Elderflowers, those creamy sprays of pungent flowers visible in every park and hedgerow, are perhaps the most abundant and useful of all wild foods and we are nearing the end of what has been a bumper season. Dublin’s elderflowers have begun to fade but many trees in cooler parts of the country (e.g. Wicklow) are still flowering enthusiastically and you should still be able to harvest in parts of Dublin for the next week or so.
Elderflowers turn into Elderberries in the Autumn, a fruit that is only marginally useful so don’t feel bad about picking the flowers. Besides, you could never pick a tree clean even if you tried. There are some other white-flowering trees in bloom right now but the elder aroma is so distinctive (a sort of spiky, aromatic, stalky lemon scent) you should not have any trouble picking the correct tree.
Elderflowers are at their best on sunny, dry days but even those picked between the showers will work fine. The elderflower scent is strong but is quickly destroyed if heated for long, so do not over-cook the flowers. Simple immersion in hot water for a few hours is enough to impart their flavour and aroma. As well as the recipes below you can infuse elderflowers in oil or in vinegar (as you would a strong herb such as tarragon); add them to a tisane, to salads or to gooseberry recipes (a fruit with which it pairs well) – try in gooseberry fool, sorbet or even jam.
Simply dip elderflower sprays into batter (plain flour diluted to a thick cream consistency with beer or sparkling water), and deep fry in very hot oil. Sprinkle with caster sugar and eat hot with a scoop of ice cream or sorbet.
Mix ten flower sprays into 500ml of hot sugar syrup (half sugar, half boiling water), add the rind and juice of 2 lemons, and allow to cool. The following day, strain and freeze the sorbet in an ice cream maker. Alternatively still-freeze, and remove every 40 minutes to beat out the ice crystals.
The naturally occurring yeast in freshly picked flowers means you should not require any additional yeast. The sooner the flowers go from tree to saucepan, the less likelihood you will need to add your own yeast.
Note: This “champagne” produces 2-4% alcohol depending on how much sugar is converted.
5 litres hot water
3.5 litres cold water
5 lemons, juice and rind
(use un-waxed or organic if available)
2 tbs cider vinegar
30 heads of elderflowers
(Makes approx 10 Litres)
Equipment: Large Saucepan or Plastic Tub, Muslin, Jug, Funnel, Flip-top Bottles (or plastic PET bottles).
Grate the rind from the lemons into the saucepan, add the juice along with any bits of lemon (no need to remove the pips). Some recipes recommend you add the chopped lemons skins also, I think it adds a slight lemon pith flavour (which you may or may not wish).
Add the sugar and pour on 5 litres of boiling water from the kettle, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Next add the cold water, the cider vinegar (Llewellyn’s is good) and the freshly picked flower heads.
Cover with muslin to keep out the flies and remove to a cool place (I use the garage). Check after 2-3 days to see if the yeast has begun to work (it should make a noise not unlike rice crispies). If you can hear no crackle you should add a pinch of yeast dissolved in warm water (ordinary bread yeast works for me).
After 4-5 days of crackling the liquid will have darkened, dip in a cup and check that there there is a light fizz. Scoop out most of the elder flowers with a slotted spoon and strain through the muslin into sterilised bottles using a funnel. Leave to mature for at least 2 weeks before opening; a portion of the remaining sugar will turn to alcohol in bottle increasing the fizz and the alcohol content.
To sterilise bottles simply heat in the oven or fill with boiling water for a few minutes. I use old lemonade and Grolsch bottles or alternatively use sturdy screw-top wine or mineral bottles or even plastic PET fizzy drink bottles. Serve chilled.
I use Imperial measurements below as this is an adaptation of old family lemonade recipe passed to me by my Aunt Beryl!
3 Lemons (Juice and Rind)
3 pints (1.7ltrs) boiling Water
3 lbs (1.5kg) Sugar
2 oz (50g) Citric Acid (buy or order from a Pharmacy)
20-30 Elder Flower Heads
Add the grated zest of 3 lemons to a saucepan, followed by their juice and the citric acid. Pour on the boiling water and once fully dissolved, add 20-30 heads of elderflowers. Try to remove most of the stalks as too many will give a slightly bitter flavour. Stir well and leave to cool overnight.
Scoop out most of the flowers, pressing them down to keep as much cordial as possible. Sterilize some glass bottles by filling them with boiling water for a few minutes and strain in the lemonade through a funnel.
Dilute the cordial with fizzy or still water and add lemon or mint for extra zing. Keep the cordial in a cool place and refrigerate once you open a bottle.