Birch Sap, Beer and Brewing.

 “No poem was ever written by a drinker of water!”
Homer, Greek epic poet, (Eighth Century BC)

About 20 years ago I stumbled upon a book. I say stumbled,  I didn’t actually step on it and go head over tit into a bush or anything resembling a shrubby growth. No, It just kind of revealed itself to me. It must have been a gift or belonged to a relative and had simply found it’s way into my possession. My passion for music and sport were evident by the amount of books covering these topics in my bookcase, but this book was nothing to do with Football, cricket, rugby, Depeche Mode or anything akin to the structure of music. No,  this book was on the subject of wine and beer. In fact it was a glorious compendium of recipes for the amateur enthusiast to try at home.

The title of the book was ‘Making Your Own Wine & Beer’ And was written by Judith Irwin. The thing I liked about this book and still do in fact, is it’s simple step by step instruction on every aspect of home wine and beer production. The recipes now seem to be almost too simple by comparison with the many other books I’ve read on the subject, but 20 years ago, I found they worked perfectly and the results were always satisfying at least and very relaxing at best.



Below is a link to some more books that are a great source of recipes and instruction for any home wine and beer maker:

The 1st brew I made was not actually from ‘Making Your Own Wine & Beer’ but rather, a simple lager made from a beer kit. Looking back and thinking about that lager, it is safe to say if you choose to use a beer kit only ever buy the absolute best, the cheaper ones tend to be very bland and a waste of time.

A beer kit usually consists of a tin of malt syrup or 2 which is produced by extracting malt sugars via the process of osmosis. Basically, mashing barley malt in water for up to 3 hours. Although this method is basic, the temperature of the water is critical, too high a temperature can destroy the delicate enzymes contained within the malted barley.
The water temperature is a steady 66c throughout  and is maintained by sensitive thermometers. After the malt sugars are liberated, the wort ( as the sugary pre-alcoholic liquid is know) is strained from the barley malt then boiled with a selection of hops for up to 2 hour. Next the hops are removed and the wort is hard boiled for as long as it takes to remove  almost all the water thus leaving behind a sweet aromatic syrup the colour and viscosity of molasses. Please note that the malt syrup supplied with cheaper beer kits will also contain a percentage of white sugar that is purely for the purpose of achieving an acceptable alcohol content, and does nothing for the body and flavour of the beer.

In addition to this thick syrup the beer kit contains a sachet of yeast of varying quality, (the more you spend on your kit, the better quality yeast and indeed syrup you will find in your kitchen.)


A very good Muntons Beer Kit

The basic idea with all beer kits is to eliminate the initial stages of malt extraction and in doing so allow easy access to the fundamental substances needed to create beer.

Please visit Muntons website for more in depth product analysis.


In reality, all the home brewer is doing when using a beer kit is rehydrating malt syrup with boiling water. The procedure is as follows; 1st pour the syrup in to a 5 gallon (22.5 litre) fermentation bin, simply a large plastic bucket.  Please note – the syrup is aided in it’s journey from tin to bin by firstly sitting it in a bowl of very hot water for 30 minutes. When the syrup is evenly distributed over the base of the sterile bin, 2-3 pints ( 1-1.5 litres
) of boiling water are poured on top, stirred around with a plastic paddle and then topped up with enough cold water to reach the 40 pint (22.5 litres) mark on the fermentation bin.

Next, using a thermometer check the temperature of the wort. When the temperature is between 22c – 24c  the yeast can be apportioned  to the wort. Some yeast as to be started  first by stirring it into a little warm water and some is simply sprinkled on to the surface of the wort. All yeast is supplied with instructions so nothing can go wrong.

Next a period of fermentation is needed to allow the yeast to convert the malt sugars into two separate products, one is alcohol and the other, carbon dioxide. This initial fermentation takes up to 7 days according to most beer kits but in reality it is best to allow only 3 days at the primary stage and then transfer the wort to a secondary fermentation bin. The reason for this is simple. During the initial stages of fermentation a thick sediment of yeast cells will fall to the bottom of the fermentation bin and when left for too long the wort can suffer what is known has ‘yeast bite,’ basically a tainting  is caused by the yeast leaving a poor yeasty flavour in the finished beer.

