Once the initial explosion of spring flowering has died back and the icing-like cover of white hawthorn flowers has melted from the hedgerows, the next splash of colour comes from the elder tree. The flowerheads are so large, round and flat that they look like giant plates from nature’s best crockery set. In reality, these white blooms are made up of hundreds of tiny flowers and are a magnet for a whole host of insects gorging themselves on the nectar feast they provide.
The elder bush likes growing in disturbed, fertile ground as do nettles which is why picking the flowers often involves trampling down a host of these stinging booby-traps first. The elder is a common sight in hedgerows, waste ground or shrubby areas, and flowers for the first two or so weeks of June. It was held in high regard by our ancestors who regarded it as one of the most magically powerful of plants. Perhaps this is the reason why Dumbledore’s wand (well-known to Harry Potter fans) – the most powerful of them all – was the elder wand!
Burning the tree meant you could see the Devil, but if you grew it close to the house it protected you from his evil influence. It was also used to ‘charm away’ warts and vermin, and farmers put it to practical use by tying bunches of elder leaves to the harness of the horses to keep flies away. In Somerset and some other places, the bush was planted near dairies to do the same tbing. On the Isle of Man, young girls were told to wash their faces in a lotion of the flower to make themselves beautiful and elder-water still has the reputation as a good skin-cleanser (apparently that’s what the commercial product Eau de Sareau is). During the war, the flowers were packed in barrels of salt and used as flavouring.
Thanks to the Bottle Green company at Woodchester, near Stroud, elderflower cordial is now a common drink, though the champagne version had to be re-named following a law suit by the French Champagne Association. It argued that using this name for a wild-flower beverage cheapened the reputation of the alcoholic version. One thing does constantly puzzle me, however: how come such a delicious, sweet drink can be made from flowerheads that smell so revolting?! (I won’t describe what the smell reminds me of, but if you’ve smelt them you’ll know what I mean!).
Here’s the recipe I follow and it’s worked well for me. Citric acid is usually available from chemists or brewing shops, but it is essential – I once made the cordial without it and, although drinkable, didn’t taste half as nice. Most recipes say to drink it all within a few weeks of making, but I’ve sterilised the bottles, filled them right up to the top and found the cordial has lasted for a few months.
25 elder flowerheads
1 unwaxed orange, sliced
3 unwaxed lemons, sliced
2kg caster sugar
75g citric acid
1.5 litres of boiling water
1) Pick the flowerheads on a sunny day – this way they have far more nectar and the final drink has a stronger, better taste
2) Leave the flowerheads overnight – this means you can separate the flowers from the stalks much more easily than trying straight after you’ve picked them. A lot of recipes don’t include this step and use the whole flowerhead, stalks and all, but I think the cordial has a better end taste if it doesn’t have the bitter sap in it. I keep the whole flowerheads in a plastic bag overnight with the top open. This step also gives the chance for any little insects hiding in there to crawl out!
3) Rinse out a small bucket/large container with boiling water to give it a quick sterilisation or use a proper sterilisation powder (and follow the instructions).
4) Put in the sugar and pour over the boiling water. Stir continuously until the sugar has all dissolved – this is important.
5) When this liquid has cooled down a bit, add the lemon and orange slices, the flowers and the citric acid.
6) Leave for 1-2 days, stirring regularly.
7) With a sterilised slotted spoon or sieve, I remove as many of the flowers as possible, then strain the mixture through a (large!) piece of muslin or a sterilised sieve into another bucket or container and then bottle. Sterilise the bottles first by either using a chemical steriliser or if they’re glass bottles, rinse them out with lukewarm water and put them into an oven at a very, very low heat until they’re dry.
8) Fill the bottles right to the top and then screw on the tops tightly. The less air there is at the top of the bottle, the longer the cordial will keep. Storing them in a cool place also helps.
I find this drink so refreshing on a hot day in summer and it’s also lovely served with ice or a dollop of vanilla ice-cream.