Delicate flowers shaken, not stirred
Brightening up our daily exercise walks, runs or cycles along country lanes or city parks are huge fans of tiny white flowers hanging in picturesque sprays. These gorgeous, delicate elderflower blooms burst into life in May and June and have a brief, fragrant life attracting bees and pollinators.
These elderflower bushes are a forager’s and home cook’s dream. During Spring months the edible flowers can be transformed into a deliciously sweet cordial, tea leaves, fritters and even infused into an alcoholic liqueur. While later on in the year, foragers use the purply elderberries to make syrups, add to pies and make tinctures ready for the chilly winter months.
If you can, gather the elderflower heads on sunny, dry mornings and use them as soon as possible, before their aroma fades away.
They’re great in giving light, aromatic flavours to cakes, jellies and puddings. In fact the list goes on … biscuits, fools, pavlovas, custards and syrups.
Later on in the year, in the Autumn, the purple elderberries of the elderflower bush can be picked and used for making jams, juices, crumbles and even ketchups.
Also known as an Elhorn or Pipe tree, the elder is steeped in folklore and legend has it that if fall asleep under its perfumed blossoms you will be protected form evil spirits and invited into the secret world of the fairies.
This year, as the Corona virus lockdown is gradually eased and many people head into the countryside for exercise, fresh air and the soak up the changing seasons we remember how nature and its bounty is so beneficial for our mental health.
How and when to pick the flowers
Elderflowers generally begin to flower in late May and into June, but the soft white coloured flowers turn brown too quickly before dropping to the woodland or pathside floor. When fresh and bright, pinch the bloom a couple inches from the flower head leaving a stalk which will be useful later when making fritters, but should be cut back when making drinks of fragrant sugars.
Keep them in a string bag or roomy cotton tote whilst picking. If kept in plastic bags the blooms will sweat and loose their delicate taste. Shake the heads gently to dislodge any bugs, but no need to wash them as they will get too soggy.
Elderflower food pairings
Elderflower drinks bring a sweet, delicate floral flavour to the table which pairs well with savoury, particularly salty dishes such as fish and chips or perhaps Chinese or Asian-inspired dishes. Food flavouring expert Niki Segnit, in her encyclopaedic book ‘Lateral Cooking’, describes the ‘fragrance and flavour of elderflower as a ‘musky combination of blackcurrant leaf, floral lemon and a West Country hedgerow after a shower in June’. She suggests holding onto this smell of early summer by preserving it in sugar, by layering fresh flower heads with white granulated sugar - 0ne tablespoon of fresh blooms (just the flowers) per 100g sugar and leaving to elderflowerise for up to six months. Great for baking cakes.
Gather elderflower heads on a sunny, dry morning – their aroma fades by the afternoon. This cordial has lovely subtle floral notes. Dilute with water, and ice or add a generous drop to a dry or sparkling white wine. Add a little splash to fruity, creamy desserts with summer fruits such as raspberries, strawberries or peaches and as a flavour boost to Eton Mess, lemon drizzle cake and sorbets.
1 kg granulated sugar
1 litre boiling water
50 g citric acid or juice 2 large lemons
2 large lemons, zest
15 elderflower heads, stalks removed
Put the sugar in a bucket or basin with the boiling water and stir to dissolve. Add the citric acid or lemon juice and the lemon zest.
Shake the elderflowers to remove any insects and add the flowers to the sugar syrup.
Cover and leave to stand for 1-2 days, stirring morning and night.
Strain the elderflower cordial through muslin and decant into sterilised bottles. It’s now ready to use.
Try to make this elderflower cordial within a couple of hours of picking for best results.
3 full elderflower head
60g of granulated sugar
500 ml flavourless gin (use the best you can; you can’t improve a bad gin!)
Sterilised jar (at least 750 ml, Kilner-style work well)
Sterilised bottle (at least 750 ml)
Gentle shake to brush any bugs from the elderflowers.
Place in a sterilised jar with the sugar and gin and seal.
Shake jar to dissolve the sugar.
Leave in a cool place to steep for 24 hours.
Strain the gin through a muslin cloth and funnel into to a sterilised bottle.
Keep chilled and best enjoyed within 1 month.
12 elderflower heads, gently shaken
Sunflower oil for frying
Icing or granulated sugar/ honey to serve
To make the batter
100g plain flour
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
175 ml sparkling mineral water/ lager beer
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg white
Sift the flour into a large bowl.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil and the sparkling mineral water.
Beat to a thick paste, and then stir in a tablespoon of sugar.
Set aside for 30 minutes.
Just before frying the elderflowers, beat an egg white and fold it into the batter.
Get a deep pan of oil hot (test the heat by dropping in a teaspoon of batter – it should bubble and start to turn golden quickly).
Dip the elderflowers one at a time into the batter and lower them into the oil.
Fry until the batter is pale gold and crisp, between 30 – 60 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to lift out of the oil.
Place on a kitchen towel for a few seconds before arranging on a warm plate. Generously sprinkle your choice of sugar and dribble the honey on the fritters
(Fritters recipe adapted from The Woodland Trust)