There are a few projects in my life that tend to leave my friends and family scratching their heads in a bemused way, and thinking I'm slightly crazy. One such project is the wormery, of course (with the exception of my brother who is as crazy as I am). The other, is my raspberry cordial. I found this "recipe" tucked away in an article on the CNN site on something completely different (families with foreign relations? I don't remember really...). Anyway, the author threw out this intriguing bit: his or her Russian daughter-in-law made her own raspberry liqueur by simply layering equal weights of crushed raspberries and sugar in a large container, putting it in a dark cupboard with a loose lid to allow air to circulate and stirring every few days for a couple of months. I had to try it.
And it works! I've made it a few times now, and it makes a lovely raspberry cordial, suitable for gifts, adding to white or sparkling wine or drizzling over ice cream.
There are a few tips you need to bear in mind if you are going to try this at home:
Firstly, the air issue. As the raspberries break down, the sugar is transformed (don't ask me how, this is not a science class) into alcohol. One of the by-products of this (don't quote me) is oxygen. Or in any case, some kind of gas. Therefore it is imperative to leave an escape for the circulation of air. The second time I made the cordial, I bottled it too soon and fermentation was still taking place. Result: an explosion while we were at work and when we came home the raspberry juice seeping out of the cupboard made it look like we had a body hidden in there. How can you tell when it has finished fermenting? Well, as you stir it you'll notice bubbles rising to the top of the mixture. When you go to stir and discover there are no bubbles, this means you are getting to the end of the process. Wait another few weeks for good measure and then strain and bottle your cordial. If, when you open the bottle, you hear a "pop" noise (like opening a can of pop) you'll know you've bottled too soon. Just keep the bottle loosely closed for a while longer and test by closing it firmly for 24 hours before checking again for the "pop".
Keeping it clean. Before layering the raspberries and sugar in your container, rinse it out with boiling water. The first two times I made the cordial a tiny bit of mold appeared on the top of the mixture 24 hours after I started. I removed it with a spoon and it was fine afterwards. This time, I was much more clever and put a couple of inches of sugar on the top of the last layer of raspberries. Plain sugar on top, no air getting to the fruit: I think this should do the trick. You should also rinse the bottles you use for the finished product with boiling water before using them. This is alcohol after all, but it doesn't hurt to be careful.
Stirring. For the first week or two, stir with a long wooden spoon every couple of days. As time goes by the fermentation process slows down and you can make it less frequent, say once a week. You'll start to notice that there are fewer bubbles to stir out as you go; I figure if there are no bubbles there's no point in stirring, and wait longer for the next time. It helps to store the carafe in a cupboard you open regularly, but not necessarily every day!
Filtering. This is the only part of the process that is irksome. I've tried all kinds of suggestions for filtering and have yet to find anything that makes the process less messy and frustrating. The rest is so easy, though, you can put up with a little messiness in a good cause, right? Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth. Place it over a large bowl. Pour in the raspberry "sludge" and start pressing with the mix against the sides of the colander with a wooden spoon. To extract the maximum liquid, you really should use your hands. (Wash them first, of course!) You can do this with fresh cheesecloth two or three times to filter the maximum amount of raspberry from the sauce; it's up to you and your instinct for laziness. A warning: if you pick up the ends of the cheesecloth and bring them together and squeeze down on the "ball" of raspberry sludge, it will inevitably spill over the edges and make a mess everywhere. It seems like a good idea every time, and then doesn't work as well as you would expect. (By the way, wear dark clothes for this part of the process!) Also, do not bother trying to filter with paper towels or coffee filters: I've seen advice on using each, tried them and found they just aren't up to the force you need to push the liquid through. You might try the coffee filters once you have filtered several times with cheesecloth, but I'm not sure it'll be enough. I have also considered using the juicer on my food processor (which uses centrifugal force), but it holds so little alcohol I think it's probably not worth the mess it would inevitably make.
Going blind. This is the most common reaction I get to telling people about my hobby, some lame joke about going blind. Let's use a little common sense here: we are not using a bathtub still. At most, the cordial seems to get about half the alcoholic strength of a glass of wine. It's really just enough to ensure that the liquid doesn't go off and you don't have to refrigerate.
Storage. The cordial probably won't keep more than a year or two; we have never managed to keep our share for more than six months. I say "our share" simply because I usually fill a couple of small bottles to give away at Christmas time and save less than a liter for home consumption.
For more information on making fruit liqueurs and liquors, you can check out the web site of one Gunther Anderson. His liquors mostly seem to involve adding store-bought alcohol to fruit to make new flavours, but he has some good advice on storage and filtering. Not only that, but he has my recipe for Prunes with Armagnac, given to me by a French friend's mother (under my maiden name). So obviously he is a man of taste and discernment!
One last note: in France, sugar is commonly sold in 1 kg bags. Raspberries, it turns out, are also sold in 1 kg bags when you go to a frozen food store, such as Picard. Coincidence? Maybe, but it eliminates a lot of messy measuring when you are trying to get equal weights of each ingredient! (Also, buying enough fresh raspberries, even in season, can be so expensive as to make you prefer buying your raspberry liqueur ready-made from the liquor store.)
So hopefully you will not find this a crazy concept. I'll report back in a few months time with a photo of the finished product. Unfortunately, the really pretty carafe I chose initially would only accomadate about half the mix so I had to switch to the old water-filter carafe you see in the photo. When the top cracked, I kept it just in case and as you see found a good use for it. (Don't recycle, re-use!)
Ingredients (note the pretty carafe):
Layered raspberries and sugar (not very pretty as I had to transfer from carafe, note the sugar all over the counter):
Here you can see why a water carafe with a lid is ideal for this purpose: it covers the carafe well enough to keep dust out, but the pouring lip allows air to circulate.
So, hopefully I will encourage some more people out there in my own personal brand of madness. I think it absolutely irresistible to make my own alcohol. (Does this mean I should call AA?)