Saturday, 26 September 2009

Hagebuttensirup: how to fall in love through syrup

I promised to tell you about syrups. First, I want to tell you about Lena and her boyfriends.

Last year, I escaped my traveling itinerary and companions and went to Berlin for a week by myself. Well, almost by myself. I stayed with Lena, a six foot tall Berliner with blond hair flowing down her back. Walking next to her, it was hard not to feel like something akin to a reptilian dwarf.

Lena is a law student and friend from college, and is one of those amazing people who can tell everyone that she loves them, and mean it. She would give out hugs and kisses like no one else I've met, managing to charm pretty much everyone up and down the block of student apartments we lived in.

Lena was my mother hen, in many ways. Almost five years older than me with ten years of relationship experience, we talked about boys and boyfriends, wondering at the unexpected choices people make in the name of love.

I met Lena at the tail-end of a five year relationship. She wanted someone stronger, she would say. Someone who she could get into a fighting match with. Someone who wasn't so infuriatingly nice...This boyfriend of hers - from Germany to San Diego he would send her little jars of roasted red pepper pesto he had made for her. When she returned home to Berlin, he would dress up in a suit, go to his lawyer job, promise marriage and comfort, and come home and cook her dinner.

"I want someone who is, you know, kind of an asshole," Lena would say.

So she found someone else.

When I arrived in Berlin, it was smack dab in the middle of what you might call the "transition." Both of Lena's significant others were still around and both were making their own attempts at wooing her.

Her apartment was in the East side of Berlin. Inexpensive rent, but airy with tall windows and a little kitchen facing into a courtyard, it was a wonderful apartment in a developing artist neighborhood. Her refrigerator was filled with vegetable from the organic co-op down the street, as well as with homemade condiments from various sets of loving hands.

There were several sauces and spreads, including the pesto, all made by boyfriend 1, which we ate smeared slices from the dark, heavy loaves of bread sold in every German market.

And then there was a large jar of a syrupy liquid, wrapped in a carefully positioned gold ribbon, made by boyfriend 2. Deep orangey-pink, almost the color of Mexican papaya with a scent that was sweet and floral, it was utterly intriguing. I was afraid to touch it though - it looked so special, so thought out. I didn't want to interfere with anyone's little love gifts.

One night we had vanilla ice cream, and Lena pulled out the jar. Swirled with the melting ice cream, I still had no clue what this stuff was. There was no trace of fruitiness, and yet something about it was totally addictive. I wasn't evening paying attention to the ice cream anymore (and that takes a lot).

Although Lena's English is as impeccable as any well-schooled German citizen, she couldn't think of the translation. But she described the process to me: her new boyfriend had gone out to the woods near his parent's home in the country and clipped the fruit, then boiled it and made it into a syrup for her. It had taken him all day, she explained, because he had to be very careful of the spines.

I looked at her and laughed. "You want a tough guy, and yet here you are with a new love who slaves over the stove all day to make you a sweet pink syrup!"

She slapped herself on the forehead, as if she were just realizing it. "What I am doing!" she said. And then she brought out her favorite word again: "But I really love him..."

It was rosehip syrup, and Lena had fallen in love with the same person in a different body.

I started seeing the German word for rosehip (hägenmark) all over the place. In juices, soda, and jams. The jam was especially spectacular. I had never seen anything like it in the states, and I wondered why no one had tapped into this amazing flavor.

This was one of many lessons on the German treatment of food - care. From what I saw in Berlin, people really cared about food, about how to deal with food waste, about how to grow food that was healthy for the ground and healthy for the people. And it was affordable too: I've never been to a city before with such fresh, inexpensive food, both in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, big supermarkets, and tiny fruitstands. Of course there were still potatoes and sausages and beer, but even these people took more care with them. The beer was differentiated by what village it came from. Each spice that went into the sausages was thought out, and even the pototoes seemed creamier, and dare I say healthier?

Everything seemed to have that little extra effort put in, that little extra care that made the city appear more conscientious and maybe even a little more evolved.

