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.