Of Jam and Jerusalem

Well… mostly jam.

A few months ago a friend of mine asked me to join the WI with her. Obviously I said yes. The prospect of belting out Jerusalem at the top of my lungs was a massive draw, but too old to be a girl guide, and never really having got into rangers, I was really looking forward to joining what to me, looked like girl guides for grownups.

Thankfully, turns out I was bang on the money. Except for the Jerusalem bit, apparently nobody does that anymore. (boo)

The CamCityWI (as we have recently named ourselves) are a pretty exciting bunch – set up to be a bit less formal, a bit more creative, the group certainly has a less traditional mindset than you might expect. By the very nature of the beast it has attracted a large number of women who crochet, knit, bake, and do other ‘traditional’ WI activities – but it’s also attracted a different age group, and with it, a very lively attitude. The age range is surprisingly big – 20 somethings through 50 somethings on the whole – but where most groups tailor themselves towards retired members in what they do, where they meet, and the time of day they meet, this group is most certainly aimed at a younger demographic.

Me and the mother in law have joined, and will be paying our subs at next month’s meeting, and the mother is also seriously considering making an appearance – consider the WI the next adventure in Bruntonia!

So is there going to be any actual content in this post Amanda?

Well jam is kind of in the title, so it would seem a bit disingenuous not to talk about jam. Remember that massive glut of strawberries I mentioned we had earlier this year? Well Brunton number one and I froze plenty of them, as there were simply basketfuls that we couldn’t eat. Literally several kilos of strawberries. Now, wet fruit like strawberries don’t love being frozen – the liquid expands as it freezes, breaks down the fruit, and then when it defrosts, leaves a limp, juicy lump that is nothing like the delicious plump fruit you froze three months before.

We discovered that these make the best ice cubes in Pimm’s – keeping the drink cool and pouring out delicious strawberry juice as they melt. We also experimented with strawberry wine (a great success) but still have well over a kilo left. The raspberries are also going great guns right now, as is the rhubard plant.

Jam simply had to happen.

So this is a full on make it up as you go along recipe, but is as good a place to start as any, and nothing like as difficult as I thought it would be.

Mixed fruit jam

You will need:

  • Sterilised jam jars – you can sterilise them but putting them in a cold oven and gradually heating up to 100*, turning the oven off, and leaving it to cool down. By the time your jam’s done, they’ll be both cool and sterile. Alternatively, if you’re worried about the structural integrity of your jars, use a sterilising fluid, such as Milton.
  • A big ol’ pan
  • A long handled spoon
  • Patience

The actual ingredients:

  • A couple of sticks of rhubard, chopped up
  • About 150g of apple peel and core
  • The rind of two lemons
  • 1 kilo strawberries
  • 500g raspberries
  • 750 jam sugar (it has added pectin)

Method:

  • Sterilise your jars first, as described above. You all know about my thing with the zombie virus. Don’t question me, just do it.
  • Put the apple bits and the lemon rind in a saucepan and cover with boiling water – use just enough to cover. Simmer for at least 40 mins. This is basically a jam stock, and will add flavour and pectin later.
  • Put the raspberries in a pan and heat them up. The juice will start to come out and they will go to mush. Once it’s started to reduce, add the strawberries, and the chopped up rhubarb.
  • Actually pay attention to it a while – you risk burning if you don’t. Keep stirring until you genuinely have fruit pulp and nothing more. Throw in the sugar!
  • Keep simmering. You want that stuff to start reducing into a jammy gunk. This is going to want at least 20-30 mins so turn the heat down and make yourself a cup of tea.
  • Hopefully your tea was delish and you haven’t forgotten about your jam. It should be good and sticky, and nicely reduced. Hopefully your jam stock has also been sitting there simmering away for a good while, so strain the liquid, and chuck it into your jam (no need to keep the boiled apple and lemon, bleugh)
  • Guess what? Keep simmering! To test if your jam is done, put a plate in the fridge and let it get super cold. Drip some jam onto the plate and blow on it. If it starts setting on the plate, and when you push at the blob the surface wrinkles a bit, your jam is ready to rumble!
  • Get your jars out of the oven (with a bit of luck they’re cool by now) and tip in the jam while still hot, and seal straight away – this will make a good vacuum seal.

