How to Make Your Own Drinks
Susy Atkins

A little word of caution: this is not a book about gardening. Nor is it written by a gardener: Susy Atkins writes about wine, and very well at that, but I’m not sure she enjoys getting her hands muddy that much.

So let’s not expect this book to do more than it promises. It won’t tell you how to grow the plants you make drinks from: but then there are dozens of other books which will help you there.

She gives just one page to ‘the garden and orchard’; and recommends growing grapes and rhubarb, among the largest and most thuggish of all fruit and veg plants, on a ‘spacious, sunny balcony’ in a city. Hmm. That’s ‘spacious balcony’ as in ‘roof garden’, then. And she suggests offering to help friends and neighbours on their allotments in exchange for crops – but not actually getting an allotment yourself.

But this is carping: and, as I say, expecting the book to do something other than it sets out to do.

Because the big strength of this book is that it gets you to take another look at your kitchen garden. As Susy points out, ‘it takes a small but significant mind-shift to start making drinks instead of food from home-grown produce. You’ve perhaps never thought of making wine out of your much-treasured rhubarb – only crumbles or fruit fools. Blackcurrants are for pies and jam, but what about cordials or crème de cassis?’

This paragraph alone had the effect of setting several dozen pennies clattering loudly to the ground in my head. It was a revelation, and to be honest I felt pretty damn stupid.

I go to such trouble to grow my own, and the family’s food, so my kids can eat well and so I know where my food has come from. But whyever don’t I do the same for drink, too? We pour so much junky sugary squash down our throats, to say nothing of sulphite-packed wine and beer, without a second thought; but, and it took Susy’s book to point it out to me, there is another way.

Her brief introductory pages – the ones which try to talk about gardening when they should just avoid the subject, really – also include some much more useful advice on using preserved fruits and vegetables for making drink (sloes are better after freezing; and you can make wine from dried fruit, though Susy is less than enthusiastic about it). And there’s an extremely useful list of which drinks ingredients are in season when, so you can plan your cordials, ahem, accordingly.

On the whole, though, these opening chapters are padding: a lot of the tips given fall into the category of the bleedin’ obvious – I didn’t really need to be told that farmers’ markets are a good place to buy fresh produce, or that when you’re foraging you should wear long sleeves to avoid getting stung.

The book gets into its stride, though, when you reach the bit Susy is really interested in. From her ‘ten essential bits of kit’ to the list of extra ingredients you might need – some of them rather unusual: I’ve never heard of pectic enzyme – this is must-read stuff for the beginner drinks maker. Similarly she’s great on wine-making: fermenting, racking off, ageing wine – it’s all here. This is where Susy clearly feels most comfortable: when the recipes start, things get even better.

So far I’ve made just one: elderflower cordial, the recipe for which will be appearing on m’other blog in the next few days. It’s turned out wonderful, despite my initial scepticism about including limes in the mix. Next time I might play around with the quantities of sugar – we found it a little sweet, though that’s personal taste. But it was astonishingly easy, taking me just half an hour to brew a couple of litres, and one thing’s for sure: we’ll definitely be making it again.

Others I can’t wait to try: lavender lemonade, blackcurrant cordial, blackberry cordial and cherryade. Next year, when I’m feeling braver, I may turn alcoholic: mead, quince vodka, creme de cassis and raspberry gin are all high on the list: sloe gin is also here. There are wines, beers, teas, tisanes and infusions, too.

This is a book which has changed the way I use my kitchen garden – and that doesn’t happen very often. I can see it becoming much scribbled on (like all my favourite recipe books) and slightly sticky over the years. I’m looking forward to it.