In the tops of the branches and twigs, there springeth sweet and crisped umbels, swelling with white sweet-smelling flowers (in June before St John’s Eve)…
– Dr Martin Blochwich, The Anatomy of Elder, 1670
Compared with most other thrifty activities, making things from elderflowers is the tops. From gathering the abundant, creamy-white, sweet-scented flower heads (preferably in mid-summer sunshine) to consuming the fruits of your labour, you don’t feel like you’re slumming it one bit. And all that’s needed to get started is a large bag of sugar, some lemons, a couple of old shopping bags and a brief walk. It couldn’t be simpler.
You can usually expect to find these frothy flower heads in your nearest hedgerow for a few short weeks between late May and early June in the UK. The end of the elderflower season, St John’s Eve (mentioned in the seventeenth century quotation above), falls on 23rd June. But our harsh spring set back this year’s blossoms; they have been spectacularly late, delayed by 3 or 4 weeks in our neck of the woods. Happily, there’s still time to nip out to your local park, wasteland or country lane and find an elder tree more than ready to share it’s bounty. Just add sugar, lemon and hot water and you’re all set to preserve the essence of summer for later enjoyment.
My 18-year-old son took a bike ride along our local canal at the weekend and brought back two shopping bags brimming with elderflowers. Luxuriating in post-A-level leisure, he proposed to make some elderflower sorbet and cordial (he really loves the sorbet – see recipe below) but it rapidly became a case of mum doing the making while the young people found better things to do. So this seemed like a golden opportunity to share an extended elderflower how-to with you.
Identifying and gathering your blossoms
Elder (Sambucus nigra) is more of a wayside shrub than a woodland tree. When happy on loamy soil (it doesn’t like sand) in sun or partial shade it can grow to twenty feet. But don’t worry: most elders are not as majestic as this so harvesting should be easy. A few tips:
Look out for the distinctive flat umbels of flowers; don’t get confused by other plants with parasols of white florets such as herbaceous perennials Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) or cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris).
If in doubt, sniff the flowers: a heady muscat aroma confirms that you’ve found the right one.
Pick on a dry day. Rain will knock off some of the scent-bearing yellow pollen.
Select flower heads carefully, ensuring that most of the florets are open; those on the outside of the head open first. Pass over those with any florets turning brown.
Snap off or cut the entire umbel. And if you don’t mind consuming a few tiny insects, you can munch elderflowers as soon as you’ve picked them; their instant edibility gave rise to the country name ‘slices of bread’.
To gather for later, pop them into a plastic bag (an old plastic shopping bag is ideal) bearing in mind that you’ll need 25 flower heads or so for a batch of cordial, and only 5 will be enough to make a tub of sorbet.
How so use your elderflowers
The lovely aroma of elderflowers is so strong that just popping the blossoms into hot water or hot syrup and leaving it to cool will infuse the liquid with their delicate scent.
Process your flowers as soon as you can, though they’ll be OK in a bag (tied at the top) for a day or so.
First, grab each flower head by the stalk and gently shake it to dislodge any insects. Don’t wash the flowers as you’ll lose the pollen which carries the scent.
To dry: lay the umbels flat on baking trays in a low oven. Or on a wire rack covered in a clean tea towel in a dry shady place. The time it’ll take for them to dry depends on factors such as local humidity, but we’re talking days to weeks. Once completely dry, store in a Kilner-style jar. They make a tea that’s celebrated for its cold-fighting properties.
To steep in hot water: if you have little time and want to start getting them processed as quickly as possibly for eventual use in cordials and sorbets, count/weigh out the amount of elderflowers you need (some recipes quote numbers of elderflower heads, others go by weight, but don’t get bogged down in too much precision) and place in a large bowl. Add some parings of lemon rind and just-boiled water to cover. Cover bowl with cling-film and set aside to cool completely: this will take several hours or overnight. Strain and refrigerate (covered) until ready to use. This method tends to yield a slightly brownish liquid; it tastes fine, but if you’re picky about your presentation, choose the hot syrup method (below) or add some citric acid or ascorbic acid to your elderflower mixture. You could freeze it at this stage, but otherwise make it into something else (which will likely involved adding sugar as a preservative) within a few days.
To steep in hot syrup: if you have a more time, make up a simple syrup with water and sugar (see method below for sorbet for suggested quantities) and pour it over your flower heads while it’s still hot. This is better than the boiled water method as it gives a much cleaner, more golden.
I love this delicious water ice. It makes a perfect palate cleanser or light dessert. It’s the first thing I feel the urge to make when elderflowers appear, and if you can dissuade the family from guzzling it straight away (which is unlikely) it keeps really well for months. Nothing beats pulling elderflower sorbet from your freezer when the days shorten and a nip is in the air; it’s the cheapest way to experience intoxicating summer in a chillier season without the help of a budget airline.
Refreshing elderflower sorbet
- 1 pint (600ml) water
- 8 0z (200g) granulated sugar
- 3 lemons
- 5 heads elderflower
Place elderflowers and the pared lemon rinds in a fairly large bowl.
Heat the sugar and water gently in a pan, stirring while the sugar dissolves. Then boil for 5 minutes to make a syrup. Pour this over the elderflower/lemon rind mixture. Cover with cling-film and leave to infuse for several hours or overnight.
Strain mixture, preferably through a muslin-lined sieve.
Add lemon juice to taste.
Pour into an ice-cream maker* and churn for half an hour. You may still have a slightly watery mix. Don’t worry. Just pour it into a plastic container and pop it in the freezer. Remove from the freezer 2o minutes before you want to serve it. Et voila!
Um, just another spoonful?
This should be enough to serve up to 6 people (or two very greedy ones).
Tomorrow: please join me for elderflower cordial!
*If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pop this into a plastic container the freezer and beat every half-hour or so, drawing the edges into the middle. Once the whole lot is frozen solid, process in a food processor or beat till light and soft. Turn into a new container and re-freeze.