Year of Grace Day 163. Elderflower pressé

Nothing evokes an English summer’s day as a cool drink of elderflower pressé. And making elderflower cordial, the base for this refreshing drink, is extremely simple. All you need are very fresh elderflowers (preferably picked just before), sugar, organic or unwaxed lemons, citric acid, and water. I used to make it every year in Leamington Spa, gathering the elderflowers from the hedgerows. In early summer Newbold Comyn — the extensive common grounds just behind the house — would be all frothy with elderflower umbels. And beneath them, similarly a-froth, would be the lacy umbrellas of wild carrot. This is what I loved most about living in the English countryside — being able to gather wild flowers and fruits (damsons, sloes, plums, blackberries) from the centuries-old hedgerows, much as countrywomen of bygone years must have done.

And I am truly glad to see that elder (Sambucus nigra) grows all over here in Bonn as well. It is considered by my neighbour as a weed – I don’t, and it is such a delight to have it blooming in my garden. (English lore has it that witches do not like the elder tree. It is apparently forbidden around the vineyards whose grapes go into the making of port in Portugal — a throwback to less scrupulous periods when ripe elderberries were used to add substance and colour to port.) I love the flowers’ fragrance spreading throughout the garden, especially in the late afternoon, when M and I sit outside to enjoy the close of a mild summer’s day with a relaxing drink.

Elderflowers bloom just in the gap after the yellow laburnum is spent and before the roses and the jasmine-scented Philadelphus get into their stride. And in the autumn, there are also its purple berries that can be made into syrup (if the greedy birds leave me some, that is) – good for winter colds with its plentiful antioxidants or as a hot drink mixed with something alcoholic to warm up chilled bones.

There are a couple of trees in my garden – one in the back, and another, self-sown in front. Last year was so rainy that the elderflowers never stood a chance against the onslaught of daily rain. Nor did I have a chance to collect them at the peak of their bloom – they need to be creamy, full of pollen, and fragrant, best collected after morning sun has dried the dew on them.

This year, I’ve been lucky that the rainy days have alternated with sunny ones, so that I was able to gather quite a goodly quantity the other day. I also hope to make some other things I’ve never had a chance to make before – elderflower jelly and elderflower champagne. I might even try them in fritters or tempura. If you’d like to have a go at making your own elderflower cordial, I’ve included a recipe below.

Elderflower Cordial (adapted from Sophie Grigson’s recipe)
1.2 litres water
1.8 kg sugar in a large, heat-proof mixing bowl holding over 3 litres
85 g citric acid
30 umbels of fresh elderflowers – pick on a sunny day before it gets too hot; choose newly opened ones with plenty of pollen; quickly swish umbels into a bowl of cold water to dislodge insects
4 unwaxed lemons, washed

Bring the water to a boil and pour over the sugar in the bowl.
Stir thoroughly and repeatedly to dissolve the sugar, and allow to cool.
Meanwhile strip elderflowers from their stalks. You may use the tines of a fork to do this. The stalks give a foxy taste to the cordial. The tiniest twigs are fine to leave.
Peel off the zest from the lemons, making sure to do this carefully or with a very fine peeler so that only the yellow part comes off. Remove all the white spongy pith, leaving only the translucent parchment that surrounds the lemon segments. I found that the pith comes off very easily with a small knife.
Thinly slice the lemons crosswise.
When the syrup has cooled to room temperature, stir in the citric acid until dissolved.
Stir in the flowers and the lemon zest and slices.
Cover with cling film and leave in a cool, dark place for 6 days.
Filter through cheesecloth and store into sterilized bottles. (Put bottles and caps in a large pan with water to cover; allow to boil for 20 minutes. Take bottles out of the water, shake the excess water off, fill with cordial, and cap.)
The citric acid and sugar are preservatives, and when kept in a dark, cool place or refrigerator, the cordial lasts up to 6 months.
Alternatively, you can freeze the cordial in an ice cube tray, and once frozen, pack the cubes into freezer bags. I have also half-filled plastic bottles with the cordial and put them in the freezer. To use, allow to thaw in the fridge, and use it up within a week of opening.
To prepare elderflower pressé: pour 2 – 3 (or to taste) tablespoons of cordial or 2 – 3 cubes of frozen cordial in a tall glass, top up with sparkling water or plain cold water or chilled white or sparkling wine.
You may also drizzle elderflower cordial over vanilla ice cream or custard or pancakes or crepes, or add its alluring, summery fragrance to a fruit salad.

Midsummer is white

I’ve noticed that now most flowers in the hedges and fields are white, in contrast to early spring when wildflowers were overwhelmingly yellow. I’m curious to know why that is, and if anyone knows, do please share your knowledge. The elderflowers  and Philadelphus (called Holunder and Jasminstrauch here) are cascading frothily against the hedge trees, mostly field maple and Ligustrum. In the fields nearby, wild carrot umbels promise a sea of white. I’m late making my usual elderflower syrup this year. Isn’t that strange, now that I’ve got  trees in the garden and don’t have to go out of my way to gather them? Just typical of me. I made the syrup just in time, as today thunderstorms and hail have changed the past few days’ brilliantly sunny skies to a dark grey gloom, and the remaining flowers on the elder are all bedraggled.

I usually add a tablespoon or so of the syrup to sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink, and my friend Hanna tells of an excellent elderflower gelatin dessert she’d had recently. I might try making that, and M is thinking of making elderflower and yogurt ice cream. Sounds divine. Another friend suggested pouring it over pancakes (thanks Charity!). The elderflowers are best gathered as soon as they open. Try to pick them from places that are not too close to traffic. They’re at their best before they’ve been rained on. No need to wash them, just shake off insects if you find any. Picked early enough, you may beat the insects to them.

Making the syrup is dead simple.


Elderflower Syrup

1 kg refined sugar

1 litre water

30-35 fresh elderflower heads

5 unwaxed lemons

1/2 tablespoon citric acid

1.  Put sugar into a pan and pour water over. Bring slowly to a simmer until sugar is completely dissolved. No need to stir: just allow the sugar to slowly melt and turn transparent. Immediately turn off the heat and leave to cool to lukewarm.

2.  Meanwhile, strip flowers from their stalks with clean fingers into a large non-reactive bowl (stainless steel or plastic). It’s okay if some fine stems join the florets, but try to keep them to a minimum, as they give a foxy scent to the syrup.

3.  Wash the lemons, thinly peel the zest, taking care not to include any white pith as it will impart a bitter taste. Squeeze the juice, and add the zest and juice to the bowl. Stir the citric acid into the syrup and then pour over the flower and lemon mixture.

4.  Cover the bowl with plastic film and leave in a dark, cool place for 3 to 4 days. Pass the mixture through a sieve or clean cheesecloth, and then store in small containers in the freezer. If using immediately, store in the fridge.

5.  To make an elderflower drink: place 1 – 2 tablespoons of syrup in a glass, pour over cold plain or sparkling water, stir, and add ice cubes, if desired. You may wish to freeze some florets in an ice cube tray for decorative ice cubes.