It’s the start of summer and right now the hedgerows are bursting forth with a cloud of aromatic white stars. Yes – it’s elderflower season again! We have an elder which has crept up in our back garden and our local lanes have a few too so I thought that this year I really ought to make the most of this gift of a crop and cook up some elderflower concoctions.
Having established that most elderflower recipes seem to require around 20-25 heads of elderflower, Roo and I set off to the field with a bag and a pair of scissors. The elders flower fairly high up – too high for a toddler to reach, so Roo held the bag for me whilst I snipped.
If you are picking your own elderflower then be careful to get the right plant. Once you know what they are, elderflower are pretty easy to identify. If you are at all unsure though, do double check with a proper guide or expert. To get you started though, here are a few pointers to check you have the right plant:
- Elders tend to grow in recently disturbed ground so you may find them in hedgerows, garden edge, wasteland etc. They grow on branches but are actually more akin to a large hedgerow shrub than a proper tree – if the plant you think is an elder has a recognisable thick trunk its probably not an elder!
- The leaves of the elder are pointed and have slightly serrated edges. They are found in clusters of 5 or 7 leaflets.
- Elderflower are tiny, star like flowers held in large clusters of flat-headed flowers separated by delicate branches. They flower in early summer.
- The pollen is a creamy yellow colour and is very sweet smelling. If you know what elderflower tastes and smells like then it is hard to mistake the elderflower growing wild. If what you are picking doesn’t smell strongly then the chances are it’s the wrong plant.
What to do with elderflower?
We did well – between our garden and the fields Roo and I came back with a haul of around 50 heads of elderflower – enough for all sorts of exciting elderflower recipes! We of course left plenty of flowers on the elder – important for pollinators as well as for converting into berries aka wild bird snacks for the autumn and winter.
Back in the kitchen we weighed up our options. My Mum had recently told me about making elderflower fritters – something I’d seen in a magazine once too. The idea is you make a very light batter and then just dunk the cleaned elderflower in it and lightly fry, finishing by dusting with icing sugar. I’ve not tried this yet but it sounds good.
You can also use the elderflower to flavour sugars, candy the elderflower themselves to use as cake decorations, make sorbet, tea, flavour cakes and all sorts of other recipes.
We decided to start simply with the traditional mainstays of elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne. The champagne is a work in progress and a bit of an experiment. I’m following the Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall recipe and the comments make quite clear the potential for danger and disaster when this homebrew is bottled too soon and it continues to ferment too quickly. An excess of pressure building up in bottles can result not in elderflower champagne but rather elderflower bombs – less funny if you are making it in glass bottles or value a clean house. To avoid this eventuality I have invested in plastic bottles and a hydrometer – the theory being that by waiting for the fermentation process to slow down a bit before decanting my brew into bottle I might avoid catastrophe. The elderflower champagne is also merrily brewing in the shed! I do not trust my homebrewing skills just yet!
The elderflower cordial on the other hand is already made and bottled. We have sampled it and it is absolutely delicious. Even Roo drained a full glass and asked for more. Of course some of this was the novelty of having helped pick the elderflowers and make the cordial. More proof that getting kids involved in growing and cooking food can educate and enthuse!
I used a bit of a combination recipe for my cordial in the end but it is largely based on the BBC Good Food recipe. This recipe makes 3 litres + of cordial – loads given you only need a tiny bit to flavour a glass of water. You can use the elderflower cordial to make sorbet (omit the citric acid), flavour cake mixture or icing, add to white and sparkling wines or just drizzled on some ice-cream, fruit or the top of a pavlova.
The cordial can be kept for several months once made. If you want to keep it longer then freeze it.
A tip for mums: those left-over breast-milk storage bags are particularly handy for storing frozen cordial (!) Old but clean muslins will also come in handy for straining your elderflower cordial before bottling! Who’d have thought!
Elderflower Cordial Recipe
25-30 elderflower heads ( I used 25 but reckon one or two more would have improved it)
2.2 kilos of sugar – caster, granulated or both
50g citric acid (ask your local pharmacy for this one. You can choose not to use it, but your cordial will not keep, so fine without if you plan to use it straight away).
1 1/2 litres of water
- Pick elderflower and be ready to use them as soon as possible after picking (within an hour or two). They don’t keep very well.
- Place water and sugar in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Make sure there is plenty of room spare above the water line.
- Gently heat the water until the sugar has completely dissolved, stirring as you go.
- Once all sugar has melted, bring to a light boil then remove from the heat.
- Peel zest off lemon using a peeler and then slice remaining lemon into thick rounds. Place in pan.
- Plunge the elderflower into a bowl or sink of cold water and leave for a minute to let any bugs float off.
- Trim stalks off elderflower and drop flower heads into the pan.
- Add citric acid and stir mixture gently.
- Leave to infuse overnight – ideally for a full 24 hours or so.
- Stick a clean muslin (at last another use for them!) in the bottom of a sieve or use a jam strainer and pour the mixture through it into a jug. Decant into sterile bottles using the jug and a funnel, making sure they are airtight for storage. You can sterilise glass bottles by washing with warm soapy water and drying on a low heat in the oven, or if you have a reliable drying function on your dishwasher, stick them on full cycle and it will do the whole job for you.
- Pour a large glass of elderflower, sit back and relax – it’s summer!
Have you got a favourite elderflower recipe? Please share any favourites – I’ve got buckets of elderflower still in the garden so am looking for more things to try!