To finish these beers off it is necessary to transfer them to a sterile container with a minimum capacity of 40 pints (22.5 litres) such as a fermentation bin. The beer at this stage will still be cloudy and should be cleared using either a propriety finings solution or a simple and very cheap technique using powdered gelatine, the kind you will find in the bakery section of any store. If you choose the finings solution simply follow the supplied instructions. If, however you choose the cheap and cheerful option of the gelatine then follow these instruction below for perfectly clear beer every time!

1- Fill a 1 pint ( 0.5 litres ) jug with hot water and add 1 sachet of gelatine.

2- Sit the jug inside a saucepan of simmering water and stir until the gelatine dissolves.

3- stir the gelatine solution into theBeer and leave to clear over night.

 Finally, the beer, once cleared can be bottle or placed into a pressure barrel. Whichever method you choose, you will have to apportion a little sugar to the beer to achieve what is known has ‘charge’  Specifically; this is secondary carbonation.
 These beer kits are a good introduction to brewing at home but I now only ever brew using the basic raw ingredients, such as malted barley, roasted barley, crystal malt, hops, yeast and water. Literally dozens of other adjuncts can  be found in good home brew stores and I advise anyone who is interested, to experiment with basic recipes, in doing so tailoring beers to their own palette.
Classic books
 One of the best books I have seen on this subject is one written by Dave Line, entitled ‘Brewing Beers like those you buy.’ This book contains  107 beer recipes that Dave created after extensive research involving, amongst many other things, traveling the length and breadth of the country visiting professional breweries.
dave line
 With patience, perseverance and no doubt a voluminous amount of cheek, he was able to glean enough information from the pros to allow him to adapt recipes and techniques at home, thus enabling him (and Me) to create some truly outstanding beers.
  It’s worth noting that many of the recipes contained in this book are over 40 years old and better techniques and ingredients have since been developed to bring these beers up to date, however some of the recipes are such eternal classics that they should never be overlooked.
  •  Below is the recipe for my personal favourite from ‘Brewing Beers like those you buy’


 Royal oak
Eldridge Pope Brewery Dorchester
7lb crushed pale malt
14oz flaked barley
8oz crushed crystal malt
3 gallons of water (Burton water crystals added)
1tsp Irish moss
12oz soft brown sugar
2oz Fuggles hops
1.75 onz Goldings hops
1 sachet of saf-ale Yeast
1 sachet of gelatine.
 Before I give the method for brewing this beer I would like to put down a brief list of the essential equipment needed. Much equipment can be improvised but good standard  brewing gear is the best way forward
1 – 5 gallon Mash tun with large heating element and thermostat
2 – large Grain bag
3 – Thermometer
4 – Primary fermenting bin with tap
5 – Secondary fermenting bin with tap
6 – Plastic paddle
7 – Hydrometer & trial jar
8 – 40 Dark, reusable beer bottles or a 5 gallon pressure barrel


grain bag

A Grain Bag suspended over a steel Mash Tun.

mash tun

Mashing Tun with Thermostatically controlled element


Secondary Fermenting Bin

primary fermentor

Primary Fermenting Bin

  • Starting specific gravity 1048
  • Finished Specific gravity 1012

Alcohol 4.9%

Add the 3 gallons of water to the Mash Tun and raise the temperature to 60c, place the grains into the grain bag and lower into the Mash Tun so all the grains are under water.  Raise the water temperature to 66c and stir well, now, allow the grain to mash ( steep) for 1.5 hours at 66c. Stirring occasionally.

