Depending on where in the UK you live, the elderflower season runs from late May to early July. The parent plant, elder, or ‘Sambucus nigra’ is common everywhere except the far north of Scotland, frequenting hedgerows, waste ground and woodland fringes.
It’s a scruffy-looking, multi-stemmed affair, scarcely tall enough to count as a proper tree, but rather too lanky for a shrub.
ELDERFLOWER’S COLOURFUL HISTORY
As Richard Mabey points out in his superlative book Flora Britannica, this is a plant of contradictions. The flat-topped sprays of creamy white flowers have a heady fragrance; distinctly musky and sweet. The young leaves, by contrast, smell pretty bad. It’s one of the few seedlings that rabbits seem to have no interest in nibbling, and bunches of foliage were once tied to the harnesses of working horses to ward off flies.
The mature wood is hard and suitable for carving, but younger stems have soft pith at the centre, which can easily be pushed out. In simpler times, children fashioned them into peashooters and whistles. They were also blown through to aid fire lighting.
The culinary uses are many and varied, and in my experience, never less than delicious. Elderflower cordial is probably the best known, since it is made commercially and is available year-round. It’s also easy to make yourself at home – check out the recipe by Georgina Hayden below.
I’d also recommend elderflower fritters. Try making this super easy tempura batter to deep-fry the heads for a gorgeous dessert, served with lemon and a little sugar. Sorbet is another winner. Simply make this lemon sorbet and add four tablespoons of elderflower cordial for a refreshing twist. Elderflower and gooseberries make a wonderful pairing of flavours and this jam is an excellent choice to layer on a piece of toast or hand out as edible gifts.
My own particular favourite is elderflower champagne. For a very modest outlay – a fermenting bin and pressure barrel – plus a mere tenner’s worth of ingredients, you can make 40 pints of very palatable beer-strength sparkling booze in only a week.
Whatever you decide to make, the process of gathering the flower heads is the same. Choose a dry sunny day, sever the stalks carefully with scissors and keep the flowers upright so that pollen, the source of much of that unique flavour and fragrance, will not be lost. Place carefully in a bag and have a good pick through at home to remove any bugs rather than washing them. Trim as much stalk off as you can before use.
Purple-leaved garden cultivars of elder exist that bear pink-tinged flowers (Jamie’s garden has three such plants). My project this year is to try to make rosé versions of the above!
HOMEMADE ELDERFLOWER CORDIAL
15 heads of elderflower
500g caster sugar
4 tablespoons quality runny honey
2 unwaxed lemons
1. Wash the elderflower well, picking off any bugs.
2. Place the sugar and honey in a large saucepan with 1 litre of water. Gently bring to the boil, until all the sugar has dissolved, then remove from the heat.
3. Finely grate in the lemon zest and add the elderflower upside down, making sure the flowers are completely submerged.
4. Squeeze in the juice from one of the lemons, then slice the other and add it to the pan, too. Pop the lid on and leave to one side to infuse for 24 hours.
5. When you’re ready to strain your cordial, line a fine sieve with muslin over a large bowl (if you don’t have muslin, you can use good quality kitchen towel) and pour through the cordial.
6. Store in sterilised bottles or jars and drink diluted with water, soda or Prosecco.
Recipe by Georgina Hayden