Once your jam is cool – chow down on it with all that lovely fresh bread you’ve been making since my bread posts. Obviously.

Greengage and Christmas Jam

So my friend offered me to come collect some plums from her back garden that were just going to waste. I had plans for making these over-ripe plums into delicious plum wine (if you haven’t ever tried it, then do, it’s sickly sweet dessert wine, and frankly amazing). However, when I turned up, I found a tree full of greengages.

Jam had to happen.

Ingredients:

  • 1700g greengages (there were loads. You can of course scale this down.)
  • 850g preserving sugar (NOT the same as jam sugar – greengages don’t need as much pectin)
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Now our greengages were very over-ripe so were already very mushy – it’s easier if the fruit is nice and mushy, but it doesn’t need to be.

  • Sterilise your jars as above.
  • Get the stones out of the greengages and put them in a heavy bottomed pan to mush up.
  • Let them reduce for a bit, and then add the sugar.
  • After reducing it a bit further, add the seasoning. We wanted this really Christmassy for gifts later in the year, but use your own discretion for how much spice to add – it’s down to your own taste.
  • reduce it until it passes the cold plate test – when tipped onto a cold plate and left to cool for a second, does it wrinkle on the surface when you push it with a fingertip? If not, leave it a little longer. If yes, get it into your jars while it’s still hot. Enjoy!

Oh and one other thing.

I learned to crochet at the WI. Crochet is awesome. Especially when you can make angry birds. Ho yiss.

There’s all kind of awesomeness like this over at Ravelry, with loads of free patterns (and some awesome paid for ones at that) and you can learn to knit and crochet here (I use this constantly!). They even do videos 🙂

If you want to join in with the awesomeness that is jam and angry birds, have a look over here:

http://www.thewi.org.uk/

https://twitter.com/CambridgeCityWI

http://www.facebook.com/CambridgeCityWi

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On long-legged Cleggy-weggy

Clegg

For those of you who aren’t fans of Russell Howard’s Good News, this title is going to have passed you by. But I won’t hold it against you.

Take a deep breath, because Bruntonia is about to get political. I maintain an active interest in politics. I have voted at every opportunity. However, I see myself as far from politically active on the whole, as compared to some of my peers. On the other hand, on occasion I feel as though I want to weigh in on an issue more than I might otherwise. Nick Clegg’s recent video apology is one of these occasions.

Let me give you a bit of background, from the perspective of a (then) student, first time voter.

The last UK general election was pretty damn contentious. Labour had been in power for some considerable time. However, as with any political party that has remained in power for a long stint, they had begun to decline in popularity. No longer the young, fresh-faced Labour of a youthful Tony Blair, Labour was beginning to look, well, a bit jaded. There was the longstanding issue of Blair’s apparent deference to President Bush, the Iraq war, the David Kelly controversy, the economic crash, and Tony Blair’s swift exit, and the unelected replacement, Gordon Brown. Although those who had historically voted Labour may continue to do so, a re-election was an unlikely prospect.

On the other hand, David Cameron was by no means assured of a clear victory either. Despite difficult economic times, people were concerned about what his budget cuts might entail, but weren’t guaranteed of an easy ride with Labour either. Similarly, the Conservative view on NHS reform provoked very mixed/bad responses. Add to that the fact that David ‘Call me Dave’ ‘I’m not a rich toff oh wait yes I am’ Cameron may take the biscuit as the most smug, untrustworthy, public schoolboy to stand as a contender for prime minister for quite some time. A vote for Conservative, I would argue, represented a vote for change rather than an actual alignment of political ideology between party and voter.

With the rock and the hard place that most voters were left choosing between, the third major party (still very much a minority compared to Labour and Conservatives) suddenly became a much more appealing option. The Liberal Democrats had something to say in all this, and more to the point, they had an audience for it.

This was the choice as we saw it. I don’t think it was a feeling unique to student first time voters either, but one felt to a less or greater extent, across the country.