  • Lift the grain bag up above the surface of the water and suspend ( I use clothes pegs )  Next rinse the grains with water that is little hotter than the wort in the Mash Tun. continue to rinse (sparge) the grains until the level of the wort in the Mash Tun is 4 gallons.
  • Remove the Grain Bag and discard the grains.
  • Raise the temperature of the Wort to boiling point and add Fuggles Hops and 1oz of Goldings Hops. Boil the Wort for 1.5 hours during which time the brown sugar needs to be added and the Irish Moss apportioned according to the manufactures instructions. The Irish moss creates what is known has a ‘Hot Break’ this means the Proteins are coagulated and in effect separated from the wort, this allows for fast clearing of the liquid. Irish moss is actually a form of seaweed and is better known has ‘Copper Finings’; it can also be found in powdered form…
  • Switch off the heat and add 0.5 oz of Golding hops and allow them to soak for 15 minutes.
  • Strain the wort into the primary fermenting bin and top up to 5 gallons with cold previously boiled water
  • Allow the temperature of the wort to drop to between 22c- 24c then apportion the yeast according to the manufacturers instruction. Ferment the  wort until a specific gravity of 1012 is achieved.
  • Rack (decant) the wort into the secondary fermenter and apportion the gelatine (using the method outlined a li
  • ttle earlier)  and the remaining Goldings hops. The Hops should be contained inside a muslin bag, ( this technique is known as ‘Dry Hopping’. )
  • After 7 days of fermentation the wort should be racked into either bottles or a pressure barrel. Each bottle should be primed with 0.5tsp of white sugar to create a slight secondary carbonation or if choosing the pressure barrel, 3onz of white sugar should be dissolved in a little hot water then poured in to the empty barrel.
  • Place the bottles or barrel at room temperature for 3 days to encourage carbonation then move to a cool area for a minimum of 6 weeks.

This beer, has I have said is my favourite to brew and drink, as testament to that, one of my least forthcoming friends once said “I would happily pay for your home brewed version in any pub!”

Mother Nature and Her ample bounty

Returning to ‘Making your own Wine and Beer‘ the book written by Judith Irwin that I alluded to at the top of this blog, I would like to share with you what I think is the most wonderful, free, well kind of free, white wine you will ever taste, namely Birch Sap wine.

 During the middle two weeks of March between the 10th – 24th Birch sap is rising in trees up and down the country. Of course further north we travel the sap may take a little longer to rise by comparison with southern climes. However it will become available in all areas at some point in march.

Again I would like to give a list of equipment needed for not only collecting Birch Sap but also that which is needed to turn it into wine.

1 – 2 ….. 2 litre plastic bottles with caps (Drill a 10mm hole in each cap)

2 – 2 lengths of flexible tubing, 10mm diameter and approximately 20 inches long

3 – Roll of strong sellotape

4 –  10mm diameter wood drill bit

5 –  Cordless drill

6 – Penknife

7 – 2……..10mm diameter wooden dowels

8 – Hammer

9 – 1 Demijohn

10 – 1 large capacity saucepan ( Minimum 1 gallon)

11 – 2 Gallon fermenting bin

12 – Nylon sieve

13 –  Thermometer

14 – Hydrometer and trial jar

15- Plastic Funnel

Any experienced wine maker will most likely be able to adapt these specific equipment requirements, this is only my own personal method. Feel free to devise your own way of working and  decide on the items you need.

A wander in the woods

Ok, lets collect some Birch Sap. Firstly locate a few trees that are off the beaten track, as many people, especially children like to investigate things they see in the woods, and a little tamper is usually the least they intend. Choose trees with a good diameter a minimum of 12 inches is a good starting point a little larger is preferable.

Using the penknife make a small incision into the bark of the tree and wait a moment, if the sap is rising you will see it begin to run out and trickle down the bark. If nothing is produced within 30 seconds try another tree or wait a few days before trying again.


A small incision with the knife will show you all you need to know

Once you have confirmed that the sap is rising and flowing nicely you can position one of the bottles securely on the ground. Lean the bottle against the tree and secure it with some of the strong sellotape. Next insert one end of the flexible tubing into the hole in the cap of the bottle. Next make a hole in and through the bark using the drill and drill bit, make this hole about 1.5 inches deep at a slight upwards angle


Drilling a 10mm hole in a Birch Tree

the hole should be approximately 25 – 30 inches above the ground. Insert the free end of the flexible tubing into hole in the tree and wait until the sap starts to drip into the bottle.

Repeat this process on a second tree.

Return to collect the bottles in 24 hours and with the grace and cooperation of mother nature you should have at least 3 litres of sap, if she hasn’t be to generous you can tap two more trees whilst your already collected bounty can be stored in the fridge.

