Monday, 29 May 2017


Originally published in 2009. 

For most of the year, elders are little more than weeds in tree form. They grow as fast as willows but have none of the advantages – they cannot be woven into baskets, they create a noxious stink in spring, and they cannot even be burned in fireplaces, as their smoke is mildly toxic. For a few short weeks in June, though, they burst into elderflowers, and clusters of the large white blossoms line our roads and fields can be put to many uses in the kitchen.

The flowers can be made into “champagne,” a mildly alcoholic drink, with the addition of lemons, yeast, bottles, and two weeks. To do this just peel the rinds off four lemons, squeeze their juice into the bucket and throw the lemons in with several elderflowers. Pour in a kilogram of sugar and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Then pour in eight litres of water, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, cover with a cloth and let stand for 24 hours.

The next day or so, strain the mixture and pour it into bottles – large plastic jugs do fine for us. Set them in a cool place for about two weeks, and test the result. You can also make elderflower cordial, by packing elderflowers tightly into a jar and pouring vodka over them, and letting the container sit for at least a few months.

Also, you can preserve the taste of elderflower all year by making syrup. Gather a basket of elderflowers, and for every four cups of elderflowers take two cups of water and one cup of sugar. Boil the water, dump the elderflowers in and turn the heat off. Let the elderflowers soak for a few hours uncovered, strain the mixture and then stir in the sugar. Many people recommend adding citric acid to preserve the syrup for longer periods, as well as to add some tang. Some people soak the elderflowers in room-temperature water for a few days rather than placing them in boiling water and letting them soak for a few hours; that seems to work as well.

Either way, you can preserve the elderflower taste in a concentrated liquid, and then use a small amount of that liquid in a glass of water whenever you like. Elderflower syrup will also come in handy for baking, as one would use rosewater, or can be stirred into mixed drinks. You can also do the same thing to make elderflower jelly, by adding pectin with the sugar to make it set.

Another easy use for elderflowers is in pancakes. Clip some elderflowers right where it divides from the stem and brush them lightly to make sure no insects are on it. To make the batter, just crack two eggs into a large bowl and stir until smooth, then mix in about 120g of flour – the result should be so thick it is difficult to stir. Then slowly add 200 ml milk until the mixture is runny but not watery. Put small pan with a little oil under medium-high heat, pour in the batter so that it covers the whole pan in a thin layer, and set one full elderflower into the batter face-down.

After a minute or so – whenever the underside of the pancake gets golden-brown – flip it over and fry the other side for another minute or so. The flowers add a fruity taste to the pancakes, as blueberries would. Elderflower syrup is also used to make pancakes, but using the flowers themselves is simpler and more direct. Do make sure you don’t pick elderflowers from the side of the road or where exhaust could contaminate the plants.

Also, make sure you have actual elderflowers and not poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace or some other broad white flower. Elderflowers grow on trees and bushes; if it’s growing off the ground, it’s probably something else. Always pick flowers on a sunny day, pick the freshest-looking flowers, and use them as soon as you pick them.


Hilary White said...

Ah, but in Italy, "Sambucca" is used for all manner of things, including the making of woodwind musical instruments. The tradition in Umbria is that that shepherds use the hollow stems of sambucca to carve flutes, and later the method was used to develop the big, loud Italian version of bagpipes (in which the ginormous bag part is made of a whole sheep skin). Where I lived in Norcia the place was pretty much forested with elder, though it being an English custom to make champagne I was the only one to collect the flowers. But of course, in Italy the flowering is finished by the end of May. I missed it this year, opting to use my stash of hinge-top bottles to do nettle beer instead.

We seem to have almost identical thoughts on restoring and recovering ancient, natural way of life.

Hilary White said...

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you! I didn't know that -- I wonder why they don't make the champagne as well. It does sound like we're kindred spirits -- I'll be reading your blog, and do keep in touch.

R.M. McGrath said...

Commercial yeast isn't traditional.
Leave the "champagne" out in the open air for a day, a couple of days until it ferments.

Or if you brew beer or make sourdough bread, get the yeast/starter from that.

Brian Kaller said...


Yes, I mentioned that in the article, but I thought people who are just starting out might want to be on the safe side. I'm no purist, myself, and am happy to use champagne yeast if it's available.