‘Would you like a Rum & Shrub?’ Aunty Marjorie enquired. ‘A Rum & What?’ I said. ‘A Rum & Shrub’ ‘What’s a shrub?’ I asked. ‘A shrub is well….a shrub…a drink.’ ‘I’ve never heard of it. Is it a shrub and you add rum or is it an all in one?’ ‘It’s a shrub’ she said, looking at me for all the world like I was some hick from the other end of the world (which I was). That little conversation was played out in Anthony’s Aunt’s house in Plymouth in 2011. She was amazed that we had never heard of Rum & Shrub but was equally at a loss to explain what it was.
A small amount of research at the time turned up some information about the Rum & Shrub that Aunty M was familiar with. Produced by Phillips of Bristol, they are famous for their Old English alcoholic cordials originally produced as a medication such as lime to prevent scurvy, lovage to prevent rheumatism and shrub, a mixture of alcohol and juice to keep colds at bay. These types of alcoholic medicines have been around since the 15th century and grew in popularity due to the rise of smuggling. The pairing of rum and shrub goes back to the days when rum was smuggled by pirates into the coves of Cornwall. The shrub helped to disguise the flavour of sea water that had adulterated the rum in its barrels. These cordials are a Devonshire peculiarity, drunk almost exclusively in Devon and Cornwall and are still available today in flavours such as pink cloves, aniseed, white peppermint and of course, shrub.
Before we start, a few shrub (and preserving) basics
- Cleanliness is the key – make sure you wash your hands, the fruit and sterilise* jars, bottles, spoons etc before you start. Vinegar is high in acid and will kill most nasties but not all. It’s still a food item so treat it with the same respect you would treat other perishables.
- Two step processing – some shrub recipes mix the fruit, vinegar and sugar in all at the same time. By doing this as a two-step process, you can control the fruit flavour and colour in the first process and the sweetness in the second.
- If in doubt, throw it out – this is the same for any shop bought or home made preserve, jam or pickle. 99% of the time, the process is fine but every once in a while, something won’t seem quite right. The mixture will be cloudy, there will be strange bubbles or an odd smell. It may have been something in the fruit or perhaps a jar wasn’t as clean as you thought. Don’t risk it, just throw it away and have another go.
- Vinegar – it’s possible to use any vinegar but a lighter vinegar is preferable and make sure it’s decent quality (as you’re going to drink it). You can use white or wine vinegar or my preference is Cornwell’s Cider Vinegar. The vinegar needs to be above 5% acidity.
- Sugar – white or raw sugar is suitable
- Jars – there’s a fashion for serving drinks in Mason jars at present which makes them horribly expensive to actually use for preserving. You can pick up a large preserving jar with a hinged lid in the cheap shops for under $4 or, do as I did and re-cycle an old Moccona coffee jar. It does the job
- Bottles – there’s plenty of pretty bottles in the cheap shops too or, re-use an empty vinegar bottle or even a wine bottle with stelvin cap.
This flavour combination was borne of a desire to try my hand at shrub making with seasonal fruits (strawberries) and shrub trimming (rosemary). You can give other fruit such as peaches, plums or rhubarb a go. It is adapted from a recipe developed by Emily Ho on The Kitchn.
- 2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
- 1 piece of rosemary, 10cm long
- 500ml vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- Slice strawberries in half and place into a large, wide mouthed jar with the rosemary branch
- Heat the vinegar to just below boiling point and pour it on to the fruit in the jar, leaving approx 15cm of head space.
- Take a 30cm piece of baking paper and fold it into a square that is slightly wider than the mouth of the jar.
- Place the pad of paper in the jar, pushing down the fruit and tucking the corners of the paper into the jar. This will ensure the fruit remains submerged. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth and place the lid on firmly.
- Let the container cool undisturbed and store in a cool, dark place such as the cupboard or fridge.
- Allow to stand for at least 24 hrs and up to 4 weeks until the desired flavour and colour is achieved (I did 3 weeks)
- Strain the fruit out of the vinegar through a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Discard the rosemary and fruit or set aside the fruit for an addition to a salad or to make a chutney.
- Strain again if necessary until the remaining vinegar is bright and clear with no sign of cloudiness.
- Place vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring sugar to dissolve.
- Turn heat down to a rolling boil (or a bit less) and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Pour into a clean, sterilised bottle and cap tightly.
- Store the shrub syrup in the fridge. Tightly sealed, it may last up to 6 months. Discard if it has any sign of mould, bubbles or cloudiness.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of shrub syrup in a glass with still or sparkling water. Add more syrup if desired. The taste is tangy and sweet. After your first curious sip, you’ll come back for a second as the flavours dance across your taste buds.
Shrub Update – May 2014
Since writing the original post, I have gone on to make several shrub flavours including Cherry & Lemon Thyme and, Rhubarb & Blood Orange (using the skin of the orange). These have all been popular but you will need some more sugar in the Rhubarb shrub as it can be a little tart even for my tastes. The first batch (the one in this post) was consumed in one night at a backyard party where it was combined with vodka and soda water. I barely got a look in!
In writing this post, I did quite a lot of research on shrubs. Whilst you have to sift past the early search engine returns about trees and plants, there is some information around. I have listed some references if you would like to read more about shrubs or, as I discovered they are also called – switchels. An interesting read.
This is fast and easy so don’t skip it, just do it! Wash glass containers and implements in hot, soapy water and rinse. Submerge in a pot of warm water, bring to the boil for 5 minutes and turn off. Place containers on a tea towel lined tray in a warm oven (120c) to dry off. Remove from oven, place on a tea towel on the bench and allow to cool. Lids can be washed in soapy water and then scalded with boiling water and let them dry. Don’t put them in the oven if they have plastic or vinyl on the insides.
It’s also possible to sterilise jars and bottles by running them through the hottest dishwasher and drying cycle. Or, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and then place damp jars in the microwave and heat for 1 minute.