemon verbena liqueur

Now is the perfect time to make creative use of the sweet and delicious frozen spoils of summer — those lovely ripe fruits that came into season far too quickly to preserve alongside everything else, and were instead stowed away in the freezer for a rainy day.


Typically, I have containers full of blueberries, cherries, plums, figs, huckleberries and sometimes strawberries frozen for merry making and winter consumption, but this year I have only gooseberries, red and white currants, jostaberries, plus a few Italian plums from my mother-in-law.


We lost our blueberries, figs, plums, cherries and huckleberries during the heat waves. We did salvage some gooseberries and jostaberries, though they fell to the ground before fully ripening. I harvested the currants between heatwaves one and two, just in case.


Heatwave-stricken gooseberries and jostaberries, before re-hydration for use in 'pioneer' liqueur

I froze some of the currants and dehydrated the gooseberries, hoping to ‘raisinize’ them and encourage concentration of the small amounts of sugar that were on-board at that point.


I plan to make our favourite Italian plum, fig and ginger oven-butter for gifting, leaving just the dehydrated gooseberries and jostaberries, and the frozen currants with which to make a pioneer version of fruit liqueur. The fruit liqueur project unfolded earlier this week, together with the bottling phase of an herbal liqueur made from lemon verbena.


Vanilla beans, red and white currants and re-hydrated gooseberries and jostaberries, begin their gin bath

Until two years ago, I made rumptopf every year. Rumtopf is a Bavarian concoction made over the course of many summer weeks as various fruit comes into season. A gorgeous variety of firm wild and cultivated berries are added to over-proof Black Forest brandy and rum, plus honey and vanilla bean, then we let it all ruminate in the cool dark, in a five gallon crock until just before the holidays. There is no exact recipe, other than to keep the fruit submerged completely and layer fruit and sugar (modestly) as you go.


Now that the children have moved out and there is no longer a raft of teachers, coaches, tutors, and BFF parents to acknowledge at Christmas time, the time for rumtopf has passed. I may make a small batch in a year or two, and live off of that bounty for several more.


Family favourite Rumtopf is delicious six-month commitment; a coveted seasonal gift

During the past several years I have taken to infusing really good quality gin with seasonal fruits and aromatics. The inspiration for this practice came from re-reading British food writer Nigel Slater’s tome Fresh, for the umpteenth time. Nigel makes sloe gin for the holidays, pricking each diminutive fruit with a pin before submerging, whilst whiling away a damp afternoon.


I can relate to the damp certainly, but not the pin. I choose instead to pre-freeze my fruits and then crack them open with a great whack with Nigel’s book (joking, I use a meat tenderizer). This method works for me, and certainly exposes more fruit surface area to gin, for infusion.


Sloes are large blueberry-like berries that grow in British hedgerows but are not widely cultivated as far as I know. Like many so-called wild or native berries, sloes aren't terribly popular. They are in fact rather unpleasant to eat in an unadulterated state. In gin however, sweetened somewhat with sugar or honey, they work otherworldly magic.


Damson plums look like large sloes, or small round Italian plums. They are uncommon in North America, and in many places the purchase of damson plum trees is restricted. I have no idea why.


Veggie dog Dave checking out a bowl of beautiful damson plums

Thankfully, our friends Alan and Marjorie have an ancient damson tree in the yard of their Fraser Valley weekend home, and every few years the tree gifts friends with enough damsons to make and share volumes of gin, jam, jelly, pies, and ice cream.


As I write this, I am reminded that the beautiful damson tree, and Alan and Marjorie’s newly renovated home, may well be buried under floodwaters and acres of mud. We heard from neighbours that the pair was evacuated, but we have not received an update since the storms came.


In the spirit of giving then, and of sharing, and in the spirit of hope for Alan and Marjorie and the thousands of other evacuees, I invite you to take inspiration from my spirited adventures and make your own versions of fruit and herb infused gin (or vodka) for the holidays, and for the people you love.


Damson gin starting to blush just a few weeks into the process of infusion

Damson (or Plum) Gin


There are as many recipes for infused alcohol as there are varieties. The rule of thumb for damson or sloe gin seems to be one part sugar to two parts fruit, to four parts 40% alcohol gin or vodka.


You will yield excellent results using that recipe, but to be honest I typically just ‘pioneer it’ — working with what I have, season to season, filling large glass jars no less than one-third full of berries before filling with gin, and then adding sugar to taste only after the fruit has given up all of its sweetness over time.


Ingredients

1 lb (454g) damson (or other) plums

1/2 lb (225g) white sugar (or honey or maple syrup to taste)

1 26 oz (750ml) bottle gin


Method

Freeze damsons overnight or for a few days, ensuring that they are dry before freezing so that they don’t stick together in a great pile.


Cover the frozen fruit in a clean kitchen towel to prevent them from escaping, and then using a meat tenderizer or other heavy flat-bottomed object, crack the damsons open and add them, pits and all, to a large glass jar.


Pour over the gin and give it all a stir to break apart any clumps and expose as much fruit flesh as possible. The broken edges of skin will colour the gin beautifully.


