It is that glorious time of the year when lots of delicious produce is in season. In the garden broad beans, the last of the asparagus, courgettes, the very first tomatoes (if you can grow them under glass); and in the hedgerow you will find nettles, dock, sorrel, mallow, and many other delicious treats. It is also your shortish window for the elderflower.
The elder has been used and revered for centuries. It has provided stakes, shelter, medicine, fuel and food to animals and man since prehistoric times. There is a lot of folklore and superstition around the elder, and in some places people would leave offerings for the Elder Mother before they picked from the tree.
In early summer, hedgerows froth with white elder flowers at hedge height, and moon daisies at their feet. It is a time of great potential, and great recipes. Although, it is also important to remember that the potential of this tree is not just about summer, but that there are also good things to be had at all stages of fruiting, as well as the berries being a valuable food supply for many bird species, who will be laying down reserves for the coming winter.
Luckily, the elder is ubiquitous in most parts of Europe, and they seed themselves easily, even in places where there is no tradition of a hedgerow (such as the Netherlands). As long as you don’t take all of the blooms from a single tree or shrub, there will be plenty left throughout mid-May to mid-June to allow for your own use of elderberries and for the birds, as well as allowing the tree to reproduce.
This year, I have also learned some other tricks from wise women on Twitter about uses for this wonderful tree. Cally from Country Gate mentioned that elder leaves make a good pesticide against aphids. I have been plagued by them this year, seemingly more so than in previous years. She says to simmer 500 g of elder leaves in 3.5 l of water (use an old saucepan if you can for this), and replace any water lost as steam. Strain, and bottle. This concoction should keep for 3 months, and is great for aphids.
Liz from Forage also mentioned that the buds of elderflowers are delicious in salads and omelettes, and lend a smoky flavour to a dish. I picked a couple of elderflower brackets in bud to test this, and they are really very good in an omelette aux fines herbes. Although it is probably a little late in the year to get the buds now, I am definitely going to play a little more with this next year.
When picking the flowers, try to go in the morning, on a sunny day, when the pollen levels will be at their highest. Try to pick fresh, white brackets with no brown patches or blemishes, as these have the best taste. Elderflowers will keep for a couple of days, but they start to go brown quickly, and will deposit pollen and nectar, which is essential for the flavour, so it is best to try to use them on the day that they are picked.
This is my recipe for elderflower cordial. I originally cut it from a reader’s letter to the Guardian, years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have that cutting anymore, so I don’t know the name of the person who sent it in. As you will see, the recipe is basically based around the number four, so once you get the amounts, then you will understand why I have misplaced the clipping.
Elderflower cordial is a great way to preserve the delicate taste of summer, and is the basis of many things, from refreshing drinks and summery cocktails, to use with other fruits and in many desserts.
I’m going to be writing about some of my elderflower cordial recipes in the coming months, but I’d really love to hear how you use it in your recipes, in the the comments.
Recipe: Elderflower Cordial
40 elderflower bracts
4 pints boiling water
4 lb (1.8 kg) sugar
2 lemons, sliced
4 tsp citric acid.
I often only have raw cane sugar in the house, which makes the cordial slightly darker than you may be used to – it still tastes delicious, but most people use white sugar.
You can get citric acid from home-brew shops and possibly the chemist (in the UK). If you cannot find citric acid, then add the juice of another lemon. If you use this method, I would recommend freezing the cordial once bottled, to make sure that your cordial does not go mouldy.
Steep the blooms in the boiling water in a large, non-corrosive container.
Add the sugar, lemons and citric acid, and stir until the sugar has all dissolved.
Cover with a tea towel, and leave in a place that you will walk past daily. Leave for four days at room temperature, stirring well twice a day.
Sterilise some bottles, and a funnel. You can use new ones, or old oil, vodka or screw-top wine bottles will also be fine. I find that bottles are much less likely to get thoroughly clean in a dish washer, so I clean mine by hand with a long bottle brush, then I sterilise them with campden tablets, which are also available from home-brew suppliers. This recipe makes a little over 4 l, so you will need an appropriate number, plus one for luck.
Strain the elderflower through muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.
This should keep for up to a year. Once it is opened, store the bottle in the fridge.
Then pour yourself a nice tall glass of diluted cordial, add mint and some ice, and think about what recipes you could use the cordial in.