The Elder Fairy
When the days have grown in length,
When the sun has greater power,
Shining in his noonday strength;
When the Elder Tree’s in flower;
When each shady kind of place
By the stream and up the lane,
Shows its mass of creamy lace—
Summer’s really come again!
Cicely Mary Barker
This time of year I love to get out into the countryside and forage ingredients to add to my store cupboard. One of the easiest trees to identify is the Elder (Sambucus nigra) which is very common throughout the UK. From late May to mid-July (depending on where you live in the UK) look out for their spectacular blossoms identified by their creamy-white flowers hung in flat-topped clusters. Although they produce thousands of tiny off-white flowerlets clustered into distinctive ‘heads’, the aromatic elderflower season is generally short. They are usually found in woodland, scrub, hedgerows and on wasteland. If you find a tree on someones land it is important to make sure you have asked for permission to pick them first!
Armed with a pair of scissors, I usually go picking the creamy-coloured sprays of highly scented flowers in the evening, especially after a sunny day when the flowers are freshly bloomed and apparently when the natural yeasts are stronger helping to make champagne an easier/quicker process.
I avoid picking any blossoms that have begun to go brown as they can have an off-putting bitter taste. Before putting them in my basket I give them a gentle shake or tap to dislodge any bugs and hitchhikers that may be on board.
As they need to be used as soon as possible after picking (if left too long they can develop an odour resembling cat pee!) I make sure I have everything ready, including time for following my chosen recipe as soon as I get home.
Once home again I give them another shake to remove any insects and rinse briefly in cold water before using. They can be used fresh as flavouring for cordial, wine, tea, liqueur, syrup, jelly and deserts. You can also dip the flowers into a light batter and fry them to make elderflower fritters.
My favourite use of the flowers has to be the aromatic Elderflower Cordial as it has such a stunning, summery flavour.
It is also such a giving drink as it can be used in so many ways. From serving it with sparkling water for a refreshing drink or adding to sparkling wine or champagne for a delicious cocktail, it conjures up memories of long , hot summer days lazing in the garden ; or quenching a thirst at the end of a days gardening or hiking.
Additionally you can also add a splash or two, undiluted, to fruit salads or anything with gooseberries or dilute one part cordial to two parts water for fragrant ice lollies or drizzle over lemon sorbet. It can liven up any recipe using cream especially trifles, pavlovas and Eton mess, just add to cream with a sprinkling of icing sugar and voila!
So that I can make use of Elderflowers throughout the year I like to dry and store them. Using a dehydrator preserves the aroma, flavor, and medicinal qualities of the flowers until I am ready to use them to make made into teas and infusions, flavour cooked fruit, jams, jellies, ices and form the basis of elderflower fritters. I find that dry flowers can be used as a substitute for fresh flowers in most recipes.
How to make elderflower cordial without citric acid
- 1 litre (2 pints) elderflowers
- Lemon zest
- Granulated sugar
- Gather enough elderflower sprays to fill a 1 litre (2 pint) measure when lightly packed
- Shake the flowers to make sure there are no insects hiding inside, but don’t wash them as this can spoil the flavour
- Cover the elderflowers with water. Add lemon zest (as little or as much as you like). Simmer for 30 minutes. Top up the pan if necessary, to keep the liquid covering the flowers
- Strain the flower infused liquid through muslin or tea towel, gently squeezing it to extract all the juice. Measure the amount of juice
- Add 350g (12 oz) granulated sugar, and the juice of half a lemon, to each 500ml (1 pint) of liquid. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a gentle simmer and skim off any scum. Let the cordial cool
- Pour the liquid through a funnel into clean, sterilised bottles, up to about 1cm below the top. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks
- Once bottled, the cordial will keep for several weeks in the fridge