The elderflowers have been out for a couple of weeks now, which means you’ve only really got a two to three more weeks max to make all of your elderflower syrups, fizzes, shrubs and ‘champagnes’ before they all drop off and begin turning into berries. Here’s a classic elderflower cordial/syrup recipe. It’s a really nice process and is about as easy as they come.
In the UK, in the season, you can’t walk two blocks without walking past an elderflower tree. There are a couple of basic tricks for identifying them correctly. 1. They’re a tree (even though some are ‘bush’ size, so the thicker branches have a sort of mid/dark brown bark. 2. The leaves aren’t very glossy and have a jagged, serrated edge. 3. The flowers grow in clusters (as pictured) and the little flowers themselves have five petals each, always white. 4. The smell. Elderflower has an unmistakeable, intoxicating aroma. It’s sweet, floral and a bit musty… Some people say it smells a bit like cat piss, but don’t let that put you off.
There are other thoughts about elder. They say the best time to pick the flowers is in the early morning of a dry, warm day. I assume this is to do with retaining as much of the aroma as possible, before the rain can wash it away, or before the heat can dissipate it. Another thing is that while the flowers and berries are completely edible and safe to use, the stalks and branches are a bit poisonous, so when dealing with the bounties of your foraging excursion, it’s best to cut off most of the stalks and throw them away. Wash your hands after handling too. Also, if you can, pick your flowers from trees that are away from roads to avoid them being riddled with pollution.
The cordial/syrup itself is dead easy to make. This is the basic version, based on a recipe that Diana Henry uses, but which is probably very similar to to a number of ancient recipes for the same thing. The product will last in the fridge usually for a few weeks and can also be frozen either in plastic bottles (remember to leave headroom for when the liquid expands in the freezing process) or in ice cube form… The citric acid in the recipe both adds a nice citrusey tang to the drink and also helps give the liquid a longer shelf life… you could always leave it out and use more lemon juice if you’d prefer.
We chose this recipe because allowing the liquid to come up to a boil and then cool off a bit before adding the flowers will prevent the heat of boiling from destroying the delicate aroma compounds that you’re trying to capture. Some recipes boil the flowers but in our opinion, this method isn’t as good.
Makes nearly 5L. Prep: As long as it takes you to find flowers. Cooking: 30 mins.
50 heads of fresh elderflowers
3kg of granulated sugar (you could use white or demerara but white will yield a nicer colour)
6 large unwaxed (or very well washed) lemons
150g citric acid
Put your 3kg of sugar and 3L of water into a large saucepan and bring up to a boil. Stir it regularly to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the hear and leave for 5 mins to cool slightly, then stir in your citric acid until it’s dissolved.
Cut the zest from your lemons with a peeler or sharp knife. Don’t use a zester as we want to strain this out later. Slice your zest-less lemons into slices.
Cut as much stalk from your flowers as possible and discard.
Put your flowers, lemon, zest into a large clean/sterile jar and then pour all of the hot sugary liquid on top. Cover and leave for 24 hours.
Strain the liquid through a cheese cloth (or tea-towel) lined sieve into a large jug. Pour into warm, sterilised bottles, seal and refrigerate. You can also do this whole process without the elderflowers and with a whole lot more lemon juice for a really nice fresh lemon cordial.
We also did a variation that steeped juniper berries in the liquid, but found that after 24 hours they didn’t make much difference, however this is an idea that could be explored further. Play with it, try adding other things. Herbs, fruit… you can’t really go too far wrong.