Grab a basket and a pair of scissors. Put on your straw hat (for the sun is strong) and follow me, down to the fields, where the hedgerows are frothing with clouds of white elderflowers…
My passion for elderflower cordial began in childhood because my grandmother made it every year, steeping flower heads in enormous Mason and Cash mixing bowls then filling rows of plastic milk bottles (that had been carefully washed out and kept for months in advance - nothing was wasted) to freeze for year-round use.
On a warm day, nothing is as refreshing as a cold glass of homemade elderflower cordial. Somehow the shop-bought varieties can’t quite compete, but the real stuff is the perfect drink: cooling, sweet, tart, syrupy, fragrant and filled with heady, floral, honey-like aromas. It’s the taste of summer.
The sight of the bushes in full bloom fills me with joy and optimism for the months ahead. Poet Seamus Heaney, master of the simile, managed to convey the elder bush’s seasonal beauty in just a few lines:
‘The elderflower at dusk like a risen moon…I love its blooms, like saucers brimmed with meal.’ Seamus Heaney, from ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996.
The best time to pick elderflowers is on a warm, sunny May or June day, in the early afternoon when the blooms are fully open. Don’t pick if there has been recent rain, as lots of pollen gets washed away. Ensure you pick from a high bush, away from any roads, for the cleanest flowers. Cut whole heads off, using scissors at the base where the stalk begins to branch.
You can use elderflowers to make jam – with gooseberries or strawberries – to brew ‘elderflower fizz’ – a sweet wine, or to make cordial, which is my personal favourite and the easiest to do. Once you’ve made your cordial, as well as enjoying it as a drink, you can use it as a cooking ingredient; It works well in salad dressings, drizzled into cocktails or as a syrup for desserts or cakes.
Make your cordial as soon as you get home so the flowers are fresh, not wilted, and don’t wash them or you’ll rinse away the floral flavour. Getting hold of citric acid can be tricky, but the best place to get it is online or in a pharmacy, where you have to ask for it over the counter. Be aware that if you want to make a huge quantity of cordial, you might have to visit several pharmacies, because there are sometimes rules about how much citric acid you can buy in one go.
You will need: 30 elderflower heads, 1.5L water, 2kg white caster sugar, 85g citric acid powder, 2 lemons (sliced), 2 oranges (sliced).
Method: Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil in a large saucepan. Pour the hot syrup over the flowers in a large bowl or jam pan. Add citric acid, lemons and oranges. Stir well, cover with a tea towel and leave to steep overnight somewhere cool. The next day, strain through muslin cloth and bottle (in sterile glass or plastic bottles). Label and keep refrigerated until needed, or frozen (in plastic bottles only) for future use. Dilute with water to serve, or mix it with Champagne for a cooling cocktail, garnished with mint and cucumber.
Words and images by Ellie Tennant
Sign up here to be the first to hear about our new collection offers, events and our latest magazine articles