Elderflower – the essence of early summer

By Sarah Watson

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The flowers of the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) are one of my favourite edible blossoms. The creamy-white, saucer-shaped blooms have a unique, sweetly fragrant scent with notes of citrus and honey, and a superb, rich, floral flavour. But the elderflower season doesn’t last for long – just a few weeks in late spring to early summer, so make the most of it while you can, taking care not to collect too many flowers from one spot so the tree can fruit later, providing food for wildlife as well as foraging human beings.

The flowers are arranged in flat umbels of 10-30cm across, each one is made up of tiny florets with five petals and five pale-yellow anthers. The leaves of this small tree are formed of two or three pairs of (rather acrid and unpleasant-smelling) opposite leaflets with serrated edges, ending in a single terminal leaflet. The young twigs are green, becoming grey as they age, and splitting them reveals a soft white pith. The grey bark is grooved and corky-looking and can often be covered in green algae. The best time to pick the flowers is on a warm, dry day when the blooms are freshly open – as they get older the smell becomes less pleasant, even cat-wee like! Shake them gently to dislodge any insects.

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Elderflowers and the fruit that follows in late summer to early autumn, small globular purple-black elderberries, have been used in cooking for centuries. However, the stalks and leaves contain toxic cyano-compounds (denatured to some extent on cooking, but not especially tasty either) so flowers should be stripped away from as much of the green stalk as possible – this can be done with a fork or using your fingers.

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Elderflower fritters, made with a light tempura batter

Elderflower fritters are a lacy, crispy treat: dip elderflowers in a light batter, briefly deep-fry, then sprinkle with icing sugar or elderflower cordial and serve with summer fruits or gooseberry compote. Note: it’s easier to leave some of the main flower stalk on for this dish, but don’t eat it.

It’s simple to make your own elderflower cordial, I add lime for extra zing – here’s my elderflower cordial recipe, and here are some ideas for using elderflower cordial or liqueur in gorgeous cocktails.

Elderflower ‘champagne’ is worth a try too, but watch out for exploding bottles – rather than using glass ones, I prefer reused plastic fizzy drink/sparkling water bottles (sterilised with sterilising tablets and water), or you can buy empty ones online or from wine-making shops. Keep the filled bottles in a cool, dark place keeping them away from anything you don’t want to be potentially sprayed, just in case!

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Elderflower can also be used to flavour sorbet, ice lollies, ice cream, custard, panna cotta, cakes, preserves, liqueurs and salad dressings. Nick Hales of St Clements restaurant in St. Leonards-on-Sea suggests pickling Hastings herring fillets in elderflower vinegar – I have to say I was bit sceptical, but I tried it and it works wonderfully!

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My elderflower panna cotta with strawberries drizzled with elderflower cordial

Always use good identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them.

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast forage, cook and eat course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).