rhubarb cordial and sweet nostalgia
Like many of us who are comfortable in the kitchen, it carries a daily reminder of the culinary traditions shared by my mother. Even if for me some of these skills are now redundant – through observation and careful assistance my mum taught me how to cream butter and sugar for a cake and to use the eggs from the pantry, not the cold ones in the fridge, for baking. As a carnivorous child I learnt how to brown cubes of beef for a casserole and the art of gravy making.
Decades on and in a different country, when I stew rhubarb (the only fruit that was ever plentiful in our shady garden) I cut the stalks into thick slices with my mother’s hands. I toss the sugar in carelessly, adding sweetness as required, remembering to only moisten with a little water and keep an eagle eye on the pot while it simmers on a low heat.
Though my mother is still able bodied, she no longer stews fruit. It’s years since she cooked and the poorly stocked kitchen under my father’s reign fills me with waves of grief each time I visit. This was once the heart of the home, now the drawers and cupboards are alarming spartan. It is the room of the house I feel her absence most. Despite that fact mum still bustles in, she might eye the kettle but is unable to reliably make a cup of coffee now.
Lately I’ve found myself honouring her memory by reading the books she used enjoy and keeping some of her kitchen traditions alive, albeit on another continent. I know I can’t blow the dementia from her brain or bring back the woman who raised me but I find these rituals comforting. For now she still has a dry sense of humour and can come up with the odd gem. She knows who I am but our baking days are over.
Despite the nostalgia, these small acts are more homage than slavish re-enactments. Last week I bought the fattest bunch of rhubarb and deviated from her simple recipe. The idea was to not only have stewed fruit for my morning cereal but also make a stab at rhubarb cordial.
My sister set the train in motion by mentioning she’d found a new mineral water in Queenstown, one scented with the tang of rhubarb. After last summer’s jag of cordial making this was an idea I couldn’t resist. The usual Googling yielded odd mentions but scanty, often imprecise, recipes.
Of course my own efforts are equally as vague. It’s a work in progress. Playing by ear without a set of scales or measuring cups in sight. As I use these digital pages as a cook’s journal, these are my thoughts for creating such a pink-alicious concoction.
Rhubarb cordial – a work in progress
Clean your rhubarb, then top and tail the stalks.
Chop into thick chunks.
Place the fruit in a pot and add enough cold water to come up to about half the level of the chopped rhubarb.
Sweeten the fruit with sugar, as desired (you’ll add more later when making the syrup, the first round of sugar is to make the fruit edible without it being cloyingly sweet).
Toss in a cinnamon stick.
Bring the pot to a gentle simmer, half cover with a lid and set it on the lowest heat.
Check the pot every 5 minutes and stir.
Despite the firmness of the raw stalks, rhubarb cooks quite fast. It can go from thick chunks to pulpy very quickly – maybe 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the pot, the density of the fruit and degree of heat.
I like my stewed rhubarb to have some pulp and some defined but soft chunks. Once it is at your desired consistency, strain the contents of the pot over a large bowl.
Leave for a good hour or so.
If I was only making only cordial, with no desire to eat the fruit, I’d line the sieve with muslin and squeeze the pulp before discarding. But that seems like an utter waste to me. After about an hour of draining the pulp still retains enough moisture to eat but has yielded a fair amount of gloriously pink juice.
Measure the juice and place in a pan on low heat. Add 1/3 of the quantity (eg: if 2 cups of juice, add 2/3 cup of sugar). How much sugar you actually need will depend on how sweet you made the stewed fruit. If you had a heavy hand the first time around, start with a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts juice and add more if required. Allow the sugar to melt into the juice to make a light syrup. Off the heat add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice to taste.
Pour a dash or a big slurp of cordial in a glass and serve with sparkling mineral water or soda.
Next batch – I’m adding rosewater.
You might also like the taste of:
Stewed rhubarb with roses
Rose petal cordial