The scent of an elder tree or shrub, in full flower on a hot sunny afternoon, is one of the heady, intoxicating, unmistakeable aromas of high summer. This year the elders seem to be making up for last season’s poor showing – they’re simply smothered with elderflowers right now, dressed up from tip to toe in ivory flowers like a fairytale bride.
Last year, we really struggled to harvest the elderflowers I needed to make my traditional annual batch of elderflower cordial and champagne. I blogged at the time about the ritual of gathering my elderflowers, and what it means for me. Well, this year, the elderflowers are in abundance – what took several hours and a five mile walk last year, we achieved in ten minutes on a short length of our country lane on Sunday. That’s one of the things about foraging – it’s never ever the same!
I adore elderflower ‘champagne’. My grandmother used to make it, and it was my gateway to home brewing, I suppose! My favourite recipe is here, with full instructions. It’s a great and rewarding introduction to home brewing, so even if you’ve never tried to brew before, do consider giving it a whirl. It’s not as scary as it seems, I promise, and the result is a fun summer tipple, fantastic for bbqs and parties, and which costs very little.
Unfortunately for us, it’s really bad timing for starting a batch of elderflower champagne just now – but you most definitely should! Just be aware, it’s a lively beast, and I would under no circumstances advise trying to store it in glass bottles – even those tempting-looking pop top Grolsch-style ones. Just look what it did to the stout small plastic bottles I used last year! With a little luck there will still be enough flowers around that I can get a late batch on the go in a few weeks time! Otherwise – and this would be nothing short of a minor tragedy – we’ll have to go without this year!
But – thank goodness – I have found time to make my elderflower cordial, and it is steeping in the kitchen as I write – I’ve made it this way for a few years now (full instructions & photos blogged last year), and the results are always amazing. If you’re not a brewer, or don’t want to use campden (sulphite) to stabilise the cordial for storage at room temperature, how about freezing it in carefully washed out milk bottles or juice cartons?
And don’t neglect the lemon and orange slices from the cordial once it’s finished – they make really great marmalade!
Those of you who read the blog regularly know that I’m always up for trying something different! So, considering the success of the chive blossom vinegar, I’ve started an experimental batch of elderflower vinegar.
For this, I’ve stripped the elderflowers off their stems – I finally found a technique that works for me, which is closer to rubbing the flowers and stamens off the green stems than it is to picking off the tips, and gives flowers almost entirely without green material. Give the flower bunches a good sharp shake first, to dislodge any ‘passengers’ who might be hitching a ride.
You will probably find, despite this, there are some tiny little insects in amongst your flowers once you’ve picked them. Just ignore these (certainly don’t be tempted to wash the flowers as you’ll wash away much of the lovely flavour!). The vinegar will be filtered through fine muslin later, in any case, and if that still doesn’t reassure you, consider that you eat large numbers of insects and associated material every day already – just take a look at the US Food & Drug Administration’s pamphlet on allowable levels of insect and other contaminants in different foodstuffs if you don’t believe me!
I filled about half a 1 litre kilner jar with loose flowers, and then filled it up with cider vinegar. In retrospect, I may have used something with less aroma of its own, like rice wine vinegar, but cider vinegar was what I had, and hopefully the fruity note of the cider vinegar will complement the elderflowers beautifully. Put the filled jar somewhere warm to infuse – unlike the chive flower vinegar, there’s no need to keep it out of the light as there’s no problem with colour fading. I expect to leave it for a couple of weeks before straining and bottling.
This vinegar smells beautiful after only 24 hours, with a gorgeous fresh elderflower fragrance. So does the cordial, actually, so my kitchen is a sweetly-scented haven right now, and with my living room full of little posies of gorgeous sweet peas from the garden, the house smells nicer than a perfumery!
So, if you do nothing else this week, seize the opportunity to capture – even if just in a small batch of cordial or vinegar – one of the ephemeral scents and flavours of high summer. During the long dark winter months, it’s amazing what a taste and smell of elderflower can do to lift my spirits!
And of course, with elderflowers so abundant this year, we can only hope for a great elderberry season to come!
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