Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper.
Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything -- and beer and wine were born.
Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.
These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones. I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, cowslips, elderflowers and meadowsweet – the last being the tufty weed that grows along the canal banks in August.
In the autumn hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and bland raw, but they make an excellent wine, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them.
The details differ by the kind of wine you’re making, but the basic recipe is this: First pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of whatever vegetable matter you’re using and two halved lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off. Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet.
Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.
After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.
When I did this with haws from our hawthorn trees I calculated the total cost at three euros for two kilos of sugar, plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly.
Not all your experiments will turn out well. All my wines based on flowers or weeds -- like cowslip, elderflower, meadowsweet and nettle -- turned out fine, whereas my vegetable wines of parsnip, ginger and beetroot tasted awful for some reason. Likewise, the haw wine tasted fine while new -- as a fizzy, lightly alcoholic drink -- and some of it aged into a fine haw wine. The rest aged, unexpectedly, into a very nice vinegar.
Either way they won’t taste exactly like grape wines from the store. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made.
Top photo: Wines from left to right -- meadowsweet, parsnip and ginger, elderflower, haw, more meadowsweet and elderberry.
Middle photo: Some of the ingredients I've used for wine and jam, clockwise - orange peel, crabapple, elderberry, blackberry, sloe and rosehips. All but the orange peel my daughter and I picked on our property.
Bottom photo: Haw wine while fermenting.