By the side of the road is my favorite place to find food. Why? Because I’m a sucker for free stuff. A natural swag hag. And an Elderberry bush is especially swaggish because it has two seasons: the Flower Season and the Berry Season. Two projects. One bush.
I look forward to the appearance of elderflowers all year because, along with cherries, they are the first thing I ‘put up’. They arrive in late spring, about the third week in June. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll notice them everywhere and slam on the breaks to point it out to everyone in the car. “LOOK, EVERYONE!! ELDERFLOWERS!!” Screeech!!
You might (like me) start sneaking around at night with your basket, your snippers and a good made-up excuse when your neighbors discover you lurking around their yard in the middle of the night. “Um…Looking for my dog!” “Lost my diamond earring!” “Making some elderflower liquor…want some?”
Honesty is the best policy in my experience – most neighbors will gladly trade a few clippings of their overgrown bush for some delicious Elderflower “Liquor”. And Thank you, Wayne & Ellie! I’ll be down tomorrow with your jar! (We’ll go over what to do with the elderberries in a couple of months including why you should invest in an Afro-pick, but for now, here’s the flowery-stuff.)
Elderflower “Liquor” is more or less the same stuff as St. Germain, that heavily marketed, very pricey yet delicious elixir that’s on every cocktail menu from Bix to Brix. It’s no wonder – it’s hugely delicious stuff that has a uniquely lemony, yet distinctly floral, almost lychee-like taste.
I make it in large batches and give it to friends at the start of the summer to ensure that everyone has me in mind when they have a surplus of fruits or vegetables in need of ‘putting up’. European friends, in particular, will fall to their knees. They will wonder where you obtained the heady stuff of their youth.
For me, it’s the first thing I tackle; the peas have not yet shown their pods, the cukes are far from poking out from their slumber, the fruits are still the stuff from which dreams are made, but elderflowers are right there…on your neighbor’s property.
This is the basic recipe for any sort of drink ‘syrup’ that you might make: lemon balm, basil, mint, Buddha’s Hand peel. Syrup, of any sort, is great for ice tea, marinades and, of course, gin cocktails. It’s not alcoholic in any way and adding some to a glass of soda water and ice is a delicious, kid-appropriate treat.
45 heads of elderflowers (more or less)
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
Optional: 1 teaspoon of Citric Acid*
*Citric Acid will make your syrup last longer in the fridge. You can buy it in the canning aisle of your grocery store or on cheese-making websites. Despite its Quentin Tarantino-esque name, Citric Acid is nice to have around. It helps with a bunch of weird cooking projects, particularly jam and other foodstuffs that require a longer shelf life, a higher level of acidity and a ‘lemony’ note.
1. Separate the flowers from the stems as much as possible (too much stem can be toxic). Put your offspring to the task. Make it sound fun – like painting a fence!
2. When the flowers are like a big, stemless fluff, put them in a heat-proof bowl or a large Ball Jar (my choice).
3. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice to the flower pile. Add the citric acid if you have it.
4. Heat the sugar and water in a pot over medium heat until the sugar ‘melts’ into the water. Let the hot sugar-water (aka ‘simple syrup’) cool down for 10 minutes then pour the syrup over your flower pile. Put some plastic wrap over your bowl or your ball jar and leave it on the kitchen counter.
Now you wait. It will take about two to three days until the flower flavor infuses intensely into your syrup. I taste it frequently, a couple of times a day, to check its progress. I try to get it at its peak.
STRAIN THE SYRUP
When it tastes insanely delicious, strain the syrup into a measuring cup (or anything that has a bit of a ‘spout’ for pouring) and toss out the flowers. It’s at this point that I secretly plop a finger-full of cooked flowers into my mouth, but it’s not a requirement. I suck on the sugary stuff then spit out the spent flowers in the sink before anyone catches me!
POUR INTO PRETTY BOTTLES
You’re ready! Pour this yummilicious syrup into a pretty glass swing bottle. Keep a batch for yourself, but give away as much as you can part with. You’ll be rewarded tenfold when your neighbors remember that you know what you’re doing in the kitchen and that you might just turn their over-producing plum-tree into something delectable.
My favorite way to use Elderflower “Liquor” is to add a tablespoon to a martini shaker along with a measure of gin (or vodka, if you’re my husband) and ice. Shake like a madwoman while singing Happy Birthday twice then pour into a chilled martini glass. Add a few flowers on top or something else equally cute.
Take your boots off before you come in here!