It is May Day. The cherry blossoms have blown down to paint the earth pink and the daffodils have risen and set like a million spring suns. Now this advance guard has departed, the season is here in full force. The air, rich with pollen and sap, has lost April’s bitter edge and the rain is soft and fine.
Beginning in late April, the elderflowers arrive. They grow in creamy clusters on large, gangly shrubs. Although uncommon in American cuisine past or present, they have long featured on European tables. The Swedes are the most notable elderflower lovers, stirring them into fritters and jellies, and sipping on a juice made from elderflower saft, a sugar syrup infused with the petals. The French, with their particular talent for identifying alcoholic potential, are responsible for St. Germain, the elderflower liqueur. Not to be outdone by their neighbors, the Brits have a rural tradition of elderflower wine, generally of the lethal, homemade variety. In the US, however, this sultry flower relegated to a dusty corner and only appears in the odd champagne or gin cocktail.
Yet I see no excuse for American ignorance of the elderflower. It proliferates throughout much of the country and sends out an alluring scent. Less brash than many blooms, its perfume is nevertheless distinctive—a heady mixture of honeysuckle, melon, and new-mown hay.
There are a variety of elder species (genus Sambucus), and the zealous forager should be aware of which one she harvests. According to my research, the species growing near Seattle is Sambucus racemosa or Red Elderberry. Its flowers are virtually identical to other Sambucus varietals, but it bares red rather than blue berries.
As a forager with a tendency towards hypochondria, I read all I could find on the subject of the plant’s toxicity. Sources vary and I cannot offer definitive advice. However, it appears that the flowers of most species are safe to eat once cooked. The fruit of all species must be picked when fully ripe and also cooked before consumption. Some accounts claim that the berries of the red elder are toxic in all forms. However, I found no reports of anything more drastic than a little digestive upset. Most of the toxicity lies in the stem, so when preparing the flowers it is good to remove as much stem as possible. With this proviso, a pinch of salt: many cultures have been using Sambucus for millennia and I personally feel a lot safer sipping homemade elderflower cordial than the chemical laden drinks on offer in every supermarket.
And so last weekend I dragged the Texan out with me to pick flowers. Obligingly he held back the brambles and bent down the elder branches so I could pick to my heart’s content. Some women are satisfied with a bouquet of flowers but here I was demanding a whole bag full of blooms. So he wrestled trees, fought off biting ants, and suffered boggy ground and muddy shoes for me—ah, what a man I have!
Home again we picked the flowers from their stems. It is a laborious and hypnotic process, but strangely satisfying. Once finished we made a sugar syrup, poured it over the petals, and left this to infuse. The next day we strained and bottled our spring nectar. We made a big batch, enough keep us in pancake syrup, cocktail mixers, and elderflower cordial for a good year.
Makes a lot, about 8-9 wine bottles of concentrate
150 flower heads in peak bloom
9 lemons, zest and juice
5 tbsp citric acid (not vital for flavor but helps preserve the syrup)
9 lbs granulated sugar
5 qts water
Useful (but not vital) equipment
funnel (sized to fit in the top of your bottles)
empty wine bottles, corks, and a corker
1. Pick the flowers from the stems, place in a very large pot or bowl and add the lemon juice, zest, and citric acid.
2. Heat the water and sugar in a very large pot until the sugar is dissolves.
3. Pour sugar syrup over the flowers and stir.
4. Cover the mixture with a clean towel and allow to infuse for a day or so.
5. Using well sterilized bottles of jars, strain the syrup through a sieve lined with cheesecloth and pour into the containers.*
This concentrate can be diluted with still or sparkling water for a delicate soft drink, or added to any number of alcoholic concoctions—swirled into a white sangria with white wine and seasonal fruit, or shaken with a pale tequila over ice.
* A while ago I invested a corker. It looks like a massive reverse corkscrew and is highly entertaining to use; you need some muscle (again the Texan obliged) and there’s a satisfying clunk each time the cork goes in.