Cover and leave in as cool and dark a spot as you have, then leave to ruminate for eight to 12 weeks for best results. Check the mixture often to make sure that the fruit is submerged, and stir when you do. If you are like me, and leave the damsons in the freezer for ages after harvesting, you can get still yield great results after a steep of as little as five weeks.


About two weeks before bottling, add half of the sugar, stirring to dissolve, and then taste. Add any amount of the remaining half of the sugar if needed and stir to dissolve.


Strain the mixture through two layers of dense clean cotton set into a sieve. Pour into pretty jars or decanters, and label as desired.


For gifting, I present the gin in beautiful but inexpensive vintage decanters that I pick up as I see them over the course of the year.


A few years ago, after over-sharing my excitement about making damson gin with Alan and Marjorie’s damsons, we ended up with an overfull houseful of neighbours for the entire Christmas Eve afternoon. We uncorked the gin and enjoyed it among friends who had brought home-made holiday treats of their own, for sharing. I really hope that we can do that again.



Verbenacello: my homegrown take on traditional Italian Limencello

Lemon Verbena Liqueur with Stevia (or sugar)


I developed this very casual vodka-based recipe for our friend Danny who loves the famous Italian liqueur Limoncello but really shouldn’t drink it because it contains so much sugar. We grow stevia in our backyard herb spiral, and I use the herb as a sugar alternative. Perfecting the stevia-sweetened recipe remains a work-in-progress, but so far, so good.


It should be noted that the absence of dissolved sugar changes the viscosity of the liqueur, leaving it watery and very herbal. The unsweetened fully-steeped liquid is in fact a ‘bitter’, which can be packaged as-is in dropper bottles for gifting.


It should be noted too that the longer you steep the lemon verbena leaves in the vodka, the less lemony and more bitter the liquid will become, so be sure to taste test throughout. Personally, I love the bitter edge, but you may not.


Use only leaves that you grow yourself or that you know to be free of pesticides.


Ingredients

3 cups (large handfuls) clean and dry lemon verbena leaves

1 1/2 cups (300g) white sugar (see note below re stevia)

1 26oz (750ml) bottle vodka


Method

Place lemon verbena leaves in a large glass jar.


Add vodka, and using a slotted spoon or potato masher, press down gently on the leaves to settle them all down below the surface. This may take a few moments, depending on the age and porosity of the leaves. Younger leaves work best.


Cover and leave in as cool and dark a spot as you have, and leave to ruminate for two weeks, checking and stirring often.


Add half of the sugar and stir to dissolve. Set aside for two more weeks and then taste for sweetness. Add any amount of the remaining sugar, stir to dissolve and let sit for one more week or so.


Strain the mixture through two layers of dense clean cotton set into a sieve. Pour into pretty jars or decanters, and label as desired.


Before ingesting stevia tincture any other herbal concoction on its own, or in spirits, cooking or preserving, first check with your healthcare provider.


To sweeten with stevia — first make a tincture by steeping dried and crushed stevia leaves in vodka for 24-36 hours (no more, or the liquid will become bitter). Filter the mixture through two layers of clean cotton set in a fine sieve, and then heat it gently in a saucepan on the stove, to evaporate the alcohol.


Homemade stevia tincture varies in sweetness, depending on the potency of the plant and the ratio of dried leaves to vodka. Suffice it to say that it will be very sweet given that stevia is purported to be anywhere from 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Use caution when sweetening with stevia, adding a small amount at first, tasting as you go.


Tonic water with an ounce of creme de cassis and a few drops of homemade lemon verbena bitters


Lemon Verbena Simple Syrup - Alcohol Free


For those of us who don’t typically drink hard liquor, this fragrant simple syrup recipe provides all of the perfumey deliciousness of lemon verbena, without the alcohol.


Use the syrup to sweeten hot or cold tea, make sorbet or ice cream, drizzle over cakes, and freshen soda or seltzer water. A little goes a long way.


Simple syrups start with equal parts white sugar and water, and from there you can create any variety of syrup from homegrown herbs, flowers, spices and more.


Ingredients

2 cup2 (500ml) water

2 cups (400g) white sugar

1 cup (large handful) clean lemon verbena leaves (tender young leaves work best)


Method

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil on the stove. Reduce heat to low and simmer for five minutes.


Remove saucepan from heat and let the mixture steep until completely cool.


Strain the mixture through a very fine strainer, or a layer of muslin set over a bowl.


Pour into pretty bottles and label for gifting. Be sure to include serving suggestions, as above, on the label.



I must go now and check on the rain gardens which last week were overfull and spilling out into the yard. The forecast calls for three more atmospheric rivers to hit BC over the next week. The government is warning that heavy rainfall over many days could worsen existing flooding, create new flooding, or heighten the risk of landslides.


We are advised to stay at home and indoors. I will then, continue gifting from my garden, staying mindful of my many blessings, and standing by to assist.


To my friends in the United States, happy Thanksgiving weekend. Be well and stay safe.

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