The elder tree has no pretensions to grandeur. It grows wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, on the edge of motorways, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens, even in graveyards.
Right now, in early summer, it’s having its moment. All of a sudden, in a brief blaze of glory, this rather scruffy little tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which fairly knock you back with their delicate scent. In our neighbourhood over the next few weeks, countless chefs, housewives and hobby cooks will be spotted hunting in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms and placing them carefully in large baskets. It’s a brief and glorious moment in the life of any dedicated forager – two or three weeks at most – and if you don’t pick the flowers by about the middle of June (around here, at any rate), they’ll be well on their way to becoming elderberries.
Here’s a pair of recipes that make the most of these wonderful wild and edible flowers. One is for syrup (aka cordial), which you make by infusing the fresh flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice. The other combines said syrup with light cream, Greek yogurt and just enough gelatine to give a lightly set panna cotta. Keep a splash of syrup for fruit salads too, or stir some into a compote of rhubarb with strawberries. And pluck a few feathers off the flowers and scatter them on top of any dessert for a knockout effect.
Best of all, have a Hugo, far and away the best early summer aperitif, a lot less sweet and much more fun than the ubiquitous blackcurrant-based Kir: pour a little elderflower syrup in the bottom of a large wine glass, top it up with sparkling wine (Sekt in the Black Forest, Crémant in Alsace), add plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint et voilà.
Elderflower syrup or cordial
Makes about 4 cups (1 litre)
25-30 elderflower heads
4 cups (1 litre) water
1 kg sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 untreated lemons
- Wash the elderflowers and spin them dry in a salad spinner.
- Place them in a large bowl.
- Put the water, sugar and grated lemon zest in a large pan, heat gently, stirring, till the sugar is dissolved, then allow to boil for 5 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and pour the syrup over the elderflowers.
- Let cool, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and refrigerate for 5 days.
- Set a colander over a large bowl and strain the syrup. Discard the flowers. Strain the syrup again, this time through a muslin or fine cloth to make sure there are no impurities.
- Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge till needed. The syrup will keep for several months (we’re still drinking our 2014 vintage).
Elderflower panna cotta with strawberry coulis
4 sheets of gelatine
300ml whipping cream
finely grated zest of ½ a lemon
100ml elderflower syrup
300g Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar
icing sugar to taste (1 – 2 tablespoons)
- Put the gelatine sheets in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave until floppy.
- Put the cream, sugar and lemon zest in a small pan and stir over gentle heat till the sugar is dissolved and you can no longer hear crystals crunching about.
- Lift gelatine sheets out of the water, squeeze out excess water, drop sheets into pan of cream and sugar and stir till dissolved (about 1 minute).
- Add elderflower syrup and allow the mixture to cool. When cool, add the Greek yogurt and whisk until smooth.
- Pour panna cotta into glasses and refrigerate till set.
- For the coulis, hull and wash the strawberries.
- Place in a blender with Balsamic vinegar and icing sugar to taste and blend till smooth.
- Once the panna cottas are set, pour some coulis on top and decorate with tiny stars of elderflower plucked off the flowerheads or other edible flowers (pansies, borage, thyme etc.) and/or wild strawberries.