And so we get back to Cazadero, and my canning extravaganza schmorgasboord that has been happening the past weeks. With a handful of rosehips from a little rose garden in Healdsburg, and another handful from a sprawling bush located conveniently off the dirt road I use to drive to work every day, I attempted to recreate Berlin in a jar of rosehip syrup (hagebuttensirup, for those interested).

And it did bring me back. Poured all over my morning toast, dripping all over my fingers and down my chin, I thought about Lena's East Berlin apartment and the smell of rosehips on that dense, dark bread...and I thought about the care that prods not only one guy tredge out into the woods for a crop of rosehips, but a whole country that devotes the thought and time to nourish its people, not just feed them.

Wild Rosehip Syrup

Syrups may be my new favorite thing. Rose geranium syrup and lavender syrup have also been stirred up, all in the same process.

Swirled into tap water, bubbly water, or iced tea makes a lively drink. Poured over yogurt in the morning or ice cream at any hour of the day is also delicious. And of course the standard pancakes and waffles.

Don't let the thorns scare you - if you see rosehips growing somewhere, snap them off and hoard them. They are worth a thorn or two in your finger.

4 cups rosehips, trimmed of stems and cut in half
2 cups water
1 cup sugar

Boil rosehips and water for 20 minutes. Strain.

Add sugar, boil five minutes until slightly thickened.

Refrigerate for up to two weeks.

For longer storage, pour hot syrup into sterilized jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

Monday, 14 September 2009

pausing with a grape or two

Things have been totally backwards recently. I've been getting up before the sun, riding tractors, eating lunches out of a sac, and nursing a farmer's tan. And I haven't given this humble little blog a glance in weeks...

Harvest in the vineyards may bring sleep deprivation and adventures with the Spanish language, but it also brings one obvious thing: fruit. And the fruit brings me back here, looking for recipes, flavors, and combinations to throw around.

The sorting process in the vineyards leaves many sad bunches of grapes behind. Little lost soldiers as the workers tear through the vines with their shears snipping each cluster into the plastic bins. So later in the day, with the sun bearing down on the fallen fruit and turning it fast into raisins, I've been returning to the field with an empty bucket.

Pounds of grapes have passed through the kitchen, manicured to rid them of green or rainsinated berries. A good crush with a potato masher, some sugar and some heat, and those lofty grapes, usually aged for a year or two or twelve into cellar-worthy bottles of pinot noir, become something much simpler. A juice, a syrup, a jelly.

It's the world of canning, and I've been diving in. I'll tell you about my other adventures later (involving lavender and wild fennel pollen, among other delights), but this week was all about the grape.

The juice was, well, juice. Sweet and puckery, with something that reminded us of watermelon and strawberries. The syrup swirled wonderfully with some bubbly water. Made by boiling up the stems along with the fruit, a little spoonful of the sweet, deep purple stuff revealed a flavor much more powerful and complex than your average grape.

And finally, the jelly.

I'd never made jelly before. I'd tried my hand at jam, and it seems that dumb luck in that situation delivered me a delcious and well-jelled product. These grapes, lacking a significant amount of pectin, were a different species.

A neighbor delivered the answer in the form of a huge box of tart, firm apples from her tree. Natural pectin had arrived.

Using this recipe, I whipped up three pots of sticky, sputtering syrup, crossing my fingers it would come together.

The swirl of rosemary before canning was a beautiful addition, one that inspired me to set a little of the hot liquid aside and add some fresh lemon verbena leaves for a different sort of infusion.

Once cooled, the grape and rosemary flavors nestled into one another, melding just enough for a little question mark to go off in your head when it hits the tongue. And although plenty sweet, the rosemary begs for something savory. Spread on salty foccaccia would be lovely (fritos work in a pinch), and we have also been thinking about making a glaze for a roasted meat, perhaps lamb.

The thing about these cans though - I can only open one at a time. For my eat-it-all-at-once nature, this is a lesson in patience as we dig deeper into the first jar and I force myself to wait to taste the grape with lemon verbena.

There is something about this wait, something about the preservation itself, that seems to slow things down. Days disappear, and then you are stirring hot syrup over the stove and the moment takes a pause. Time isn't filled by the normal chaos. Somehow it passes more gently.