food · recipes · Seasonal

How To Make Elderberry Cordial – Foraging Recipe

Last year, while I was on maternity leave, I really enjoyed going foraging in the late summer and autumn, and making some fun new recipes. I thought I should share this recipe for elderberry cordial, which I made around this time last year, and which proved a real hit in our household over the winter! It’s just the right time of year to start foraging for lovely ripe elderberries in the UK, and with this super-easy recipe, you can turn them into a delicious elderberry cordial which is a perfect soothing winter drink for colds and flu season.

How To Make Elderberry Cordial – Recipe

First, catch your elderberries

Elderberries are freaking everywhere at this time of year! You may even discover that they grow in your own garden. Wherever you live in the UK, you’re likely to have an elder tree not far away, and each tree is usually laden with loads of lovely black berries in season. Check out this great guide on foraging for elderberries, which will help you identify the berries if you’re not confident you can correctly identify them. Then go out and pick your berries!

I pick elderberries by the bunch, and then use a fork to push the berries off the stems and into a bowl. You only want the ripe berries – the black ones. Alternatively, you can freeze the berries, which makes them easier to remove. It’s important to get rid of all the big stems because they are poisonous. Then, rinse the berries in water.

Get your ingredients together

You’ll need the following ingredients and kitchen tools to make your elderberry cordial!

  • 500g elderberries
  • 500ml water
  • 350g sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • Cinammon stick

And on the kitchen equipment front…

  • Saucepan
  • Spoon
  • Muslin cloth
  • Colander
  • Jug or large bowl
  • Bottle for storage (sterilised)

Get cooking

1. In a saucepan, add your elderberries, water, cinnamon stick and the rind of the lemon (save the juice for later!). Simmer over a low heat for half an hour.

2. Now comes the fun part! Line the colander with the muslin cloth, and place it over your jug or bowl. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the muslin – carefully because the juice will stain (and it’s hot). Squash down the berries with a spoon to get as much juice as possible out of them.

3. You’re not finished yet with your muslin! Roll the top of the muslin together (see picture, below) and continue squeezing to wring every last drop of juice out of your elderberries.

Make sure you don’t do this until the berries are cool enough to touch, and you may want to wear gloves because it does get messy!

4. Pour the strained elderberry juice back into the saucepan and add the sugar and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

5. Heat over a low heat, stirring regularly, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened slightly. As a rough guide, it should be thick enough to briefly coat the back of a metal spoon. At this point you can also check the flavour (carefully – it’s hot!) and add more sugar if you want.

6. Pour your cordial into a sterilised bottle (here’s a quick guide to sterilising bottles) and seal. Let it cool, then store in the fridge.

How to serve elderberry cordial

You can serve elderberry cordial in so many different ways! The basic recipe is to serve it diluted in water, about one part cordial to six parts water. I recommend making a hot elderberry cordial for colds, sore throats, and whatever else ails you!

If you feel like getting a bit more fancy, you can make elderberry fizz cocktails by adding the cordial to prosecco or champagne. Or you could spice up a gin and tonic with a dash of elderberry.

Elderberry Cordial Facts

What does elderberry cordial taste like?

Okay, if you’ve never tasted it before, then to be honest it’s hard to know whether it’s worth bothering making it at all! I have loved having this in the fridge over the winter, I think it’s delicious and definitely worth the effort. First things first, though: elderberry cordial tastes nothing like elderflower cordial. They’re completely different flavours.

I would say elderberry cordial tastes like a slightly more herbal/medicinal Ribena. If you’ve never had Ribena? Then I don’t know how to describe it. But it’s really warming and lovely on a sore throat, or if you have a head cold.

Is elderberry cordial good for you?

Is elderberry cordial good for you? Well, it’s a traditional remedy for colds and coughs. Elderberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants – you can even buy elderberry supplements that promise to boost your immune system.

But is there any actual evidence that elderberry cordial is good for colds and flu? Well, a few small-scale studies have shown that people taking elderberry products experienced a reduction in cold and flu symptoms compared to placebo. But they’re only small studies and the effects of elderberry have not been tested against pharmaceuticals. So it’s probably best to just enjoy the yummy soothing nature of a glass of hot elderberry cordial when you have a cold or flu, but don’t assume it’s an actual treatment.

Can you buy elderberry cordial?

The lazy option is clearly to buy elderberry cordial – but unlike elderflower cordial, which is popular and widely available, elderberry cordial is a bit trickier to get hold of. There are products available, often labelled as elderberry syrup or elderberry liquid. But the ones I’ve found are super expensive! We’re talking £9.99 for 100ml. Considering you can make four times that at home for the price of half a bag of sugar, it did seem a little pricey.