Now as the name suggests, the LibDems are a liberal bunch. As such, a large proportion of their voting base is young students and similar. The only party to loudly voice support for gay marriage, voting reform and tuition fee reform, they have obvious appeal for a younger voting population. For many, (like me) this may even be the first time that they have voted in a national (or any) election. I would argue that most people’s voting preferences don’t really change much – or rather they evolve very slowly, if at all. Some wildcards will make a decision based on current circumstances, but most people would describe themselves as ‘A Labour voter’ or ‘A Conservative voter’ or ‘A supporter of the Green Party’ etc. Building trust in your voting population, especially for a smaller party like the LibDems is very important.

Now we all know that election promises are all very well until the party gets into power, and that politicians say things to get votes. Young does not necessarily equal stupid, or excessively naive. We all know to reduce our expectations of what a party will actually be able to muster enough widespread agreement on to have it passed through parliament. However, an expectation that they will remain true to the aims and intentions of those pre-election promises is not an unfair expectation. Amongst younger voters with perhaps less cynical views, this is probably especially true. Young doesn’t always equal stupid, but it does often equate to optimistic.

So when Nick Clegg was photographed with billboards stating that he pledged to resist raising the cap on tuition fees, I didn’t so much believe that it would be reasonable to expect no changes to the fee structure in the next election, but I did expect the LibDems to vocally support the needs of the students, their main voting base. I expected the LibDems to be a major player in negotiating a fee system that was both fair and sustainable. Similarly, when the LibDems promised to push voting reform, I expected a consistent and well-reasoned campaign – if not for change, then for at least a sound evaluation for whether the status quo really was good enough. Not only did I and many of my peers place a great deal of importance on these policies, but we liked the way the LibDems saw the world – we were pro equal rights, pro gay marriage, and generally pro liberal views.

For me, this wasn’t just a policy based decision. In watching debates, I often felt that the LibDem candidate was arguing the side that I probably would. To my mind, they deserved my vote as much on this basis as any other.

And as it turned out, there were quite a few of us like it. Fewer votes than I think the LibDems had hoped for, but in the climate of uncertainty, enough to gain them a foothold in government as a coalition power. Now although we don’t really do coalition governments here in the UK, I, and many other voters welcomed the platform the LibDems had been given in the debates that would follow.

And then Clegg happened.

Not having nine to fives to go to the next day, my housemates and I sat up all night, glugging coffee, watching Dimbleby valiantly stay awake with the election coverage. We watched, hooked, the next day as the results came in, and watched as a coalition government loomed into view. I equated it to watching an elephant try to have sex with a poodle. Another (strongly Labour) housemate simply dubbed it political suicide. Nonetheless, we held out that a left-wing spin to an otherwise grotesquely Tory government was not to be sneezed at, and waited to see what would happen.

As it turned out, Clegg happened. The introduction of £9,000 tuition fees was a scandal in many respects, not least the way that Clegg rolled over, belly up, to Cameron. For those readers in the States who I am sure would love to be paying £9,000 a year with a far more reasonable loan repayment system – I hear you. But nonetheless, what happened here represents a disastrous move towards the financially crippling example of our friends across the pond.

Not only did it represent an ideological shift, but by ignoring several key points in the report commissioned for this change in policy, it also left the universities financially crippled, and introduced a debt repayment system that meant the loans were not just bigger – they were just not going to get paid off. Funding was withdrawn from universities in such a vicious cut that not even the increased top up fees students were expected to pay would replace the lost funding. However, amid the outcry over students forced to pay more, universities who increased their fees by the full amount were made to look greedy, while the government sat smirking, like a self-satisfied, corpulent banker.

The ‘optional’ increase to £9,000 a year placed the universities in even more dire straits – those who didn’t increase the fees risked financial difficulties as well as appearing second rate compared to their peers who had raised the fees. Similarly, raising the fees had then listed in newspapers as part of a long line of ‘greedy’ universities.

