Elderflowers have started to bloom around Vintner Mansions and they have a special place in my wine making as it was the first ever wine I made. Sweet, dry or sparkling it is great stuff that goes down a treat. Elderflowers can also be added to rhubarb or gooseberry wines for a little twist, steeped in gin for a sweet summer cocktail, deep fried in tempura batter or even as a non-alcoholic cordial.
This is celebrity chef and part time Worzel impersonator Hugh Flannery Whittingstall’s recipe for cordial that Ms Gazette made while the wine is being started.
For an alcoholic hit elderflower gin can easily be made. The stripped flowers of 15 heads, a slice of lemon zest and a few tablespoons of light brown sugar to your own taste. Submerge it all in a decent supermarket gin and shake every day for a week before filtering to get a gingery floral gin ideal for a Tom Collins.
You can find them dried for sale but these create a darker wine without the full perfumy scent and flavour of fresh flowers. To make the best wine you have to forage for the fresh flowers. The best time to collect is early on a warm morning when pollen is at its hight to add as much flavour as possible. This will also give you time to pluck them off the green stems and then to make the wine as quickly as possible to get the freshest wine you can. If you want them as an addition to gooseberry wine it is best to freeze them until gooseberries are in season. Add them frozen and thoroughly stirred in when they are needed – any exposure to air as they defrost they will start to turn brown and give an oxidized darker amber colour to your wine.
Elder trees are scrubby little things part bush and part tree at 15m tall. The trunk is stout if visible at all and there are often a few stems that form the majority of the tree. The flowers are white/cream with five petals in sprays, the leaves are also usually arranged in sets of five though could be seven in total for some species. The easiest way to identify them is not sight but scent – a strong heady perfume that smells like a department store’s perfume counter.
It is customary to point out that elder trees are toxic… except for the flowers and eventual berries. Don’t eat the leaves, don’t lick the bark and certainly don’t go digging up the deadly roots.
To make the wine you will need about half a litre of picked flowers which is about 20 to 25 heads. As these flowers are wild, be kind and only take what you need, taking too many will mean that an arms race will develop with other foragers as you compete. The more you waste the fewer elder berries there will eventually be later in the year. Elder trees give a double dip of excellent white wine with the flowers and excellent red wine from the elderberries – the “English grape.” I usually try to take flowers from trees that have trouble ripening to full fruit, birds will take them or fruit flies will infest the partially ripe berries. These are usually trees away from water courses or in competition with other trees.
Only take flowers you can easily get to. Trampling a few nettles or cow parsley is fine as it will regrow, trampling through a salt meadow or disturbing wild life is not the nicest thing to do. If an elderflower is out of reach do not climb up to grab them as the branches are brittle, be kind and leave them for the birds. When picking check the undersides to make they are not covered in cuckoo spit or aphids as these will just have to be tossed away.
The best advice to be an ethical forager is easy – don’t be a dick.