There is an old countryside saying that an English summer lasts from the day the elder tree flowers until the day its berries are ripe. Vagaries of proverb and weather forecasting aside, once these clouds of cream flowers appear in woods and gardens across the country come May, there’s hope in the air that summer can’t be far away. The squat, bushy elder tree is a bountiful and versatile find for foragers. The berries can be cooked up in chutneys and jams, and have been thought to help ward off colds when made into wine (wishful thinking, perhaps). But it’s the delicate starbursts of blossom that are best-loved, especially in cordial and fizzy wine. Pick the flower heads, or umbels, on a sunny day and choose younger ones with lots of pollen that face the sun for maximum flavour. Once picked, place them in a basket (plastic will cause them to wilt), and never wash them – just shake gently to remove any little bugs. Once you have your bounty of blooms you’ll be ready to brew up a batch of cordial. The day-long process of steeping elderflowers for cordial will fill up your house with an intoxicating perfume. Once you’ve bottled your nectar, store it in a cool, dark place and it should last you through the season. You’ll have an instant passport to cool drinks for lazy, sunny afternoons and a fantastic base for the following ices, cakes and fruity puddings.
An invention of high genius, this cordial can be used for drinks or in baking. Try freezing equal parts cordial and water in ice-cube trays to plonk into a gin and tonic. You can also add a splash of this cordial to sparkling wine such as prosecco. Many elderflower cordial recipes call for citric acid, which you can buy online, however this one uses lemon juice instead.
Makes 1.5 litres
• 20 elderflower heads
• 1.5kg caster sugar
• 2 lemons, quartered
• 2 oranges, quartered
1. Gently shake the flowers to get rid of any little creatures. Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the sugar and return to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes, until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat.
2. Place the lemon and orange quarters in a large bowl or clean bucket with the elderflowers. Pour over the warm syrup, cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to steep for 24 hours.
3. The next day, strain the cordial through a sieve lined with muslin or a new kitchen cloth and pour into sterilised bottles. Fix the lids on tightly and store in a cool place until you fancy a drop. Mix 1 part cordial to about 4 parts water, or to taste.
Pistachio, yoghurt & elderflower cake
• 250g butter
• 250g sugar
• 150g pistachios, roughly chopped, plus extra, to decorate
• 100g ground almonds
• 200g polenta
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 2 tbsp Greek-style yoghurt
• 3 eggs
• Zest and juice of 1 lemon
• 150ml elderflower cordial
• 2–3 tbsp runny honey
• Lemon juice, to taste
• 200g Greek-style yoghurt
• 3 tbsp icing sugar
• 2 tbsp elderflower syrup
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Grease and line the base and sides of a 20cm spring-form cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the pistachios, almonds, polenta, baking powder and yoghurt and mix well. Crack in the eggs, one by one, and mix in. Add the lemon zest and juice, stir to combine and pour the mixture into the cake tin. Bake for 45–50 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin.
2. For the syrup, place the cordial and honey in a saucepan over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes till thickened. Taste and add a squeeze of lemon juice, if necessary. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the syrup for the icing. Make a few holes in the warm cake with a skewer then gently pour the remaining syrup over the cake. Leave the cake to cool a little in the tin then turn out onto a wire rack.
3. For the icing, mix the yoghurt, icing sugar and syrup until smooth. Spread over the cooled cake and top with a handful of chopped pistachios.
Supernova elderflower champagne
Left to its own devices, the natural yeast in elderflowers will bubble and fizz into elderflower champagne in a couple of weeks. Brilliant! The amount of yeast in elderflowers will depend on when in the season they are picked, and whether the sun has been shining. You can add a helping pinch of dried yeast if your flowers are a little lacklustre. Sturdy glass bottles with a hinge top or thick plastic screw-top bottles are a must to prevent corks popping early and explosions. You will also need a very clean 8-litre bucket or basin for fermenting, plus a large piece of muslin or a clean thin tea towel.
Makes about 8 litres
• 30 elderflower heads
• Grated zest and juice of 6 lemons
• 1.1kg sugar
• 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
• A pinch of dried yeast
1. Gently shake the elderflower heads to get rid if any bits or bugs. Place the lemon zest and juice in the bucket with the sugar and vinegar. Add 4 litres of hot water, stir the sugar to dissolve, then add 4 litres of cold water. Cover with muslin or a clothe and leave in a warm place for 24 hours to ferment.
2. After 24 hours, check to see if the fermentation process has started. If it has, there will be some bubbles on the surface. If there aren’t, add a tiny pinch of yeast. Leave the mixture, covered with muslin, for another 48 hours.
3. Strain through the muslin into a clean jug, then pour into sterilised bottles and fix the lids tightly. Leave in a cool place for at least 2 weeks before sampling. It’ll be best if you can wait as long as a month, after which it can be chilled. Your elderflower bubbles should keep like this for up to a year.
Recipes by Anna Jones. Photography by Sam Stowell. Click here to save 35% on a subscription to Jamie, wherever you are in the world.