It turns up in wine, cordials and sorbets but did you know it could ward off midges too? Read more in celebration of this versatile plant......
In the country, they say that summer begins when the elder comes into flower and ends when the berries are ripe. The large white flat-topped clusters of elderflower blooms have just begun to open, filling country lanes and suburban gardens with their heady scent and providing almost endless possibilities for a bountiful harvest. The flowers, which will bloom for three weeks or so, have a miscellany of uses and can easily be transformed into wine, cordials and sorbets and the fragrant muscadet flavour used to enhance the flavour of jams, pickles, chutneys and vinegars. Gardeners used to sprinkle foul smelling bruised elder leaves around tender plants and buds to prevent attack by aphids and caterpillars, often adding a sprig in their hatband to ward off midges. Keen gardener Jenny Hunt lives with her husband and four children in a remote organic smallholding in West Dorset. She picks as many blooms as she can to make her grandmothers' elderflower cordial which the whole family love. Her recipe is simplicity itself. Just pick the blooms - there's no need to remove the green stems or stalks - and leave them to infuse for five days before bottling (see recipe, below). Jenny is fortunate in having an enormous elder tree growing in the paddock. She gets up early, picking a day when the weather is warm to collect the blossoms. "Luckily we are a good distance away from roads and the blooms are free from pollution," she says. Following local tradition, Jenny has also planted an elder tree over her compost heap. "It's supposed to help make the earth richer," she explains. Elder trees are often found in old cottage gardens where they were believed to give protection from witches. Elder can still be used to ward off nasties: during the winter, Jenny prescribes the cordial served warm as a great cure for sore throats and colds. Elderflowers have to be used immediately after picking. Choose cream-coloured umbels which have a better flavour than the white, and avoid washing or wetting the flowers, which will spoil the fragrance. Although the flowers may not smell particularly pleasant at first, as they infuse the fragrance becomes delicious.
ELDERFLOWER CORDIAL: Ingredients: 20 elderflower heads; 1 lemon (sliced); 2tsp citric acid; 3 1/2lb sugar; 2 1/2 pints boiling water. Put all the dry ingredients into a clean pan. Pour boiling water over. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Skim. Cover with a cloth or lid. Stir twice daily for five days. Strain through muslin and bottle. The cordial can be frozen in plastic bottles (leave space for expansion). Fresh cordial can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. Dilute with water, sparkling mineral water or lemonade and serve with slices of lemon and sprigs of mint. Diluted, this can be made into a refreshing sorbet.
ELDERFLOWER 'CHAMPAGNE'(non-alcoholic): Ingredients: 6 heads of elderflowers; 1 1/2lb caster sugar; 2tbsp of white wine vinegar; 1 lemon (rind and juice); 1 gallon of boiling water. Place the elder blossoms in a large container. Sprinkle over the sugar, wine vinegar and lemon juice and rind. Add a gallon of boiling water, stir gently, then leave for 24 hours, covered with a clean cloth. Strain the infusion into sterilised bottles and seal. Plastic corks are best. Leave the "champagne" to settle for two weeks before drinking, storing the bottles in a cool place. By then, it should be clear and sparkling.
MRS GENNERY-TAYLORS ELDERFLOWER WINE: Ingredients: About half a carrier-bag full of elderflowers (dont squash them down); 1 lemon and 1 orange; 1 gallon of boiling water; 3lb granulated sugar and 1oz yeast. Place flowers and juice and grated rind of lemon and oranges in a large container. Pour on boiling water. Leave for four days. Strain into a saucepan and bring just to the boil. Pour into a container over the sugar and stir until dissolved. When lukewarm, add yeast. Cover and leave for another six days, stirring daily. Pour into a demi-john and fit an air-lock. Bottle when the air-lock stops bubbling. Should be drinkable about six months later. From Easymade Wine and Country Drinks (Elliot Rightway, £3.99).