Birch Sap does unfortunately deteriorate quickly, so it is imperative that you collect your requirements within 2 days.

Once you have secured your Sap you must close the holes in the trees you have tapped. Do this by simply inserting the wooden dowels into each of the holes you drilled. A few sharp tap with the hammer is all that’s needed.

Recipe & Method


Making your own wine and beer’ by Judith Irwin

5 pints of Birch Sap

1 pint of Grape concentrate

1.5lbs of white sugar

1tsp citric acid

Sachet of Sherry Yeast.

Start by boiling 1 pint of water and dissolving the sugar into it. Once cooled this sugar solution can be poured into the sterile 2 gallon fermentation bin.

Next pour the Sap into the saucepan and bring it to a boil. There is no need to continue to boil the sap as will already be sterile at this temperature.

Pour the sterile sap into the fermenter, stir well with the plastic paddle and then place the thermometer into the liquid. Leave to cool to 22c – 24c and then add the Grape concentrate, citric acid and yeast. Although the original recipe excludes Yeast energiser I would strongly urge you to use it. Yeast energiser has the name might suggest gives a great boost to the yeast in the initial stages of fermentation and allows for a much longer life for the active Yeast.

  • Before the fermentation gets underway it is a good idea to take a sample of the wine  and using the Hydrometer and trial jar ascertain the sugar content, thus allowing for an accurate assessment of the final alcohol by volume. If,  for example the starting gravity of the wine is 1100 and the finished Gravity is 1000 by dividing the difference,  in this case 100 points of gravity by 7.36 we can safely say the finished wine will have a alcohol content of 13.5%. Ideally, a dry white wine should be around 11% so a starting gravity of 1080 is desirable. Of course, this method is also applied when brewing beers.

Allow 7 days primary fermentation. Stirring daily will oxygenate the sap, in doing so the yeast gets a further agitation and benefits greatly.

Next, using the plastic funnel transfer (Rack) the sap into the sterile Demijohn, being careful to leave any thick sedimentary sludge behind in the primary fermenting bin.


Cloudy Birch Sap wine

Leave the Wine to ferment until the Specific Gravity drops to 1000. This could take up to 6 weeks depending on storage conditions, so it is preferable to store this and indeed all fermenting wine at room temperature; 22c – 24c

Once fermentation is complete the standard bottling procedure as for all wines should be followed.

This wine requires a minimum of 12 months maturation so if you do fancy having ago at making it, you will have to be high on patience. ( I struggle to leave it that long)………

To finish off, I would like to say, for all the experienced home wine and beer enthusiasts these recipes and techniques will be, I’m sure, more than familiar to you. I would hope that those who enjoy a tipple but whom have yet to attempt to make their own particular favourite would be persuaded to have a go! It really is a great, fun and a worthy hobby.



  •   Below are a few links that would be interesting to peruse for those willing to get brewing, these companies should be able to provide you with all your equipment needs.

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Foul Fungi and Flavourful Feasts

Recently I was involved in a conversation with a friend who had collected several Fungi in Her local woods. The pit falls of such endeavours have been well documented and unless you are 100% certain about the edibility Continue reading

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To Rise at dawn.

Although this site is primarily to promote My ideas on food and it’s influences on our culture, I do want to include some of my other interests, I have many that I feel are worthy of sharing.

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Romano – Britain! A culinary view!

When Julius Caesar landed on the shores of Britannia in 55Bc He didn’t just bring masses of roman legions with him, he also brought commodities and foods that the ancient inhabitants of that small island had never imagined before.

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Wild food! – A journey of discovery!

15 Years ago I stumbled upon a little know London chef who would go onto make some of my favourite TV programmes and write critically acclaimed, voluminous books that would change many people’s conceptions of not only cooking, but the food industry in general. It was a Sunday afternoon of nondescript televised drivel that had me endlessly flicking from one station to the next like a child at the pick and mix. such options paralysis can never lead to any good in my opinion, however via this infuriating method I happened upon a scruffy looking middle class urchin!

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“Pigs Trotter Pierre Koffmann” – In pursuit of an iconic dish!

