One of the many pleasures of spring can be found growing all over the countryside – in hedgerows, along streams, sometimes in a garden, but more often growing wild. It is a large shrub, which bears many heads (panicles) of creamy white flowers, followed by black berries in late summer. The flowers have a delicate perfume, reminiscent of muscat grapes. The name of this plant is Sambucus – have you guessed yet what the common name of this plant may be?
It’s Elder – often overlooked and neglected, and rarely used these days. But elderflowers can be used to make a number of delicious comestibles, and I am going to tell you about two of them today. The flower heads are made up of many tiny flowers in a complex branching structure, which is fascinating to examine at close range. The season for the flowers is relatively short; in the South of France it starts in late April/early May and lasts about three weeks at the most. In more temperate climes you may find elderflowers as late as June.
The first recipe is for elderflower cordial, which captures the wonderful flavour of the flowers, and allows me to enjoy it whenever I want to throughout the year. Using elderflowers is something of a tradition in my family – when I grew up there was the most enormous elder bush – well more of a tree, really – in our garden. Making the syrup is very simple, you just need sugar, lemon, citric acid, and elderflowers. As so often, timing is everything as the elderflowers should be at their peak when you make this.
30 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, sliced
80g citric acid
1 lt boiling water
Shake the elderflowers to remove any stray bugs and dust, then set aside. Put the sugar, citric acid and lemon slices into a heatproof bowl (I used a large stainless steel casserole) and pour the boiling water over them. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. With a pair of scissors snip the flowers off the stalks. The aim is not to include any of the very thick stalks. Stir the flowers into the syrup. Cover the bowl and put in a cool place to macerate for four days, stirring from time to time.
After four days, strain the syrup through a fine sieve, or a colander lined with cheesecloth, then bottle and cork. Because of the high sugar content the cordial should keep for some time. It is ready to be used immediately.
Note: For a more tangy taste you could squeeze the lemons and use the juice, instead of the lemon slices.
Elderflowers also make wonderful fritters, and I try to make them at least once each year, while the flowers are about.
The following recipe requires a minimum of effort for a great result. It is best to harvest the elderflowers just before you make the fritters; if you need to keep them for a few hours, put them into a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge.
1 egg, separated
pinch of salt
pinch of baking powder
125ml white wine (I use half muscat wine and half water)
6 – 8 heads of elderflower, depending on size
Oil for frying
1 tbsp icing sugar
Shake the elderflowers, inspect for bugs and set aside. In a bowl mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the egg yolk and wine and stir to just combine – stirring too much will result in tough fritters. In another bowl beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the batter. The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream. If necessary add a tablespoon of water to thin it slightly.
Heat some oil in a frying pan (I prefer peanut oil) over medium heat, until hot but not smoking. Holding the elderflowers by the long stalk dip them into the batter until all the flowers are well covered, and then place them in the frying pan. The number of fritters you are able to cook at the same time will depend on the size of your frying pan and the size of the flowers. Once the fritters are cooking, snip off the thick stalks with scissors.
Turn the fritters over when bubbles begin to show around the edges. You may need to add some more oil after turning them. Cook until golden brown on both sides, remove, and put on a piece of kitchen paper to drain. Continue with the remaining flowers. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.
Apologies for the green-ish cast on some of the pictures!! The fritter recipe is very easy to multiply; I doubled it, but feel free to multiply it even more and invite all your friends over for this springtime treat!