Foraging doesn’t have to be risky (mushrooms) or unusual (anything you’ve never heard of). Some foraging is very safe, tasty and, frankly, ever so slightly middle class. Step to the front, elderflower cordial.
Elderflower cordial is increasingly popular as a non-alcoholic option for garden parties, weddings and barbecues, and with the amount of teetotallers on the rise (especially among young adults) the drinks industry has seen a boom in soft drink options. Elderflower cordial is one of the most popular, with lots of big brands such as Bottlegreen and Belvoir lining supermarket shelves.
Elderflower cordial is extremely easy to make yourself – it takes very little hands-on time, you just need to allow time for it to steep, so it’s a good thing to make if you want to get started with some very basic foraging.
Elderflowers grow on a flowering shrub called Sambucus, and it’s Sambucus nigra that is most commonly used to make elderflower cordial. Look out for their clusters of white flowers on verges, at the edges of fields, but be careful not to take them from areas with a lot of traffic.
Look for the delicate off-white flowers in late May to June. Make sure you use flowers that are still in their prime – they should have a delicate scent (not too strong) and when you shake them gently they should retain their petals. If their smell is strong and/or the petals drop off when you shake them then it’s too late for cordial. Not to worry, just leave them and come back in the autumn and they will have turned into berries so you can make elderberry jelly. You might find one shrub has flowers in various stages, so if all the flowers seem past-it on one side then check behind, where the flowers might be in more shade.
Pull the flower off at the base where the flower stems meet and pop them in a bag or box, keeping them upright if you can. You don’t want them to lose their pollen.
Check carefully for insects who might be hiding in the flowers. If it isn’t too windy you can leave them outside for a few hours to give any hideaways the chance to escape.
Recipe: elderflower cordial
This recipe is made using lemon juice instead of citric acid. If you can get it then use citric acid – on speaking with someone experienced with both methods I was told that citric acid gives it a much sharper taste. It also allows it to keep for longer.
Unfortunately citric acid has been used by drug addicts so you can no longer get it from pharmacies like you used to, but you can order it online (Amazon, for example) and sometimes get it from home brew shops.
Makes: approx 3.5 litres
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Steeping time: 2 days
- 1 carrier bag of elderflowers (I had about 45 heads of elderflowers in my bag)
- 1.5kg sugar (granulated or caster is fine)
- 8 lemons (or 4 lemons and 65g citric acid)
- 9 cups (about 2.12ltr) boiling water
Mix the sugar with the boiling water until the sugar has completely dissolved. You may need to do this in a pan over heat.
Leave the mixture to cool.
Zest the and slice the lemons and place them in the water. You can juice a few if you want a more lemony taste.
Pop the elderflowers in, flower head facing down, and stir gently to make sure the flowers are covered in water.
Cover the pan or bowl with a clean teatowel and leave to steep for 2 days.
After two days, strain the elderflower cordial into a jug.
Unlike fruit cordials the mixture will be very thin already so you can ladle it into a jug with a piece of muslin or a teatowel covering it and it will drain and fill the jug very quickly.
Once most of it is left you’ll end up with a pan or bowl full of elderflowers and lemon slices. You can scoop this into a teatowel or muslin sheet suspended from a straining stand or hanging from a cupboard door handle and leave it overnight with a jug underneath to catch the last remaining bits of cordial. Put a sieve on the jug as a lid to stop flies going into the cordial.
Bottle in sterilised glass bottles or, if you’re freezing it, plastic bottles. The cordial will keep for a few weeks but if you have a lot or you want to use it in future then it freezes very well.
Warning: your house will smell of elderflowers for days. It’s nice at first but the novelty does wear off!
Using your elderflower cordial
You can mix the elderflower cordial with sparkling water. For garden parties give it the Pimm’s treatment with sliced cucumber, mint leaves and strawberries etc.
You can also use it in baking, for example this Jamie Oliver pistachio, yoghurt and elderflower cake or thicken it with some icing sugar to create an easy elderflower icing to drizzle over a Victoria sandwich.
Drizzle a small amount over some strawberries about 30 minutes before serving.
For a decidedly alcoholic version you could also make some elderflower gin by replacing the water with gin.