Clegg’s refusal/inability to keep to his election promise – that is rejecting higher top up fees and campaigning for a fairer system – has both saddled a young generation with more debt than ever before, financially seriously damaged universities, and threatened the reputations of some of the institutions who could afford it least. In terms of abandoning the students – the student loan is probably the best debt you will ever have in as far as if you cannot afford to pay it, then payments simply stop. Right now I pay a small enough amount that I don’t have to worry about how the debt will affect my long-term future. However, a slightly older generation of graduates, with children, mortgages, and generally more financial commitments really feel the sting – and their debts are a third of mine, just as my debts are a third of the next generation of fee-paying students. Before anyone begins to cry out about irresponsible spending and credit card debt – I left university with no debts incurred from my time spent there. My only debt was a chunk of student overdraft that I used to help pay for my wedding. We are not all naive, stupid and irresponsible children, petulantly expecting the luxury of education to be free. We expect the luxury of education to be equally available across all social classes, even in those whose families cannot afford to provide extra support during and after their children’s degree. Clegg’s spinelessness has only helped widen that gap.

I actually lived in Sheffield at the time of the last election. Thankfully, I voted in the middle of the day. For those students who voted (as most people do) around dinner time, they found themselves segregated into a separate queue to vote, where ‘residents’ were allowed to vote, while students had to wait until the residents had voted. So much for all votes are equal eh? At some polling stations, voters were outright turned away. Where was Clegg’s apology? Where was the investigation? Where was the assurance that this wouldn’t and couldn’t happen again? Who knows, we may even get that apology in two years’ time when Clegg is campaigning again, since that is apparently his latest means to attempt to curry favour with his voters.

This is already a long blog post, so I won’t go into much detail on how Clegg allowed the referendum on voting to turn into a pathetic propaganda war he had no hope of winning, or how he has rolled over and allowed Cameron to steamroller our NHS into a privatised service. Nor do I want to get into the new English Baccalaureate. I’ll start frothing at the mouth with rage at this utterly ineffective change to our inherently useless examination system. But suffice to say, Clegg’s boasts of doing the right thing ring somewhat hollow when as far as the rest of us can see, he has done nothing of the sort.

So, the ‘apology’. I even feel a little nauseous calling it that.

For one thing, it just smacks of pre-conference political posturing by its very nature, and no more. Listen to the content, and frankly, this ‘apology’ can be accused of exactly what it pretends to apologise for – insincerity and deceit. You see, Clegg never meant to keep that promise. The whole time he was proudly parading about with those pledge billboards, claiming to oppose tuition fee rises, internal memos were being sent suggesting that if the LibDems received any say in the upcoming changes to the cap being lifted on fees, then they would they would do no such thing. Clegg doesn’t apologise for lying – he apologises for getting caught. He doesn’t apologise for abandoning the pledge and breaking the trust of his voters – he apologises for supporting the principle in the first place.

The common belief in the principle that education should be as accessible as possible was what (many of) his voters stood alongside him for now. By sidestepping the more difficult apology, Clegg has in fact distanced himself further from his voters – they don’t even have ideology in common anymore.

The big hurt, however, isn’t that the fees were raised. In difficult economic times with an increasing proportion of students attending university, the ugly truth was always that we were always going to see rises in tuition fees. The greatest damage done by Clegg was in so utterly giving in – not even supporting a fairer system for students to repay, better support for the worse-off, and coming up with a system of long term structure rather than short term gain. You see, this system, with its vicious PR twist making the universities the bad guys instead of Clegg and Cameron, is equally unsustainable. Those increased tuition fees are just not going to be paid back, and somebody is going to have to foot the bill later on, when (eventually) the debt is written off as unpayable (for me, this is 25 years down the line).

By never even being seen to attempt to do right by his key voting demographic, Clegg wrote off his chances of inspiring a generation of LibDem voters from the outset.

The trouble is, that for us first time voters, by the time we have lived through one generation of government, voted in by us, we will be older, and wiser. Mid-twenties, we will probably have more at stake than we did when we first voted. Potentially jobs, houses, spouses, children, taxes, mortgages – and a substantial student debt to boot. For that next generation who have never even had chance to vote, and had a minimum of £27,000 debt levelled at them – I can’t imagine finding many LibDem loyalists there. Are we going to risk voting for a party that will so readily and transparently lie, only to abandon its voters? Probably not.

