You Are What You Eat: Elderflower
Elder is one of the most common wild edibles. It is native to most of Europe and North America and very common everywhere in the UK and Ireland found in the hedgerow, woodland or shrub land from early spring. Elder is a perennial deciduous shrub or small tree with a light coloured bark and brittle branches. The elder tree is a shrub which can grow to around ten feet in height. The leaves are quite distinctive with 2 or 3 pairs of opposite leaves and one terminal. Elder trees can live up to 60 years in age, and grow to a height of 15 meters.
Its flowers are used by pollinating insects, its berries eaten by birds and mammals such as dormice, rabbits and badgers, and its leaves by moth caterpillars such as white-spotted pug, swallowtail, dot moth and buff ermine.Elder is a hermaphrodite, with the flowers containing both the male and female reproductive parts. It loves semi-shade and in nitrogenous soil.
Elder trees go pretty much unnoticed from October to May but then all of a sudden elderflower season kicks off and when you begin to notice them you will never not notice them again and when you use them… well you will never not use them again !!!
So just to be clear…. Elderflowers and elderberries come from the elder tree…. The flowers come first and then if not harvested they turn into berries and both of these have their individual culinary uses and medicinal purposes but both with very different flavours.
Elderflower is an ingredient with more potential than you may imagine. Depending on the weather, elderflower season begins late Spring / early June and lasts for just a few weeks. The elder tree becomes covered in beautiful creamy-white umbels of flowers that are highly aromatic. The smell of elderflowers is like a summer’s day, full of light floral and citrus notes, some describe it as almost like a grapefruit in scent but I think it has the note of apple blossom as well. The flowers or blossoms cover the tree like white plates and their heady fragrance drenches the warm evenings as you walk past in the lanes in the long late sunlight of high summer.
Elderflowers are picked in early summer to infuse their aroma in refreshing drinks and some delicious recipes. The elderflower cordial has an incredibly delicate, subtle but lush flavour – there is the essence of elderflowers, each bursting with notes of pear, citrus, tropical fruit, and just a hint of honeysuckle.
After the mid summer season of elderflowers, each flower then turns into an elderberry. Elderberries are rich and more fulsome, with a deep purple colour and once you start to cook them there is a strength to the flavour which can be almost eye watering.
Elderflowers are delicate and floral with the citrus notes present but not overpowering. Sweet and light, compared to the sharp and tangy tartness of elderberries.
How to forage for Elderflower
The best time to forage for wild elderflower is between late spring and mid Summer, June is the prime time. Ideally, wait until the flowers have just opened and it is a sunny warm day.
- Harvest during a fleeting 3-4 weeks of mid summer.
- Avoid foraging elderflowers where there may be pollution from cars or traffic. It will really not be ideal to eat any plant that has been subjected to that!
- Do not over forage – leave enough for nature. Elderflowers turn into elderberries as well, as long as they have not all been foraged first!
- The smell varies with exposure to direct sunlight: in open sun, it is attractively lemony, but in shade can be unpleasantly musky. Sniff before you pick! And don’t pick the flowers in wet weather.
- Collect elderflowers first thing in the morning before the sun has had a chance to draw all of the nectar away. Cut with a scissors. Don’t pull them.
- Turn the elderflowers upside down and gently shake loose any wildlife that may be living on it. Do this before you even take home to wash as then you can make sure to not carry the bugs into your kitchen.
- From the moment the flowers are picked it’s a race against time to capture the natural freshness of the elderflowers. The elderflowers are handpicked usually early in the morning, when temperature is cooler. This ensures the flowers are just opening and the aroma and flavour of the blossoms are at their peak. The process is a labor of love and delicate precision
It’s one of my favourite traditions to do at the beginning of each summer. Traditional elderflower cordial needs just a few simple ingredients including fresh elderflowers, water, lemon juice and sugar, all making a terrific aromatic cordial. Homemade cordials taste very different to shop-bought varieties, and it is worth making your own, so that you have more control over the process. The love, pride and satisfaction from foraging these beautiful elderflowers to making this beautiful fragrant sweet syrup that you can store in the fridge for weeks is incredible!
This is my go-to trusted recipe for making sweetly-scented homemade elderflower cordial. In a large pot over a medium heat dissolve sugar in water, don’t let it come to a boil or caramelize. Pare the skin of the lemon and slice into circles and place in the saucepan. Add in the elderflowers and the citric acid. Turn off the heat and allow it to infuse in the pot for 24 hours. Pour into sterlitized bottles and store in the fridge for up to 6 weeks.
A splash of cordial can then be used to flavour any liquids or custards – meaning that it can then be set into ice creams, jellies or a panna cotta. Mix it with sparkling water to create elderflower pressé, or add to wine, prosecco or champagne to start a party in style, or why not try my stunning Elderflower Hugo Spritz cocktail, or if you are in the mood for baking try my zesty creamy Summer Lime and Elderflower Pie.
Culinary World of Elderflowers
As well as making a refreshing cordial, the aromatic, herby flavour of elderflower is perfect in puddings, jellies and cakes and even champagne.
For an impressive starter or snack, how about whipping up a batch of elderflower fritters. Simply make a batter from 100g flour, 2tbsp oil, 175ml sparkling water and 1tbsp sugar. Heat a pan of oil. Dip the elderflowers into the batter then gently fry until crisp and golden, then lift out and dip into caster sugar, or drizzle with honey. And if you’re waiting for the flowers to bloom, you can pickle the green unopened flower buds to use like capers.
Lemon Elderflower Cake
Inspired by the Royal Wedding, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s chose a lemon and elderflower flavour for their royal wedding cake. To create the fresh, fragrant batter, they used 200 Amalfi lemons, 500 organic eggs from Suffolk, and tons of butter, flour, and sugar. She also incorporated 10 bottles of Sandringham Elderflower Cordial, an ingredient that directly paid homage to the Queen, as the liqueur is made from fermenting elderflowers that come from one of her private homes. The elderflower cordial was used in both the lemon elderflower cake itself and in the swiss meringue buttercream frosting.
Why not try your hand at some elderflower ‘champagne’: frothy, fruity, floral alcoholic fizz! The flowers’ natural yeasts supply the bacteria to feed on the sugar and turn it into alcohol. It takes over two weeks for the “champagne” to naturally ferment and create delicious bubbles, and you’ll need to pay close attention to the mixture for the first week or so. Sweetened with either honey or sugar, the final drink should be fizzy and lightly sweet, but not cloyingly so.
I hope I have inspired you to to forage and create your own beautiful Elderflower creations in the kitchen, I would love to see your creations so please feel free to share them on Instagram @aisling_larkin_