A Seasonal Service for our Friends

That title is perhaps not entirely honest as the shrubs in question are not quite what you were expecting if you come here for gardening news. However, the Winter Solstice approaches, followed by Christmas and the New Year with all the jollifications those three dates imply … and so this slightly off-subject post is presented to help my gardening and wildlifing friends survive to the other side.

So … I like a glass of beer or wine or whisk(e)y or whatever else is on offer as much as anyone, but sometimes being the designated driver or needing to keep a clear head for whatever reason can inhibit things. We have all been in those situations and for whatever reasons have wished for a grown up non-alcoholic drink to tide us over. Even more, have we wished for a non-alcoholic drink that we might actually look forward to pouring or even drinking with food. But, what is that going to be if you cannot abide sweetness, because most of the options available are sweet to a greater or lesser degree and the standard offering of a glass of stale orange juice is not an appealing experience. Angostura Bitters and tonic water is the nearest that 50+ years of drinking has provided but it rapidly becomes a bit of a bore, even if you can find the bitters these days (almost impossible in Canada).

Finally, as I approach the dawn of the year in which I will reach the age of 70 I have at last found an acceptable solution. Nay an enjoyable and palatable solution which I now offer to you all free, gratis and with cries of “bottoms up”.

Make your own Shrubs … I believe they have some recent cachet in the UK amongst the more hipsterish elements of society and that certain emporia will sell you small and expensive bottles of the stuff but really, it is so ridiculously easy to make your own one has to ask why would you not do so.

A Shrub in this context is not something growing in the garden. A Shrub is what was once known as “drinking vinegar” (don’t wrinkle your nose yet), a centuries old means of preserving what I have seen described as “languishing fruits” in the days before refrigeration. They are cheap and easy to make, the principle is the same for all variations and really, trust me on this, you are going to enjoy these excellent non-alcoholic drinks. They are bright and sparkly, chilled and remarkably dry to the palate … that’s right, Shrubs are not sweet. They are the grown up drink I have been seeking all these years.

As mid-winter us approaching here is a recipe for you to make that involves seasonal fruits … it’s pink which is a psychological barrier to some of we gentlemen but you’ll soon get over that and there are alternatives that are decidedly not pink at all.

The Recipe – Cranberry and Orange Shrub

1 cup of cranberries (that’s about 250ml dry volume for the Brits in the audience)
I cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 cups apple cider vinegar (note – must be at least 5% acetic acid) – or wine vinegar if you prefer
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

In a nonreactive saucepan, combine cranberries, peppercorns, orange juice, sugar, and water. Stir. Cover and place over medium-high heat. Cook, opening the lid and stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves and some of the cranberries begin popping open, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover, and allow to cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Add the cider vinegar and stir, put in a glass jar and refrigerate for around 12 hours. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer (a nylon tea infuser does a great job but you could use cheesecloth if you want it sparking clear), transfer to a sealed airtight container and store in the fridge where it will keep for several weeks.

Note: this is a fairly generic recipe so substitute the fruits of your choice is you can’t get fresh/frozen cranberries

To drink your Shrub you could do as our hardy forefathers did and swig it in a small glass like a tot of rum or whisky but the best thing is to treat your Shrub as a cordial. Pour a small amount, perhaps as little as a quarter of an inch (you’ll soon adjust to your personal taste) in a tall glass and top up with bubbly water. That’s it … a long drink that tastes really good and that even goes with food. What more could you want?

You can also use the Shrub as a fruit base for a real cocktail with vodka etc … you will find recipes online.

Variations that I have tested and can recommend are based on one part each of fruit, sugar and vinegar. Raspberries are excellent (but, again, pink) while plums, preferably the yellow varieties, are magnificent with food and not at all pink. The raspberries can be muddled in the sugar and vinegar and infused for a couple of days in the fridge or they can be gently heated in a pan and treated like the cranberry and orange above. Plums do need to be stewed over heat first but then let them cool, add sugar and vinegar and put in the fridge for a day or two before straining and bottling.

I wish a Happy Christmas, a Merry Solstice and calm stomachs to one and all.