Elderflowers – folklore, uses and recipes

Elderflowers are wonderful and quite underused nowadays. Their lovely frothy, creamy white flowers can be seen everywhere during June/July. If you decide to go and pick a few choose a lovely sunny day – elderflowers picked on a damp or rainy day will taste bitter and in some cases will develop a mould if you’re using them to make champagne. They love the sun as much as we do and on a sunny day will taste sweet and smell of Muscat grapes.

I was always told that when the elder is in full flower summer has arrived and it ends when the berries are ripe. Maybe now that we only have a week of summer, it isn’t as true as it seemed when I was a child!

I was also taught that you should give a respectful nod to the Elder as you walked past and when you understand why it has always been held in such high esteem, you can see why it commands such respect – not only for its usefulness, but also its musky fragrance. It was believed that if you fell asleep under an elder tree when in flower, you’d never wake up as its scent was so intoxicating! It was used for a great many things apart from the uses we still know about (flowers and berries) – musical instruments were made from it’s wood, as the central part of the stems contain a woolly substance that is easy to push out and so leaves you with a perfect pipe. No small boy would have been without his Elder Pea Shooter! The leaves if bruised don’t smell very nice and because of this they were bruised and put around delicate or precious plants to deter mice and prevent insect invasion. They are also said to ward off midges and biting insects and so people used to rub the leaves on their skin to prevent them from being bitten. It’s leaves and roots were used as dye. The fungus that traditionally grows on Elder is called Jew’s Ear or Jelly Ear Fungus – it has the shape and texture of a human ear! It’s perfectly edible, but is more popular in China than in Europe but was used centuries ago as a medicine. It seems such a shame that we’ve forgotten about nearly all of Elder’s uses.

Jew’s Ear fungus or Jelly Ear as it’s called now
A basket full of elderflowers

Elderflowers can be eaten straight from the bush – the pollen that collects on them is sweet, while the flowers themselves are tart like grape skin. A lovely combination. They’re beautiful when sprinkled over deserts or green salads and add an extra dimension.

There are lots of things that you can do with the flowers. I wanted to make some elderflower cordial and some very easy elderflower vinegar.

Elderflower Vinegar

Elderflower vinegar is especially lovely to use in the winter – it reminds you of Summer. It’s easy to make and can be used in the same way as any other vinegar. It has a lovely floral, grape like taste which is quite sweet. The vinegar will keep for a year or more.

Ram as many elderflowers into a clean jar as you can, pushing them down as much as possible. Fill the jar with light vinegar such as cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or rice vinegar until all of the blooms are covered. You may have to take some out if they won’t cover. Put the lid on tightly and leave on a sunny window sill for a couple of weeks, shaking it all every day.

After a couple of weeks, strain through 2 layers of kitchen roll and then strain again through another 2 layers of roll (or new j cloths) to get rid of any sediment. You probably won’t get all of the sediment out – it’s mostly pollen and this will settle at the bottom of your bottle.

Put into pretty bottles and label.

Fill the vinegar to the top of your jar

Elderflower Cordial

I don’t like my cordial too sweet, so feel free to add a little more sugar if you’d like. I also add lemon and orange to my cordial which lifts the heady muscat flavour without it becoming lemonade. If you’d like to just use lemons to make a Elderflower and Lemon cordial, feel free. You could also leave the citrus out, but I’ve found using just Elderflowers can be a little bland.

Pick 25-30 elderflower heads on a bright, sunny day and shake them as you do to dislodge any bugs. When you get home, put 1.7litres (3 pints) of boiling water into a large saucepan, along with 900g (2lb) granulated sugar. Stir well until dissolved (you may need to put a very low heat under the saucepan to assist with melting, but don’t let it simmer or boil). Turn the heat off and leave to cool while you prepare the 2 oranges and 2 -3 lemons. Use un-waxed fruit if you can get it, but if not make sure you scrub the skins with hot water and washing up liquid to remove the wax before using them. Rinse well and dry. Peel the oranges and lemons and add the peel to the hot sugar water. Cut the peeled lemons and oranges into thick slices and add them to the water.

Next plunge in the elderflowers and stir everything together. You’ll need 50g (2oz) citric acid which you can buy from chemists (you won’t find it on the shelves, you’ll have to ask for it and you might be asked what you want it for! It can also be used in the preparation of drugs…). Citric acid will prolong the life of your cordial. If you can’t get hold of any, you can make the cordial without but it will only last a couple of weeks in the fridge, but you could freeze it in portions.

Add the citric acid and stir everything together. Cover the pan and leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring every now and again. After 24 hours, squash everything in the pan with a wooden spoon to extract as much flavour as possible and strain everything through a sieve lined with 2 clean J cloths. Bottle and keep in the fridge. It will keep for around 6 weeks, maybe more. If you see any kind of mould floating on the top of your cordial – it’s time to throw it away! Dilute with fizzy or still water and serve with lots of ice. Also lovely added to fizzy wine on a hot day!

You can use the cordial in lots of ways – add it to fruit crumbles, make a different kind of drizzle for lemon cake – 4tblsp syrup, 4tblsp caster sugar. You can also add a couple of tblsp to your normal biscuit/cookie/cup cake recipes.

Elderflower Salad Dressing

Combine your vinegar and cordial to make a lovely, light summer salad dressing put 3tblsp light tasting oil such as mild light olive oil, rapeseed oil etc into a clean jam jar, along with 2tblsp elderflower vinegar and 2tsp elderflower cordial or light honey. Add salt and pepper. Put the lid on the jar and shake until well mixed. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed.

You can’t possibly need any further reasons to get out there and pick some lovely elderflowers. Be sure to leave some on the bush though, so that you can go back at the end of summer and collect their lovely berries. And remember to show it the respect it deserves when you walk past, with a little nod!

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