Foraging for Flowers in Green and Pleasant Pastures
When I first moved to the UK, I was fascinated by all the chatter about elderflowers that took place each spring. When the season was starting, where to find it and what to do with it seemed perennial topics. I had never encountered elderflower in any form during my true 1980s Canadian childhood but the bottled supermarket cordial made an annual appearance at our British summer picnics and seemed nice enough.
Fast forward a decade and, having picked my daughter up from school, we came upon a lovely elderberry bush studded with clusters of tiny white flowers just beginning to bloom.
“Mama look! Elderflowers!”
“Aren’t they lovely?”
“Let’s pick some!”
I was wary of this suggestion as they seemed a bit delicate to be placed in a vase and I genuinely had no idea what else we would do with them but my daughter is insistent:
“Let’s pick some! We can make elderflower cordial – I know how!”
“Yes. Yes. I’ll show you. I made it at school.”
And so, that is how I learned of my daughters initiation into the world of elderflower. She knew so much about this bush and these little flowers, including the best time to pick them (early morning and always on a dry day), how to carry them home (in a basket) and when to make them into cordial (immediately).
We picked about ten medium sized bunches and safely transported them home, which is where she taught me how to make this sweetly scented, lovely lemony cordial. Much like the strawberry syrup from last week, this can be used to make into a drink with water or drizzled over or into to any number of desserts, including ice cream, yoghurt and cake batter. In fact, do not be put off of making cordial by the fact that you may live very far from elderflowers – the process is so simple and the results so gratifying, that I would encourage you to try it with whatever fruits or edible flowers are in season where you live.
Since that first experience of making cordial a few weeks ago, we have foraged for flowers several more times – while they are still in bloom – in order to make more cordial for ourselves and for others. I don’t know how to describe the heady scent of the infusion (so unlike any bottled one we’ve every bought) or the unique pleasure in picking flowers from a hedge and transforming them into a magic elixir other than to say, it is absolutely worth the year long wait for the elderflowers to arrive and I finally understand what all the fuss was about!
(As taught to me by my six year old)
The quantities here make roughly 500ml of concentrated cordial. The recipe scales up easily in case you were able to pick many flowers or just wanted a big batch!
7 – 10 Medium to Large Sized Bunches of Elderflowers
Remember to ask permission to pick flowers if the bush is not on public land. Try and pick from bushes away from busy roads and on a warm dry day. Smell the flowers before picking and choose those which are most fragrant. It is ideal to pick them in the morning but we don’t always manage it and the cordial is still delicious.
250g Caster Sugar There are so few ingredients here that the type of sugar can make quite a difference to the depth of flavour. We use unbleached cane sugar (as opposed to beet sugar) and it is labelled golden caster sugar.
300ml Boiling Water
2 Unwaxed Lemons Preferably organic as we will be infusing it with the peel
A heaping 1/4 teaspoon Citric Acid (optional) This acts as a preservative and helps your cordial to last longer – available at Indian Grocers or at the Chemist/Pharmacy.
First, carefully sort through the elderflowers. Take off any brown bits and check carefully, very carefully for small bugs and other such critters. If the stalks are long, then trim them close to where the bunch begins.
Wash and slice the lemons, removing the seeds as you go (if you leave the seeds in, they may make your cordial taste bitter). Set to one side.
Place the sugar in a large non-reactive bowl (preferably glass or stainless steel) and pour the boiling water on top. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.
Add the citric acid and stir until it has dissolved. Then add the sliced lemons and mix. Taste the mixture at this point and decide if you might like more lemon or more sugar and add more as you wish.
Now add in the elderflowers and stir well, trying to submerge the flowers as best you can. Any flowers not submerged will oxidise – this does not affect the taste but will give the cordial a darker colour.
Once everything is mixed and submerged, cover with cling film and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours.
The next day, gather your mixture, a large fine mesh sieve or clean piece of cheesecloth and a container to strain your cordial into – we used a large measuring jug.
Strain the mixture once and if there are still bits left, strain it again. Try not to be too distracted by the heady scent of the infused flowers. Discard the flowers – they’ve done their job – and set aside the lemon rinds, as they are still useful.
Your cordial is now ready! Pour into sterilised glass bottles if you wish to keep it for some weeks, otherwise if you plan to use it within a few days, pour into any clean, sealable container. We added a few of the flowers to our bottles because my daughter thought it “looked fresh”. Store your cordial in the fridge.
When you’re ready to make up a drink, pour a tablespoon or two into a glass and top up with cool still or sparkling water. Adjust the proportions of cordial and water to your liking and savour the taste of summer. Enjoy.