You know summer has arrived when the elder is in bloom. You can often smell the sweet, pungent flowers carried on the warm June air well before you find the tree itself.
The flowers are easily identified by their heady scent, but if you’re not sure, look out for the flat topped heads that appear in abundance at the end of May and into June in hedgerows, woodland and scrubland. Lots of people have them in their gardens too and according to folklore, an elder planted by your home will keep the devil away.
The flowers don’t last for long and so now is the time to gather them to bottle a taste of summer.
You can make lots of things out of the flowers – sorbet, fritters and champagne, but old fashioned cordial is super easy and tastes much better than the stuff you can buy year round in the supermarket.
The flowers are easy to harvest if you take a pair of sharp scissors or some secateurs out with you on your walk, and a basket to carry them in. They wilt really quickly, so make sure you pick them on your way back home and choose a warm, sunny day when they will be at their very best.
Also, make sure you don’t pick too many flowers all from the same tree, or there won’t be any flowers left for the bees, or any berries – we will be back for you later…!
The following recipe makes around 2 litres, but can easily be sized up for a bigger batch and the sweetness adjusted to taste. I think you need a jelly bag to make this as you need to strain the infusion, but you could use muslin and a sieve too.
Around 30 heads of elderflowers, picked on a warm, sunny day
6 unwaxed lemons
1kg of sugar, or 800g sugar and 4tbs of runny honey
1tsp citric acid
1.5 litres of water
Before you start, you have a choice, to wash the flowers, or not!
Lots of people think if you wash the flowers, you wash away the pollen and lots of the flavour and fragrance. However, the flowers are usually full of thrips, also known as thunderflies or thunderbugs, so some people prefer to wash the flowers to remove them.
You will be straining the final product, but if you prefer to not see your lovely elderflower infusion teaming with hundreds of insects, then wash them! I washed mine and still found a few in the jelly bag. The final cordial was still full of flavour and fragrance too, so the choice is yours.
Snip the flowers into a clean bowl with the grated zest of 4 lemons and 2 sliced lemons. Boil the water and pour over the flowers and lemons, stir, cover with a tea towel and leave overnight to infuse. Reserve the zested lemons as you will need the juice.
The next day, when you are ready to make the cordial, sterilise the bottles by washing in hot soapy water and then placing them in the oven at 140°C/210°F for up to 20 minutes.
Strain the infusion through a scalded jelly bag into a large pan and add the sugar (or sugar and honey), juice of 4 lemons and the citric acid.
Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and bring up to a simmer but don’t let it boil.
Using a funnel, or very carefully, pour the hot cordial into the hot, sterilized bottles and seal using screw tops or swing-top stoppers like I used. Leave to cool and store somewhere cool or the refrigerator for up to 4 months.
The cordial can be diluted with water and ice for a refreshing drink on a hot day or added to prosecco, cocktails and a couple of tablespoons added to icing sugar makes a lovely summery frosting for cakes too.
If you have any cordial left over that doesn’t fit in the bottles, you can freeze into cubes to add to a gin and tonic, or add a little water and make ice lollies.