A lot of things have changed in the kitchen since my gran’s day but one thing that hasn’t is a lack of space in the fridge/freezer. Who would love to make their own cordial but has no room to store a big batch of bottles in the fridge? Our grandmothers had the same problem and were a lot better at solving it than we are today. Their repertoire included things like fruit cheeses, cordials, salted vegetables and cured meats that were all stored carefully in a cool pantry or part of the house.
They were helped along in their efforts by books like this lovely publication from 1957 – “Home Made Wines Syrups and Cordials” by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. For the grand sum of three shillings and sixpence you could learn how to make things like “Black Cherry Syrup”, “Rose Syrup” and “Apple Toddy” among other delights.
I’ve had this little book in my collection for quite a while and have dipped into it for various wine recipes but never really explored the cordials and syrups section. Then after Christmas we were talking about the backlash against the amount of sugar we’re all eating from processed foods and fizzy drinks in particular.
We got talking about making healthy cordials, soda stream and the homemade cordials that Gran used to make. Raspberry and Orange Squash were two of her specialties I can still remember the taste of. She also made Kahlua and I can still taste that too, but that’s for another blog.
I don’t see the point of making a small batch of cordial if you have the fruit to use up. And there is the same amount of work involved in making a small batch as a big batch, but then you get back to that problem of fridge space so it doesn’t start fermenting…
I consulted the book and the good lady authors expressed the cordial preserving problem succinctly:
“The yeasts naturally present on the raw materials must be killed, otherwise the syrups will ferment in the bottle which may then explode with violence”.
I was thrilled to learn their method for sterilising the cordials was basically the same as the one I use for pasteurising the apple juice I bottle each autumn. Here is my modern method, complete with temperatures and times.
- clean glass bottles and sterilise in the oven for 30 minutes on 60°C (140°F)
- fill bottles leaving at least 2.5 cm (1 inch) from the top as contents expand on heating
- put bottles in a deep pot with a rack in the bottom
- fill pot with water up to the neck of the bottles
- heat gently until the cordial inside the bottles reaches 75°C / 167°F (takes ages so have something else to do while you wait)
- hold it at that temp for 30 minutes
- carefully remove the bottles and sit on a wooden chopping board
- sterilise lids with boiling water and screw onto bottles
The good ladies stoppered their bottles with corks and then sealed them with melted beeswax which is a lovely idea. I usually have an assortment of bottles with screw tops and some with corks. This time for the cordial I used some old milk bottles with rubber bungs that fit them. The good thing about corks and bungs is that if the contents do start fermenting the cork will pop before the bottle explodes.
How to Extract Juice for Cordial
The book gives three methods for extracting your juice for cordial, one involves cooking the fruit and the other two are referred to as “Cold Methods” which, in the ladies opinion, produce “syrups that are fresher in flavour than hot processed syrups but are slightly more difficult to prepare” .
I opted for the cold method to preserve more of the natural goodness of the fruit. This involves putting the fruit in a bowl and crushing it with a wooden spoon or pulper, covering it with a thick cloth and leaving it in a warm room until bubbles of gas form on the surface of the pulp. This initial fermentation helps the pectin in the fruit breakdown and makes the juice run more freely. I used a 10 liter bucket and the electric drill fitted with this fruit crusher attachment which made short work of the plums.
I also followed their second cold method, adding pectin-destroying enzyme which works on the pulped fruit to speed up the juice extraction and break down the pulp. This enzyme is still commonly available today and used in home wine making to clarify wines and extract juice. It goes by the name Pectolase or similar and can be purchased from home-brewing supply stores. The ladies say to use 1/4 oz. for each 8 lb. of fruit pulp, or 1/4 oz. for each 5 lb. of fruit pulp if doing blackcurrants. I would recommend following the instructions on the packet. Sit the crushed fruit and the enzyme in a warm place overnight.
Preparing the Cordial
- Strain the juice through a double layer of cotton cheese cloth and squeeze every last drop out, it doesn’t seem to make the cordial cloudy.
- Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of Vitamin C powder for every liter (quart) of juice for a natural preservative
- The book recommends adding between 3/4 and 1 lb. of white sugar per pint of juice but they weren’t using any preservative so how much sugar you add depends on your taste. The raw plum juice is very tart so I added a 1/2 lb. sugar per pint of juice
- Whisk the sugar and juice until the sugar is dissolved
- Pour into bottles and following the process above for pasteurising the cordial.
Flavours & Tips
I added a heaped teaspoon of ground cinnamon to my plum cordial which tasted gorgeous but I probably should have strained it before I bottled it. If you’re going to add spices I’d recommend steeping whole spices in your cordial for a couple of days before straining, bottling and heat treating it.
The other little pearls of wisdom I gleaned from the good ladies who wrote the book included the following advice for getting kids to drink milk:
“Children who will not drink milk by itself can be persuaded to take it if it is flavoured with a fruit syrup. Care is needed to prevent the milk from curdling so keep the cold milk stirred briskly while slowly adding the syrup. Usually one part of syrup is added to five or six parts of milk.”
Sounds a like like a milkshake to me. Here are a couple of other useful tips they give for would-be home cordial makers:
“Fruits for syrup making should be over-ripe, free from mould and washed clean. Remove any leaves or largish stems”
“Most syrups tend to throw a sediment of particles too fine to be retained in straining cloths. The material forming the sediment is perfectly wholesome, but if a clear product is required, the syrup can be decanted from the bottle when used.”
“No syrup should be kept for more than a year as flavour slowly deteriorates and in any case fresh fruit is then once more available.”
“All syrups should be kept in the dark and as cold as possible to retain colour and flavour.”
“In summer they can be diluted with iced- or soda-water or in winter with hot water.”
I’m very impressed with my first attempt of plum and cinnamon cordial. The flavours are very fresh and I know that the ingredients are strained plum juice, sugar and cinnamon. The juice was not boiled so it retains some of the fruits natural goodness. I know it’s got sugar in it but a little bit goes a long way and I’d rather feed this to family and friends than a supermarket soda any day.
I think gran would approve. I know she’d approve of the version with ice, soda water and a little gin!