I tend – like most of us, I expect – to judge the passing of the seasons with markers. If the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award hikers have collapsed on my wall it must be summer; if the village garden club show has happened, autumn cannot be far behind. This year I have been working flat out, so the show burst upon me. It was just as well that I’d not entered anything in the baking, because I was far too busy checking the dahlias for earwigs to worry about Victoria sponges and whether I could do a Helen Mirren and buy one from M&S.
I had all my preserves ready, though. I still had to stage a chutney beauty contest because I’d lost the ability to distinguish one from another, but apart from that I was done. The produce and wine section is always keenly contested, and I’d been nominated as the steward. This meant helping the judge – a local chef – by writing frantically, washing spoons, saying almost nothing about anything other than the weather, putting prize markers in the right place and keeping an absolute poker face whenever he approached any of my entries with his spoon (or asked me to taste something – er – surprising).
There were a lot of entries in our classes – from country wines to vegetable pickles, from sloe gins to lemon curds. And they all had to be tasted, assessed, judged – often requiring repeated tasting – and reflected upon. We were still working our way through the chutneys when the other judges and stewards had retired for sarnies, but I didn’t mind.
Of course there were some unfortunates: the jelly which hadn’t set, the still wine starting to fizz and ferment. But there were some truly wonderful things, produced by people with real talent, and our judge treated everything with proper respect.
I also got to taste one or two, and not just my own…
When we were setting up, I was helping place entries and came across something I’d not encountered before: bread and butter pickle. The maker said she’d found the recipe in an old book, and had no idea why it was called this, but it involved pickling cucumbers and onions and she’d added a courgette, all finely sliced, as well as mustard seeds and a little turmeric and, and… It was gorgeous. Its maker also said it was ‘like the pickle you get in McDonalds’ – oh no, it wasn’t. It was a million, zillion times better. Of course it won.
I’ve now done some digging around, and the name ‘bread and butter pickle’ won’t come as a surprise to any of my US friends – perfectly normal pickle (sniff). Wikipedia says that bread and butter pickles are sweeter than ‘normal’ dill pickles, with more sugar added to the brine, and with sliced cucumbers rather than whole ones. And b&b pickle is indeed cited as often an accompaniment to burgers, so our maker wasn’t so far off the mark in theory, even if she was blissfully miles away in reality. I’ve also found a recipe in an ‘old’ book over here – Reader’s Digest Farmhouse Cookery from 1980 – and there are numerous online versions. In the RD book it is given as a UK pickle, described as ‘countrywide’ and ‘an old country pickle’, but I can’t confirm that. However, it is delicious – and if anyone wants to have a go, our show winner had finely cut her cucumbers into long strips, which really worked.
Our judge alternated between sugary preserves, less-sugary drinks, pickles, fruit liqueurs and chutneys, trying not to overload on sugar or vinegar (or alcohol, come to that). The sheer range was astonishing, even in the more specific classes – like the marmelade, for instance. There were plenty of recommendations for next year, and I made plenty of personal notes, mental and physical – scribbled on my hand. Principally…
there is no way I am going to resist making apricot vodka. Everyone should make apricot vodka. Make it, then hide it.
I always make sloe gin, and though mine is not particularly sweet it has won in the past (not this year, though). This year, I added blackberry whisky to my repertoire and somehow managed to save enough to have some for the show – it got lost at the very back of a cupboard; the first lot went alarmingly fast). Next year apricot vodka has to be marooned behind the bulk buys.
There were several entries (apricot vodka has a specific class), but the one which won was simply unbelievable. It was deeply golden, and had a depth of flavour and subtle maturity which made it stand out. The basic recipe given in the show brochure says to leave the apricots in the vodka for eight days, or maybe fourteen, or maybe twenty-two: the winner had definitely left them for longer. There are other recipes out there, but the show recipe is simple. The winner followed it apart from the timing (he’s saying no more), so I am going to experiment. Here’s the recipe, verbatim: ‘1.5 lbs dried apricots, 2 pts vodka, 1 lb sugar. Place all ingredients in a container, do not mix. Turn twice a day for 8 days, leaving the jar sitting on its lid for some days [!]. Strain and bottle. You can also use the same apricots for a second batch but this time leave for 14 days. If the vodka is too sweet for your taste after the first blending [?] use less sugar on the second batch and blend after the 14 days.’ As a food writer and editor, I’ve got some queries about this, but I’m going for it anyway. Watch this space… hic….