Archive | July 2009

Elderflower cordial: a taste of the young summer

The lack of rain over the past few weeks has been a major surprise. No, that’s not an awkward or even pretentious way of saying it’s been sunny. The current weather is a break from the pattern of the past few years, when you were prepared for a June so dreary that even the merest peek of sun signals the arrival of summer.

Whether you believe or disbelieve in global warming, simply it has failed to rain much this June and has given us some scorchio! weather. Hooray! The only downsides for me have been having to water the garden every night, forking out for sun creams and the inevitable “golfers tan”, but at least I’m the only one who gets to admire my two-tone arms in their full exposure.

At the moment I do get to go out into the world a bit more than you office dweller, but it is on these treks that I have wallowed in the joy of the rainless weather – the sweet scent that hangs in the air at this time of the year, the fragrant aroma of elderflower.

Between my house and the bus stop there’s an abundance of elderflower, the finest – and most potent! – place being out the front of the church, the perfect greeting when I hop off the bus at Idle. A walk under the tree there is like being showered in smiles. How one cannot feel lifted when you breath in the scent I know not. This time of the year and in these conditions it’s wonderful to encounter.

Why the big deal with the sunshine? Firstly, last year’s damp summer rarely gave us the opportunities to enjoy the smell, the rain washing the air (and being so wet it was bugger all fun to be in). Secondly… well, we’ll come to that, soon.

Of course the smell itself is just a limited occurrence, there as long as the flowers remain on the branches. Which won’t be too long now. A shame, but handily there are ways to preserve this wonderful product of nature.

A couple of years ago I fancied a bash at making elderflower cordial. I had read about it in the ever-reliable River Cottage Cookbook. The recipe seemed easy enough, a step up from jam in terms of mass appeal but also a step down in terms of preparation. (There’s also this Sophie Grigson recipe if you want to look online.)

Worry not, elderflower cordial is simple to make. A little involved, sure, it takes time, you’ll have bowls on your kitchen side for a day at least, but great fun for little ones with all the hand work free of the need for nimbleness, plonking stuff into big bowls, and measuring and pouring. The only child-unfriendly part of the process is that a lot of elderflower is well out of reach of children (and some adults even!). It’s also a forgiving recipe, which allows for many failings (left the elderflower soaking for four days not that one? not a problem!) and personalised tweaks!

Choose where you are going to pick first. Elderflower is pretty easy to spot and can pop up anywhere. Near me there is loads along the canal waiting to be nabbed! Choosing when to pick is key to getting off to a good start. Choose a sunny day, which has preferably also been preceded by a couple more sunny days and allow yourself a good hour. If you have a little person who you can put on your shoulders then you can reach that little bit higher. I dismiss the aesthetic of the action, not owning a lovely wicker basket and just use carrier bags, one always open and a couple of others hung out of a back pocket. The elderflower isn’t going to be in the bags long so does it really matter?

As soon as you’re home you should be giving the heads a slight shake to loosen any minibeasts and getting them soaking overnight with some lemon and/or orange zest in some very warm water. If you’ve a supply of bottles handy (or a jug even) the fruit and the sugar are the only things you need to buy, coming in at no more than two quid.

The next day is when the magic happens. Be warned there is a decent wedge of sugar that goes into the cordial, to the point you sometimes think you are making syrup. Initially, being a hyper-aware parent, I was put off by the amount of sugar needed in the River Cottage recipe (350g of sugar for every 500ml of flavoured water), but found that reducing the sugar content a little – to about 275g of sugar per 500ml of flavoured water as the sugar acts as a preservative – and increasing the amount of elderflower into the mixture (adding half again of the recommended “20-30 picked heads”) created a more intense cordial, that resultantly also lasted longer as you diluted less cordial (using Hugh’s recipe it’s 1 part cordial to 5 parts water, whereas my more intense version is 1:7). The end product is really refreshing drink, and alarmingly moreish.

As I type this, my second batch of cordial is just bottled (my first batch was an early season effort three weeks back, gone the same weekend) and the third batch is soaking on the kitchen side to be sorted tomorrow. And in the corner is a 16 litre bucket that has elderflower champagne brewing.

Sorry, did I not mention that you can make booze from elderflower as well? Why, yes! Elderflower contains a decent amount of natural yeast so is perfect for cheap, tasty sparkling booze! And word has it you can also fry elderflower in batter, but I’ve yet to do that. Give me this weekend though, and I’ll have crossed that off my hedgerow treats list!

There’s an elderflower cordial recipe in the River Cottage Cookbook, but you can also find it online if you search about. For other people’s takes on this try the splendidly named A Merrier World and Country Days blogs.
The elderflower champagne recipe is also here on the Channel 4 website.