 Pierre Koffmann is a legendary French Chef who came to the Uk in 1970. He came, with the sole intention of attending the England – France game at Twickenham, then, He planned to travel the Uk  before returning to France. He never went home!

 Shortly after arriving, Koffmann met Michel and Albert Roux who persuaded Him to join them atgavroch

 “La Gavroche”  in Mayfair London. He stayed there until in 1972 before the Roux Brothers convinced Him to move to their new restaurant “The Waterfront” in Bray Berkshire.

 Koffmann was quickly elevated to 1st head chef at ” The Waterfront ” were He also met Manageress Annie whom He later married. ( that French Accent, Mmmm )  It was at “The Waterfront ” that Koffmann began experimenting with Pigs Trotters and the various ways they could be prepared, from simply simmering in a mirepoix ( chopped vegetables) too much more elaborate concoctions that we will admire later.

 In 1977 Koffmann branched out and decided to open His own Restaurant ” La Tante Clare ” in Chelsea. It’s here He worked with Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsey, Tom Kitchin and Marco Pierre White. It was at this establishment that Marco Pierre White (MPW) began to forge a keen fascination with His own career. Koffmann Had always had a tempestuous relationship with MPW but respected him immensely has a great innovative chef!  (MPW) arrived in london from Leeds has a 16 year old with a yearning for knowledge but an attitude of a god like prima donna.


Marco Pierre White

It is the work of MPW that inspires me more than any other Chef. He is the quintessential ” Enfant terrible” He would smoke in His kitchen, personally evict pretentious diners and vehemently conclude that His views were unequivocally correct! He once charged a customer £20 for a portion of hand cut chips. A legend was born!

 It was whilst Late night perusing of YouTube ( white wine in hand) that I first saw MPW in His kitchen, the Kitchen of His first restaurant, ” Harveys” on the edge of wandsworth common London.  It was here that He won His 3 Michelin stars aged 33, at the time the youngest in the world and also the first British Chef to receive the accolade. Massimiliano Alajmo is now the holder of the title of youngest chef (28) to be awarded with 3 Michelin stars.

 In 1988 Marco made a television programme named ” Take 5 Chefs” in which he was challenged to cook his favourite meals for the 4 leading chefs in Britain. He cooked for Nico Ladenis, Raymond Blanc, Albert Roux and Pierre Koffmann.

 It was his preparation of The pigs Trotter dish, served to Raymond Blanc that grabbed My attention, watching him gracefully deal with such an unglamorous piece of bone, sinew and skin was almost poetic.


The Dish

My attempts to recreate “Pigs Trotter Pierre Koffmann” have been both numerous and frustrating, the list of ingredients is intimidating and expensive, but, whenever my pocket is swelled by cash from a little overtime at work I track down and purchase the required items and prepare to spend 6 hours in the kitchen.

The ingredients (serves 6)

6 Pigs Trotters (back legs only)

1 tbsp oil

2 carrots peeled and cubed

1 onion cubed

250mls dry white wine

1 large sprig of thyme

1/2 bay leaf

salt and pepper

For the  filling

40g  dried morels

650g lambs sweetbreads ( not testicles don’t worry) testicles are called Fry’s

1/2 onion diced

300mls chicken mousse

oil for frying ( simple oil is best) has olive oil loses its flavour when used for frying!!

For the  Sauce

2 chicken legs

100g mushrooms sliced

100g shallots chopped

1/2 head of garlic sliced across to halve each clove

1 sprig of thyme

1/2 bay leaf

1 1/2 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 1/2 tbsp cognac

400ml madeira

800mls chicken stock (home made)

4 dried morels

lemon juice to taste

few drops of cream

knob of butter

oil for frying

for the garnish

A few morels chopped

72 small button onions

mashed potato

Time to make the dish

Tracking down all the ingredients was at times very frustrating. The trotters have to be intact as the flesh contracts when cooked and the filling simply oozes out, rather like a sausage that bursts when fried at too high a temperature. The Sweetbreads had to be ordered from a butcher in Aberdeen and with the delivery charge cost a small fortune. The butcher I used was John Davidson  I highly recommend John Davidson’s butchers as the produce I received was outstanding. The morels are  very expensive as they cannot be cultivated so are only hand-picked when in season, the 40g-50g required for this dish cost me £9 from Sainsbury’s world food section, alas they don’t stock them now….

