I love the fact that elder trees have no delusions of grandeur. They grow wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens, in cracks in crumbling walls and even – or especially – in graveyards.
Here in northern Europe, where elders grow in abundance, countless traditions and superstitions are associated with the tree. Hidden in its dark green, dense foliage were benign spirits whose role was to keep the bad guys at bay; from its rustling leaves came words of advice whispered into the wind. According to legend, the elder was never struck by lightning, and some pagan traditions advised that the tree should not be cut for burning, for fear of bringing bad luck.
When I was researching my book on wild food, Fruits of the Forest (which gets a whole chapter on elderflowers), I learnt that sticks cut from elder branches were pressed into service in a variety of ways. Sicilians used them for spearing snakes or driving away robbers, Serbs in their wedding ceremonies to bring happiness to the bridal pair. In Slovakia the hollow sticks were made into reedy flutes, while English country folk kept pieces in their pocket as talismans to protect against rheumatism – elder is still used in traditional Chinese medicine for the same purpose.
In Alsace, more prosaically, the sticks were made into water pistols, whistles, pea-shooters or even rudimentary drinking straws – could be an idea for our post-plastic age?
But it’s right now in early summer that the elder comes into its own. All of a sudden in a brief moment of glory, this otherwise unremarkable tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which perfume the air with their heady scent. Around here in Alsace, the Black Forest and Switzerland, chefs, housewives, hobby cooks (and me too) can be spotted in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms and placing them in baskets.
Some of the flowers will be put up into syrups (see recipe), cordials or flavoured vinegars to be served in drinks or add to desserts. Others are dipped in a light batter, fried till crisp and fragrant and nibbled straight off the stalk.
Here are two lovely recipes that make the most of these fragrant flowers: one for syrup (aka cordial), made by infusing the fresh flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice, and another for elderflower-flavoured panna cotta. Use the syrup in other ways too: add a splash to fruit salads – it’s particularly lovely combined with lightly cooked rhubarb and strawberries – or use it to perfume a crème anglaise or semifreddo.
Best of all, for a delicate, less sweet version of 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), plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint – it’s called a Hugo, and it makes the perfect early summer aperitif.
ELDERFLOWER SYRUP OR CORDIAL
Makes about 4 cups (1 litre)
25-30 elderflower heads
4 cups (1 litre) water
1 kg sugar
Optional: 2 tablespoons citric acid crystals
Grated zest and juice of 2 untreated lemons
- Rinse the elderflowers, spin them dry in a salad spinner and place in a large bowl.
- Put the water, sugar, citric acid crystals (if using) and grated lemon zest in a large pan, heat gently, stirring, till the sugar is dissolved, then simmer 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 4-5 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 nasties lurking.
- Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge till needed. The syrup will keep for several months, but NOTE BENE: beware of fermentation in the bottle – for this reason, it’s best to lightly cork the bottles or use old-fashioned lemonade bottles, to avoid unwanted explosions.
PANNA COTTAS WITH ELDERFLOWER SYRUP AND GREEK YOGURT, STRAWBERRIES IN BALSAMICO
4 sheets of gelatine
300ml whipping cream
grated zest of ½ a lemon
100ml elderflower cordial (syrup)
300g Greek yogurt (or 150g yogurt + 150g Perle de Lait citron)
250g strawberries, regular or alpine
1 – 2 tablespoons icing sugar or to taste
2 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
- 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 (1 minute).
- Add elderflower cordial/syrup and allow the mixture to cool.
- When cool, whisk in the Greek yogurt until smooth.
- Pour into glasses, leaving a little headspace for the strawberries and refrigerate till set.
- Rinse the strawberries under cold running water and remove the stalks. Cut them in half if large and put in a bowl with some icing sugar and the Balsamic vinegar.
- When ready to serve, arrange some strawberries on top of each panna cotta and garnish with mint, or edible flowers (elderflowers, pansies, lavender, borage etc.)
- Alternative ending: hull strawberries and rinse, put in the blender with a little icing sugar and blend till smooth to make a coulis – pour a layer of coulis over the panna cottas once they are set and garnish with edible flowers.