Monday, December 17, 2007

Ribena for grown-ups

I've just had the satisfaction of bottling my very first batch of home-brewed wine. It's a blackberry wine, it's a glorious colour and it tastes divine. I also have the additional smugness of knowing that every single piece of fruit in the batch was picked by me either in my garden or from the wild brambles that surround the fields where I walk my dogs.

Making my own wine is one more step towards my ultimate goal of sourcing all of my food and drink. During my childhood I enjoyed the kind of lifestyle that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his middle class downsizers now promote as the ideal. But we didn't do it to save the planet, or to be ethical, or to promote food awareness. We lived that way because it was cost-effective. We weren't poor - my parents owned their own house - but my dad's police wage wasn't exactly Fat Cat pay either. So we economised. We grew a lot of our own veg or bartered with local farmers. We kept bantams for eggs. And we shot most of the meat we ate. It was mostly rabbit and wood pigeon but we also enjoyed pheasant, woodcock, snipe and an occasional duck. And because Dad and my brothers Andrew and Jake were keen fishermen, our table was also regularly visited by trout, sea bass, pollack, gurnard and the freshest mackerel you've ever tasted. To top up this smorgasbord of wild larder produce, we also scoured rockpools for winkles and cockles and brought home mats of mussels from the local beaches. And to accompany the food, Dad brewed his own beer and wine and seemed to develop ever weirder flavours as time went on. I mean ... mincemeat wine? But somehow they all worked and I promised myself that one day I would learn the arcane arts of winemaking ...

These days, I source all of my meat from local suppliers and either grow my own veg or buy organic from local farmers' markets. I've got myself a greenhouse this year so I'm looking at growing my own peppers, chillies and other exotic produce in 2008. I already have a variety of fruit trees, a rhubarb patch, blackberries, raspberries, grape vines, gooseberries, quinces and a hazelnut tree. So I'm getting to be pretty self-sufficient. The only things missing are the chickens (not really practical with my dogs, the large number of local foxes and the dozens of huge red kites that hover hungrily overhead every day) and the alcohol. So I get my eggs from someone who does keep chickens and ducks and I've started brewing.

I couldn't believe how easy it is! You can make wine from just about anything. Really. Anything. Teabags. Raisins. Beetroot and parsnips. Oranges. Parsley and rice (honest). Even onions and potatoes. Apart from my blackberry batch, I also bottled a demijohn's worth of rich, sweet, golden oak leaf wine (see photo above). Yes, that's right. Wine made from oak leaves. And it tastes great! I found the recipe in a wonderful old paperback by the master of home wine-making, the appropriately named Mr C J J Berry. First Steps in Winemaking is easy to follow and very informative. And, most importantly, aimed at the rank amateur. I commend it to you. And I also ask you to consider giving winemaking a go. The set up costs are minimal - it's under a tenner for a demijohn, some sugar, some yeast and whatever flavouring you're going to use - and voila! three months later you have 4-6 bottles of tasty wine. It's not even as if there's any real work involved either. Mr Yeast does all of that for you. And believe me, there is a real thrill watching those little bubbles popping up through the airlocks. Yeast eats sugar and coverts half to carbon dioxide and half to alcohol ... so for every bubble, an equal amount of booze is being made! Yay! Good old yeast.

Here's the set-up in my study. Four demijohns (one still has a crabapple wine brewing) and a fermenting bucket lurking beneath my easels. Total cost around £40 - but everything is reusable. And the three empty demijohns have just provided me with 18 bottles of wine.

So Christmas dinner this year will be spent in the company of an organic turkey, locally grown veg and home-brewed wine.

What's not to like about that?

1 comment:

Me said...

Felicity Kendal, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith have a lot to answer for!