My first attempts at this dish were abject failures but now I have the method down to a tee.

Firstly the trotters need to be soaked in several changes of cold water, this cleans and also tenderizes the flesh, next they are singed with a blow torch to remove the small hairs that abound, then the tricky bit. The trotters need to be de-boned, this requires a sharp pointed knife and a steady strong hand, and is best done without a hangover from Friday night on the lash…….!. when the bone as been removed the trotter can be set aside. Trying to explain the de-boning procedure is quite pointless as it needs to be observed. Youtube has many examples of the method employed. This link  shows Pierre Koffmann himself removing the bone from a trotter.

Now, in a large casserole fry the Celery, carrot and onion for 10 minutes and then add the wine, stock, thyme,  bay leaf and seasoning. When the stock and wine are simmering the trotters are added. next we place a tight fitting lid on the casserole and cook for 3 hours at 150c.


Not My hand nor indeed Me!

Whilst the trotters are simmering soak the sweetbreads in cold water for 2 hours. When soaked remove them and plunge them into boiling salted water for 10 minutes, pat them dry and fry them in very hot oil so the surface of the meat is caramelised, remove and allow to cool. Soak the dried Morels for 30 minutes in cold water then drain them. slice the morels into 1/2 inch strips and gently fry until coloured, again, allow these to cool. Now gently fry the onions and set aside when translucent, allow to cool.

Chicken Mousse (makes 450g)

200g chicken breast

pinch of mace

1 tbsp. chopped fresh Tarragon

1 large egg

 2tsp salt

225mls double cream

Place the chicken into a food processor and process for 1 minute then add the mace, tarragon ,egg and salt and process again for 1 minute. Next slowly add the cream in a thin stream to avoid splitting. Refrigerate the mousse for at least 1 hour.

Now, combine the Sweetbreads, fried onions and morels with the chicken mousse and set aside until the Trotters are cooked.

Once the Trotters are cooked gently lift them from the casserole and carefully place them onto a wire rack to cool. At this point the Trotters will be oak brown and meltingly tender.

When the Trotters are cool they can be stuffed with the pre-prepared stuffing of chicken Mousse, onions, morels and sweetbreads. After filling the trotters are placed on buttered tin foil and tightly wrapped and refridgerated for 2 hours or overnight.

 The Sauce

Has with so many French dishes this sauce is a rich dark gravy of the most subtle exquisiteness. Start by frying the chicken legs until deeply coloured and then add the mushrooms and shallots, continue to fry for 3 minutes. Now deglaze with the Sherry vinegar, cognac and Madeira.

Note: Deglazing means to add alcoholic liquid to a pan were it is boiled until reduced and the flavours of the pan are lifted into the liquid.

Next add the Chicken stock, morels, bay leaf, garlic and thyme. Cover with a tight fitting lid and simmer for 20 minutes. Next strain the sauce through a fine muslin cloth 3 times to remove all solids. Place the sauce into a clean sauce pan and reduce by boiling until thickened, season and add a few drops of cream and lemon juice (tasting all the time) until you have a balanced sauce.

The trotter now needs to be re-heated. This is done by simply poaching in simmering water for 20 minutes. In the meantime the sauce should be kept warm over a gentle heat and some mashed potato can be prepared. Mashed potato is mashed potato, I wont get pretentious about this just make it how you like it.

The assembly

Gently fry the Button onions for 5 minutes and then add the morels that were used in the sauce.Unwrap the trotters and sit in the top half of 6 warmed plates. pile the mashed potato onto the bottom half of the plate and spoon the sauce over the trotters. Place the button onions in piles either side of the plate and  spoon the sauce over the trotters. finally garnish the trotters with the warmed morels.


The above image is directly from Marco Pierre White’s first book

“White Heat”

“This is my favourite dish.If it had been a painting it would hang in the Tate .It’s simple and Earthy, but also elegant and intelligent. You can’t take it any further.It’s a complete meal. It’s not a recipe for talking about; It’s a meal to be eaten”

Marco Pierre White…

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