Other foraging recipes

If you’ve enjoyed this foraging recipe, or you’re looking for something a little more boozy, why not check out my recipe for hawthorn berry gin?

health · mental health · top tips

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

I’ve never been a massive fan of blood tests, and my opinion of them hasn’t exactly improved with much closer acquaintance. And trust me, diagnosing a TSH-secreting pituitary adenoma involves a very close acquaintance with the phlebotomists (a.k.a. vampires, a.k.a. people who draw blood for testing) of your local hospital. People are weird, so there’s probably at least a couple of oddballs out there who positively enjoy having their blood drawn, but I am not one of them. In fact, needle phobia is really common – affecting perhaps one in ten people. So how do you manage blood test anxiety if you have a condition that requires lots of blood tests?

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

Try to understand your anxiety and symptoms

It may be helpful to consider if there is any particular source of your blood test anxiety or needle phobia – for instance, an upsetting experience as a child, or a fear of fainting, feeling sick, or the pain of the needle. Or it could be associated with the sight of blood, which many people can find to be a trigger for anxiety, a more general fear of medical procedures or hospitals – or even having a parent or caregiver as a child who exhibited anxiety about any of these things. Understanding the triggers for your anxiety doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it can help you work out what parts of the blood test situation are a problem for you.

In terms of symptoms, anxiety tends to be linked to one of two things:

  • Often needle phobia or anxiety around blood tests is linked to feeling faint, or a fear of feeling faint. Fainting can occur as a result of a drop in blood pressure.
  • Otherwise, it may be linked to physical symptoms of stress or panic, such as a racing heart, sweating and/or feeling nauseous.

Understand what to expect

It’s helpful to understand what to expect in your blood test appointment, and prepare yourself for it. The unknown is always scary. Probably the most important thing to keep reminding yourself is that blood tests usually don’t take more than a couple of minutes! So hopefully you shouldn’t have to manage your blood test anxiety for too long.

Usually, at the start of your appointment you will be asked to confirm some details about yourself. Then the phlebotomist will disinfect the skin where the needle will go (you usually get to pick which arm they’ll target!) and wrap a tourniquet around your upper arm, to make the veins stand out more. They may ask you to make a fist or pump your hand – again, to make the veins stand out. Then they’ll put the needle in – usually they’ll warn you just before it happens, and ideally you want to keep your arm relaxed. They may need to keep the needle in while swapping over blood collection tubes, if they need to do a number of tests.

When your phlebotomist removes the needle, they may ask you to press on the vein, to reduce bleeding, and they’ll probably offer a plaster or cotton wool and tape to cover the cut.

Follow some key steps before your appointment

Eat and drink beforehand (if allowed)

Some blood tests require fasting, so if that’s the case, make sure you follow the rules – but fast for the minimum time allowed. It’s really important to stay hydrated, because dehydration lowers your blood pressure, which makes drawing blood more difficult and makes it more likely that you may feel faint after your blood test.

If, like me, you’re also a bit inclined to end up with low blood sugar, then making sure you’ve had enough to eat or a sugary drink beforehand (if allowed) may also help, as low blood sugar can also make you feel faint.

Wrap up warm

It’s helpful to make sure you stay warm. When your body is cold, it causes the veins near the surface of your skin to shrink down, making it harder to draw your blood.

Plan something nice for afterwards

Try to give yourself something to look forward to after your appointment; something that you can focus on as a pleasant experience. It can be something small, like a nice coffee from the hospital canteen, or something bigger like a trip out or exciting dinner plans. Try to focus on this as something positive to look forward to, rather than focusing on the blood test appointment.

Key steps to manage blood test anxiety during your appointment

Talk to your phlebotomist about your blood test anxiety

Make sure you tell whoever’s taking your blood that you’re anxious about blood tests. There’s no need to be embarrassed; they will have seen hundreds of people with needle phobia before. They can help ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible, and distract you from what’s going on. They may also be able to make other accommodations, such as allowing you to lie down if you’re concerned about fainting, or allowing you to bring a friend or family member with you for moral support.

Similarly, if you have veins that are difficult to find, make sure you warn your phlebotomist.

Remember to breathe

So far, so obvious. If you’re anxious, you may find yourself unintentionally holding your breath while you wait for the needle to pinch you. But that won’t help – in fact, holding your breath interrupts the oxygenation of your blood and may make you more likely to faint.