There also comes the fact that this apology has come much too late. As spoken on the inimitable In The Thick of It, ‘you can’t apologise for a fart you did in the elevator two days ago’. Maybe this is good timing for Clegg – but it’s not good timing for the people he’s apologising to. That’s sort of the point of apologies – you don’t make them when it’s convenient to you. You make them because you have done something inherently wrong, which needs to be put right. I understand that to apologise straight away would undermine the policy that Clegg helped to put into place – this doesn’t make his belated apology any better. It just serves to illustrate how badly Clegg has done in serving his voters. Equally, I see very little by the way of things being set right. Not always possible, I grant you. But if this silly little contrite video is meant to renew our trust – frankly, it doesn’t.

I am all the more ashamed of Clegg’s behaviour, because it just so happens that I have a particularly excellent LibDem MP.

Julian Huppert is a bloody marvellous MP. He listens. He responds to letters. He takes action. He stands by promises and serves his community well. I often see him cycling around the city, and is happy to stop and talk to his constituents. Active on twitter, he has his finger on the pulse of public opinion in our very liberal city and represents everything that Clegg is patently not.

Unfortunately for Dr Huppert, it is his face pictured alongside Clegg’s with that now-infamous pledge. Unlike Clegg, he continued to vocally speak out against tuition fee rises, and voted against them. Sadly, Clegg hasn’t just let down his voters. I have no idea if Dr Huppert sees it this way, but Clegg’s poor decisions and lack of leadership, followed by this pathetic non-apology does not do his party justice, and more to the point, it doesn’t do his MPs justice.

By failing to recognise the source of mistrust and disappointment in his apology and effectively sidestepping the more difficult issues, Clegg has failed to reconnect to his voters – it isn’t only his detractors who think this false apology is an utter debacle. Instead, the ‘let’s get the lies out of politics’ Nick Clegg has just showed himself to be as out of touch and deceitful as so many of our senior ministers.

In these politically strained times, I think we may see more coalition governments, and as the next largest party, the LibDems are likely to remain more of a prominent feature of government in this country. We all just hope it’s not with Clegg.

Anyone for cider?

I have been bad, and yes, the blog has been super neglected (I know, excuses, excuses) but I promise it’s because I’ve been out and about doing blog-worthy things rather than well, sitting in front of a screen and blogging about them! There is still the promised sourdough recipe to come, but it’s waiting for me to find the charger for the camera so you can have handy-dandy stage by stage photos. Same goes for the crochet Angry Birds I’m making (ho yiss they are cool!)

So, yeah, get on with the cider Amanda. It is in the title after all.

So for the last few years my friends and I have busied ourselves over the August bank holiday weekend (come rain or shine!) making cider. To start with this was a fairly amateur operation, involving all our mums’ household blenders on the picnic bench outside, and less fruitpress, more squeezing-apple-pulp-with-your-hands-until-juice-comes-out. This doesn’t come recommended, as apple juice will stain your hands nicotine yellow for weeks if you have your hands soaked in the stuff literally all day. Please just take my word for it.

However, as we’ve got older and have more disposable income to hand, and our parents have bizarrely enough, got some random and useful power tools laying about the place, we’ve got more and more pro about it, and we now produce some delicious, clear, dry cider (more on the flavour later). Initially we acquired a little two-litre fruitpress that was a day’s work pressing all the apples, and couldn’t take a great deal of pressure – we were still squeezing the pulp by hand before each press. Next came the wood chipper. Oh the wood chipper. We lovingly sterilised the whole thing and never went back to home blenders again – not when you can get roughly 25 stone of apples (roughly 159 kilos) pulped in less than half an hour. Finally, this year Brunton number one got a 25 litre behemoth of a fruit press for Christmas, which has been laying dormant in the shed waiting for apple season. It is both great and glorious.

So, in the interests of blogging, recipe sharing, and encouraging homebrew cider binging, here is how we do it. Trust me when I say it’s super easy, and none of us have lost a finger/limb to the wood shredder yet. I promise.

Making homemade cider.

