When I was 7 years old, we moved to Vermont and lived on a lake that was mostly populated with holiday homes for the neighbouring towns. After Labor Day – the first Monday in September and unofficially the last day of summer – our friends and neighbours all disappeared for the next 9 months, and our family and Lucy, the lovely old lady down the road from us, were the only ones left for the winter.
On those misty autumn mornings, waiting for the school bus to take us to the three-room schoolhouse in our nearby town, my sister and I would stand at the end of our road, Scooby-do and Partridge Family lunch boxes abandoned on the ground, and eat the elderberries that were abundant on the verge. We weren’t hungry, having just finished our breakfasts of toast, juice, and cereal, but the berries were so sweet and tart and good. When the bright orange bus had finished its rounds of all the dirt-covered back roads, it appeared out of the waning fog for us. We would wipe our purple-stained hands on our clothes, pick up our lunch boxes and climb the high step to enter the bus with its air moist and smelling of bacon, an echo of the other children’s hearty farm breakfasts.
When my family moved north, to a less rural location, i never gave much thought to the elder berries, or the trees they grew on. They had ceased to exist for me, not being in their proper place, at the end of our solitary road.
Twenty-five years later, I moved to the UK. I discovered many wonderful things here: scones with fresh Devon clotted cream and strawberry jam, eating fish and chips on the pebbled beach while watching the boats bring in the next catch, having a pint of bitter in a pub garden on a sunny day (or in the pub on a misty afternoon), lush greenery at all times of the year, the National Health Service. I also discovered elderflower cordial. The taste – so fresh and perfume-y, tart and sweet at the same time – captivated me, and I hate to admit that it took me longer than it should have to connect the flower with the berries that my sister and I had so eagerly consumed years before.
Just as the elderberries signalled autumn in my early childhood, elderflowers now signal summer. There is an elder tree on the way home from our village; it always blooms long before our own tree, and I take advantage of that to get a jump start on making the cordial. Because rather than buying it, I now make my own elderflower cordial. It is ridiculously easy, and I’m happier with the results; I like a strong elder taste, and the commercial varieties – probably for shelf-life reasons – have too much lemon flavour for my liking. Everyone in the family likes it, but I tend to ration it so it will last the entire year. Our last bottle was finished last week, three days before the new batch was started.
When I take the children or The Author with me to pick, I have to tell them exactly how many blooms we need. They are eager to gather as many as they can, but you need surprisingly few to brew up a good batch. Plus, I want to leave a good amount on the trees, partly for others to make their own cordial, and partly so the birds (and I) can enjoy the berries later, in the mists of autumn.
Only slightly modified from Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen
makes about 850 ml (or just over a wine bottle!)
I don’t think summer officially begins until the elderflowers are out and the local chemists have all run out of citric acid. Don’t be worried about the citric acid – it’s a natural ingredient mostly derived from citrus fruit. It’s used here for preservation and to add some acidity. You could add more lemon, but then you would have lemon cordial. You can find citric acid on the internet (make sure to get food grade), or you can ask your chemist.
- 600ml (20 oz) water
- 900g (2 lb) sugar
- 10 elderflower blossoms
- 1 lemon, washed and cut into thin slices
- 45g (scant 1/4 cup) citric acid
Bring the water to a rapid boil. Add the sugar and stir until it has all dissolved. Take the mixture off the heat. Allen says to leave to cool for 10 minutes, I’m assuming this is to keep the flowers from losing their fragrance in the extreme heat. Anyway, I have always followed this instruction and I am always happy with the result, so I would recommend it.
Add the elderflowers, lemon and citric acid. Stir well, then cover and leave overnight. You do not need to refrigerate it. (N.B. Allen says to grate the zest and squeeze the juice into the mixture and offers the method I use as an alternative. I prefer to use slices because the lemon flavour is more subtle, and – big plus – the lemons are delicious afterwards. I save them in the freezer to use with drinks, but I am toying with the idea of making candy with them. When I do, i’ll let you know how I get on!)
The next day, pour the syrup through a fine sieve into a large jug or other container. Then, using a funnel and a piece of muslin or nylon sieve that you have dampened, strain the syrup into clean, sterile bottles. Cap the bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
Allen says that this will last in the fridge for up to a year, but we have kept ours in a dark cupboard and it was fine 12 months later.