Instead, try using relaxation breathing techniques to help you get through your blood test appointment. Slow, controlled breathing has been proven to affect the nervous system and brain activity, and to increase sensations of comfort and relaxation. So it’s definitely worth a try!

The NHS provides basic online guidance on breathing techniques for stress that are simple and easy to do. You can also easily find guidance and videos online via a quick search. Breathing exercises usually involve counting patterns of breath, which also works to distract your brain from what’s going on.

Don’t look!

Try not to look at the needle. These days, I’ve had so many blood tests that they don’t really bother me any more, but when I did find them more stressful, I always found that it was best not to look at my arm or what the phlebotomist was doing. In fact, the sight of the needle or of blood may actually set off the anxiety reaction (vasovagal syncope) that can cause you to faint – so it’s best avoided.

Instead, I would pick something else to look at – there are often posters or notices on hospital walls, so pick one and focus on that instead.

Distract yourself

Anxiety can increase when you focus on the source of your anxiety, so distracting yourself is a helpful way to manage blood test anxiety. You can try counting in your head, trying to remember or run through song lyrics, or chatting with the person who’s drawing your blood. You could even watch a video or listen to music on your phone during the blood test, to keep your mind off what’s going on.

Use the Applied Tension technique

If you tend to faint during blood tests, you can use something called the ‘Applied Tension Technique’ to help. This aims to help maintain blood pressure and prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to fainting (or just feeling faint), through undertaking some physical exercises. It’s a straightforward technique, which simply involves tensing the muscles in your body to increase your blood pressure. You can read more about this technique and how to use it here.

Consider professional help

If your blood test anxiety or needle phobia is very severe, it can interfere with your medical treatment if it results in you avoiding blood tests. If the steps outlined above don’t help you manage your blood test anxiety, consider whether it could be helpful to seek professional help. You should be able to find a therapist who can help you address your anxiety over time.

Your suggestions to manage blood test anxiety

Have you suffered from needle phobia or blood test anxiety? How did you learn to manage your fears and get through blood tests? Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments!

health · mental health · tea

Tea For Mental Health And Wellbeing

It’s no secret that I love tea. I have a regular tea review feature on my instagram page, and occasionally tea reviews make their way onto this blog as well. I probably drink too many cups of tea a day, and that only escalated while I was on maternity leave – probably partly due to a need for caffeine thanks to being up all night with Little Man, and partly as a reaction to being forced onto the decaff stuff while I was pregnant. I’ve always found tea drinking to be soothing, and I have a range of different teas at home. But can drinking tea actually be good for your mental health?

tea for mental health and wellbeing beneficial a look at the science behind tea drinking and mindfulness

Tea For Mental Health

In the UK, at least, we tend to brew up a cuppa as an automatic response to any stressful situation. It’s a stereotype that’s also kind of true – we drink 50 billion cups of tea a year, and one in ten of us drinks six or more cups per day. That’s a lot of tea. So is all that tea working to help us deal with stress – or are we just drinking for the flavour?

What does the science say?

Before we look at the science around tea and mental health, we need to first consider: what is tea? Technically, “tea” is a beverage prepared using the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant – this includes teas such as black tea, green tea, and matcha. If your tea isn’t made from camellia sinensis leaves, then it’s really a herbal tea a.k.a. a tisane or infusion. Different types of tea will have different chemical properties, making that their effect on mental health will not be directly comparable. So in looking at research on tea and mental health, we first have to understand what “tea” the researchers were actually using for their work…

Studies on the effects of drinking tea on mental health

Researchers have found that drinking camellia sinensis tea lowers the stress hormone cortisol. And that’s not all: drinking half a cup of green tea a day also seems to lower the risk of depression and dementia – one study in Korea found that people who habitually drank green tea were 21% less likely to develop depression over their lifetime, compared to non-drinkers. That is a protective effect equivalent to undertaking 2.5 hours of exercise a week – not bad for a cuppa you can enjoy while sat on your sofa.

Similarly, studies in Japan and China also found green tea drinking to be associated with a lower risk of depression. And it’s not just green tea – other studies have shown that camomile tea (a herbal tea or tisane) may also have an antidepressent effect.

The small print

However, it should be noted that, while there is evidence that regularly drinking some teas can help improve mood in healthy populations, there’s not yet any evidence that it can help people who are already suffering from mental illness. And, of course, the studies discussed above only look at two types of tea – green tea and camomile – out of the huge variety of different teas and tisanes that you can buy. So it’s a little premature to reach a conclusion about the benefits of tea drinking…

Additionally, the studies that have been done don’t necessarily tell us where this protective effect is coming from. Is there a chemical (or chemicals) in tea which reduces our risk of depression – or could it actually be more complicated than that?