Although over the course of several years we have managed to beg, borrow, and steal plenty of nice equipment, you don’t really need that much specialist stuff at all, especially if you aren’t making it on a large scale. You will need:

  • Demijohns, or similar containers for the juice to ferment in
  • Siphon tube – this is literally just a long plastic tube.
  • Bottles
  • Hydrometer – this is the most specialist piece of kit, but essential for ANY homebrewing, so a worthwhile investment.
  • Fermentation locks – not expensive, but absolutely essential. I don’t even want to tell you about the year we used bits of potato as a stopper.
  • Corks with holes in for the fermentation locks
  • Sterilising fluid – milton for example. Sterilise like it’s covered in zombie virus.
  • Something to pulp the apples with (anything from home blender to wood chipper!) and something to juice them with.
  • Muslin or similar fabric to strain the juice (no one likes chunky cider)
  • A couple of big ol’buckets.
  • Fermentation stopper – such as Campden tablets.
  • Apples!

We try to use a wide range of apples to get a good flavour. Less sweet apples will make a lovely dry cider – obviously the sugary ones will give more for the yeast to chow down on = more alcohol. Go for a mix that makes a good tasting juice and you can’t go wrong from there.

In terms of the flavour you are aiming for, in all likelihood, a dryer tasting cider will be stronger. The more sugar that yeast noms up, the more alcohol is produced. If you want to keep a sweeter cider, you’re going to have to either stop fermentation earlier, or add back in some sugar somehow. We usually do this by adding some apple juice after fermentation has been stopped – this year we’ve experimented and pasteurised some of the leftover juice we pressed ourselves to be added back into the cider later.

We normally don’t do this, because unless you can keep everything nice and sterile, leftover sugar = risk of fermentation starting again. Fermentation taking place after bottling produces gas, which in turn produces the classic exploding bottles of homebrew legend. After adding in the juice, chuck in your fermentation stopper and bottle immediately.

Ok so that’s equipment and brewing 101. What about the recipe?

Well, there isn’t really a recipe as such seeing as the only ingredient is apples, but here goes.

  • Collect and wash your apples. Bruised apples are fine – hell, you’re about to blitz them! Apples with white spots on – not fine. Leave them for the wasps. A sterilising agent like Milton can be safely used on food, so we tend to leave our apples in the big ol’ bucket, with the sterilising fluid for as long as the bottle says. They can always be rinsed off later. In the meantime, you should also sterilise/clean your equipment.
  • Next, pulp your apples ready for pressing. A home blender will do the job just fine, but bear in mind that you’ll need quite a bit of juice, so it’s going to take several rounds of blending unless you have the almighty wood chipper.
  • Squeeze those apples! You can of course do this by hand. If you put the pulp in a big colander as you go, you can have the first bit of juice just drain out into your big ol’ bucket. Then either crush the pulp by hand, or crush it in your colander. If you’ve got a fruit press… well you know what to do. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • I would recommend straining your juice into another big ol’ (sterilised!) bucket. Tie your muslin across the top and pour the juice through. Ta dah! Strained juice.
  • Once you’re done pressing juice, time to get it out of that big ol’bucket and into your (sterilised) demijohns. Put in your bung and fermentation lock (don’t forget to put the water in the lock – and no, of course I’ve never done that…). Do not by any means use potato instead of a proper bung. It just doesn’t work.
    It will happy ferment itself from the natural years present in the fruit – no need to add yeast!
  • Save the last little bit and take a hydrometer reading – this will tell you the sugar concentration pre-fermentation. WRITE IT DOWN. Once fermentation has finished, the difference in sugar content will tell you roughly what the current alcohol content is by comparison.
  • Leave somewhere room temperature and dark to ferment. Feel free to taste it after a couple of weeks for sweetness – although don’t expect it to be super tasty at this stage! We tend to leave it to totally ferment – it takes a few weeks and you can tell once it’s done as the fermentation lock will have stopped bubbling. This will make dry cider, but you can sweeten it with apple juice, which makes for a very refreshing cider.
  • If you leave the demijohns to settle, you’ll notice a layer of scuzz on the bottom. This is normal. Once you’re done fermenting, you want to siphon off the good clear stuff into bottles, and leave behind the scuzz. Don’t forget to sterilise your siphon tube and bottles (zombie virus remember?)
  • Patience my friend! The longer you can leave that cider, the better it will taste. It will be drinkable by January, better by spring, and damned delicious by the time you’re busy making more cider next summer!

p.s.

You know that elderflower wine I yakked on about a few months ago? That is beautifully clear, delicious, and bottled up, along with the strawberry wine we made out of the strawberries in the garden this year. Who needs grapes anyway?