For a short while, they are everywhere: stems waltzing in the June breeze, tiny stellate blooms underfoot, spinning constellations scattered over the dining table and the kitchen sink, threaded through strands of my hair, and bubbling on the stove.
In this, my first elderflower season, I’ve been following a few self-imposed rules.
First… Pick blooms away from busy roads or polluted areas. A scout of my local park revealed a bevy of blossoms which, while still in Zone 2 of our particulate-punctuated capital, are surely better than a bush I spotted off the Uxbridge Road.
Secondly… Pick a few flower heads (called, somewhat wonderfully, umbels) from each shrub and no more. This will allow other fellow foragers to have their cordial and drink it, as well as ensuring some of the blooms remain to turn into elderberries come autumn.
Last but not least… Use them, quick! Only pick as many as you’ll need or be able to use (which I am the first to admit is easier said than done, when they just smell so sweet and your head is filled with ideas of cordial, wine, champagne, flavoured gin and jam, not to mention elderflower-scented madeleines, cake and…) The blossoms are best used fresh, otherwise they develop an unpleasant scent (not dissimilar to feline urine, some swear) and do not keep well.
The stalwart: Elderflower Cordial
I know you can buy this for a pretty penny in supermarkets all year round these day, but it’s so much cheaper to make your own if you’ve got a spare hour to hand – it’s also far more delicious, exhibiting a more complex honeyed flavour and real sugar instead of the artificial sweeteners supermarkets so love. Begin by picking your elderflower blossom. Anything beyond five flower heads will do, depending on how strongly flavoured you’d like your cordial, or how much you plan to make. There’s a whole flock of recipes online for more precise amounts, but I added a small basket’s worth of elderflower blossom, 500g sugar, a squeeze of runny honey, the zest of two unwaxed lemons, 1 sliced unwaxed lemon and the juice of another. To begin, pick any nibbling critters and leaves from the blossoms (don’t wash, as it’s the pollen that bestows the distinctive taste). Boil the water (I filled a cast iron pot with about 1.5ltr) to dissolve the sugar, then add another litre of cold water, the elderflower blossoms, lemons and honey. Stir well and leave, covered with a lid, for 24 hours or more. When ready to strain, sterilise a selection of glass bottles or jars (I used old jam jars and a clip-top glass bottle) by washing in hot, soapy water and drying in the oven at 120°C. Meanwhile, strain the cordial through a muslin cloth into another large bowl or jug. Discard the blooms, lemons and debris on top of the cloth and divide the cordial between sterilised bottles. It’s delicious added to homemade iced tea or topped up with water, lemonade or gin. I’m itching to use it in this cake, too.
The pop star: Elderflower Fizz
It was (delightful) news to me that the natural yeast found in elderflowers makes them a perfect candidate for home-brewed champagne. Nothing like a bottle of fizz under the kitchen table to make jubilant moments that little bit more celebratory. I followed Anna Jones’ recipe from A Modern Way To Eat . It sounded a bit daunting but I don’t think you do need a bucket; just a big bowl or deep saucepan. Follow the same method as for cordial, but add 1-2 tbsp vinegar (and a sachet of instant dried yeast, if you’re feeling impatient). Decant into plastic bottles in a cool, dark place and watch magic happen. The plastic bottles are very important; glass bottles are prone to exploding unexpectedly! After a few weeks’ bubbling time, unscrew your bottles. If you hear the sibilant hissing of a carbonated drink, congratulations! If not, add a little instant yeast and cross your fingers. It should be ready in a week or so. Keep chilled and drink as is, or serve in cocktails or the cake above.