Tea Drinking and Mindfulness

Some researchers have suggested that some of the physical and mental health benefits from tea could actually be related to the act of preparing tea, rather than the ingredients within the drink itself.

Tea preparation as a form of mindfulness

The rituals of making and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, to your body, your sensations and what’s happening around you. It is recommended by the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a recognised way to treat depression. You can read more about mindfulness here. Preparing and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness, because it involves taking time out of your day, stopping whatever you’re doing to focus on preparing your tea, engaging your body in making the tea and enjoying the smells and flavours that go with it.

Tea preparation rituals around the world

In fact, all around the globe, many cultures have developed formal practices around the making and drinking of tea, which reflect this meditative and ritualistic aspect to tea preparation.

In parts of East Asia, the ritual of making tea has been elevated into the tea ceremony, a ceremonial way of preparing and presenting tea – perhaps the most famous form of tea preparation ritual. In Morocco, mint tea is traditionally prepared for visitors to the home and three glasses are served, each representing a different aspect of life (check out my recipe for fresh mint tea here). Russia has its zavarka tradition; Argentina its mate culture; and of course here in the UK we have the traditional afternoon tea, where the cakes and sandwiches are arguably as important (or even more important?) than the tea itself. It’s interesting that so many different cultures across the world have all developed these distinct rituals around preparing and serving tea.

How to create your own tea ritual for mindfulness

The simple process of taking time out of your day to prepare and enjoy a cup of tea is really a ritual in itself. But if you’re specifically looking to practice mindfulness for your mental health, you can consider creating your own tea ritual for mindfulness and wellbeing. It can be easier to bring elements of mindfulness to an every day activity like making tea, compared to finding the time to meditate or undertake other more formal mindfulness rituals.

The key element of any mindfulness practice is to really pay attention to what you’re doing and the physical experience you’re undergoing. So as you’re preparing your tea, consider:

  • What sounds are you hearing? For instance – a boiling kettle, the clink of a teaspoon, the gurgling as you pour hot water into a cup.
  • What do you see? How does the liquid change colour as the hot water and/or milk is added to the cup?
  • What else can you sense? The warmth of the cup in your hands, the smell of the tea as it’s brewing, the taste of the tea when you start to drink.
  • How do you feel? As you sip your tea, can you take a few moments to consciously relax your body, take some deep breaths, and enjoy this time?

Top tips on creating your own tea drinking mindfulness ritual

If you’re looking for some more detailed guidance on how to create a mindfulness practice based around tea drinking, there are lots of great resources out there. I like this guide about how to be mindful with a cup of tea, and this guide to creating a slightly longer tea ritual, for when you have more time to spare.

Tea for Mental Health: A Summary

So, in summary – yes, tea drinking can indeed be good for your mental health. And frankly, that’s enough of an excuse to justify my next cuppa! But it’s not a magic cure that will leave you feeling better overnight… Things are rarely that simple. By incorporating mindfulness practice into the simple enjoyment of making a cup of tea, you may be able to take best advantage of the mental health benefits of drinking tea.

Your thoughts on tea and mental health

Do you practice mindfulness when drinking your morning cuppa? Do you feel that tea drinking has had mental health benefits for you? Or have you enjoyed experiencing tea culture around the globe? Please share your experiences in the comments, below!

afternoon tea · food · lifestyle · reviews · tea

Review: Peacocks Tea Room, Ely

Any frequent readers of this blog will know that I am a bit of a fanatic for all things tea-based. As well as reviewing actual tea blends, I’ve decided to also start writing the odd review of tea rooms, cafes and afternoon teas. And to that end, I’m starting with this review of Peacocks Tea Room, Ely – a traditional, family-run tearoom that was named as Country Living magazine’s favourite tearoom, and as one of The Times newspaper’s Top 5 Places To Have Tea. But does it live up to the tea-based hype? Read on to find out…

Review: Peacock’s Tea Room, Ely

Commitment to Tea Roomery

Peacocks is seriously committed to the serious business of being a tea room. Sure, there are plenty of tea rooms out there that serve a nice scone and a cuppa – maybe even a selection of herbal teas on the side, for the more adventurous types that have perhaps once been to Asia and do yoga on the weekends. But Peacocks would sneer at those types of tea rooms, and probably make disparaging comments about them on the tea room equivalent of WhatsApp. For it has a menu of over 70 different kinds of tea, from black teas and oolongs to green teas, white teas, and the enigmatically-named ‘world teas’ – in fact, they claim on their website to be the only tearoom in the world which offers tea from every continent (except Antarctica – fair enough, it’s not known for its tea-friendly climate).

