At some point in my childhood, my charmingly eccentric Russian violinist Grandpa nicknamed me Mona Lisa. On visits to his house in New Jersey, he would reach into an extremely dusty antique cabinet and say, “Come, Mona Lisa, drink vodka with me …” I always declined and have never developed much of a taste for alcohol. The one thing I do love is vodka. With Russian genes on one side and Scandinavian on the other, I suppose it’s in my blood. On the right occasion I will sip it at room temperature … from a china teacup if I can get my hands on one. My friends think it strange, but I am listening to the music of a long-silent violin.
If such things as a love of gardening are also passed down through blood, then I must get mine from him. On his little plot of ground ten minutes from Manhattan he was doing urban homesteading long before anyone had a name for it. The Arts & Crafts era house was tiny and dilapidated, but I loved the smell of it … the winey fragrance of apples slowly sinking into decay … There seemed a wildness there of all sorts, always curling in around the edges. It was there that I first picked a quince and ate a pomegranate, which i recall tasted like smoke. Grandpa made his own bread and was also the first person I knew who made smoothies — homemade yogurt, fruit and nuts in his 1950’s era blender every morning. He called it his “cocktail”. He was also a great walker, having never learned to drive a car. All of this may or may not have contributed to his living to just a few weeks shy of his hundredth birthday, but I’m pretty sure none of it hurt.
It’s nice to see bits of this old world enthusiasm for growing food in urban settings re-emerging here on the Portland sidewalks, where everything from kale to chili peppers pop up unexpectedly from block to block.
It certainly makes for exciting walks to and from school as I continually discover new food plants on the street. Walking, vodka and urban gardening all come together in my annual cordial projects. This love affair with preserving fruits in simple vodka tinctures of spices and herbs began as a way to quickly deal with an overabundance of apricots on the streets back in New Mexico, and now I try to create several kinds cordials every year with various seasonal fruits. It is a simple, inexpensive way to create lovely winter gifts for yourself and friends. A cordial is simply a mixture of fruit, spirits and sugar mixed together and then strained. I like to make some with the intense flavors of berries and some with firm fruits that hold up well in the liquid and can be eaten as a delectable treat, themselves.
Made with local honey and herbs, these elixirs walk the line between dessert and medicine! Recently, I started adding flowers to the mix. Delicate flowers will disintegrate if left in the alcohol for too long so I make a tincture with the flowers first, strain after a week, store, and then add the fruit later in the summer, when everything ripens.
FOR YOUR FLOWER TINCTURES YOU WILL NEED …
- Clean jars of any size
- Organic, edible flowers and herbs (roses, lilacs, clover, violets, calendula, elderflowers, rosemary, thyme, mint, pine tips …)
- Raw honey
- A few small clean rocks
Most recipes say to wash your flowers, but I don’t. I am careful not to pick in places that could have high levels of industrial pollutants or any pesticides whatsoever. I think we wash too much dirt off what we touch and eat, adding to our autoimmune problems, and you’re sticking everything in alcohol anyway so I don’t see the point of rinsing in water. But by all means, wash them if you want to! Do pick through your flowers if you want to look for bugs or anything else you don’t want in your finished product. I try to minimize leaves and stems. Sterilize the jars and lids by boiling for ten minutes. Throw your rocks in too if you haven’t already washed them. Push flowers down into jars, and drop the rocks on top of them to hold flowers down. If the flowers aren’t completely covered and float up out of the alcohol, they will immediately turn brown. After a bit of trial and error, a few carefully chosen rocks solved this problem. (Finding the right rocks is a great mission for kids!) Add a few tablespoons of honey, pour vodka in up to the brim, put the lid on and store for a week in a cool, dark place. Like the fridge! Then strain the liquid through a mesh strainer into another jar. I will keep the rose/lilac/rosemary mixture I made this week until blackberry season and add blackberries. You don’t need a lot of berries because of their strong flavor — a cup or two for a large sized mason jar.
I keep jars of these summer elixirs in the bottom of a dark cabinet. There is nothing better than pulling one out in January to serve at the end of a dinner party. It’s like magic — you can almost see the little sparkles of summer sunshine floating up out of the jar. You just strain the cordial into small glasses and savor the essence of warm, gentle days … I’ll revisit this project later in the summer, when the stone fruits are ripe and ready to be packed with warming spices … mild pears also go well in these delicate flower mixtures … in the meantime … have fun experimenting with what’s growing in your area, and squirrel away a few jars of flower potions for further use … stay tuned 🙂