I’ve no idea how you would verify such a claim, but it’s safe to say – Peacocks take their tea seriously, and offer four different kinds of afternoon tea to boot (Devonshire Cream Tea; Chocolate Dream Cream Tea; Special Afternoon Tea; and Peacock’s Pink Perfection, in case you were wondering).

If you’re still in any doubt about their commitment to tea, just step into the toilet, which – like the rest of the building – is decorated with tea memorabilia up to and including a full tea set, and where even the soap and hand lotion is tea-themed (white tea and neroli… it smelled great, just don’t ask me what a neroli is). Now that’s what I call a tea room bathroom.

Yes, there really is a tea set in the toilet

Peacocks Tea & Cake: The Verdict

As a lover of all things scone-shaped (mostly scones, some small rocks), of course I had to try one of their homemade scones with clotted Cornish cream and jam (blackcurrant, I felt rebellious that day). And to accompany it? A pot of Peacocks’ Good Plain Tea. Boring? Yes. But if you’re having any other kind of tea with your scones and cream, then frankly – you’re doing it wrong. And I say that as a die-hard fan of all kinds of herbal teas and tisanes (and also of Die Hard the film, incidentally). It’s classic English breakfast tea or bust, and god help anyone I see slurping on Earl Grey while eating a scone. Yes, even Earl Grey.

Anyway.

The tea was fabulous, the scone was delicious – and there was an adequate amount of clotted cream served alongside it, which is not always a guarantee. When my pot of tea ran out, a smiley lady offered to top it up with hot water; always a win in my book.

Channelling my inner Miss Marple

The tea set itself was cute and oldy-worldy enough to almost trick me into thinking I was in a Miss Marple mystery (well, okay – there was no mystery, but I was reading an Agatha Christie at the time and the setting was perfect). The Peacocks tea room building is similarly old-fashioned, draped in beautiful purple wisteria at the time of my visit, with charming antique furniture and decor that transports you to another time – and cries out for an unsolved poisoning or locked-room murder mystery. Unfortunately, when the waitress next appeared at my table, it was not with the news that the police needed assistance in investigating the inexplicable death of the cook, but to check that everything was okay with my tea. Very boring – although I imagine the cook was relieved.

The service was great, chilled and friendly, and they were clearly on top of the coronavirus rules, with well-spaced tables, face masks and a polite reminder to check in at the venue when you arrived. I was perched in a comfortable window seat, with views of what looks like a beautiful garden seating area as well; unfortunately, given the weather, I didn’t get the chance to explore their outdoor area.

Disability Access & Special Requirements

I was pleased to note that the tearoom’s website does include a disability access statement, and notes that the majority of the tearoom’s ground floor is accessible for wheelchair users and mobility scooters, and there is a toilet equipped for wheelchair users, which is always worth noting. However, it’s worth noting that there is no on-site parking, although there is a free car park perhaps a five minute walk away.

I normally include review notes on gluten-free options, thanks to my charming and gluten-intolerant husband but he didn’t accompany me on this visit to Peacocks so – I can’t! I did however note that gluten-free scones and sandwiches were on offer, and the chocolate fudge brownies were also gluten-free. Hopefully we will visit again soon and I can update this review with some more information on the gluten-free options available.

The Flip Side

I visited Peacocks on a random, rainy Friday in May. I had the day off work, Little Man was in nursery and my husband was working, so I decided to treat myself – and I was reasonably confident of getting a table, for once. Because Peacocks tea room is (unsurprisingly) really popular – it’s not uncommon to see queues snaking out of the quaint little gate into their courtyard and out onto the main road.

No queue in sight

So my main critique of the tea room, in fact, is simply this: they don’t take bookings. It seems surprising for such a popular tea room that there’s no ability to book at least some of the tables in advance. It’s the kind of place that I would pick for a birthday celebration – but frankly it’s so popular that, in peak season, unless it’s hammering it down with rain it really doesn’t seem worth travelling to the tea room to see if they might have space. Prior to my Friday treat, I hadn’t been there in almost two years, just because it doesn’t even occur to me to bother making the trip. The ability to book – even if it’s only for one or two tables – would really make a difference, especially for those of us who need to plan ahead if we don’t want to be wrangling a feisty toddler while trying to sip Darjeeling.