Few things capture the scent and flavour of early summer as well as elderflowers and homemade cordial is my favourite use for these aromatic beauties. There are hundreds of recipes out there, almost all of them based very simply on varying quantities of flowerheads, lemon, sugar and (optional) citric acid. The method is similarly very easy: measure, stir, steep is almost all there is to it, but there are a few key things to bear in mind which will ensure exemplary results….
1. PLAN AHEAD. Citric acid is often listed as an optional ingredient, however if you want your cordial to last more than a week or two it’s actually pretty darn essential, and generally not as easy to get hold of as most writers would have you believe. Recipes will tell you to seek it out in chemists but I checked with the chemists of all chemists – Boots – and they only sell it on prescription. You may have some luck with a small friendly non-chain store, or alternatively I’m told many kitchen/homewares stores selling home-brew kits will stock it. I buy mine from a lovely Warwickshire company called Fox’s Spices (01789 266420) – they don’t have a website but if you give them a buzz they’ll send you a catalogue in the post. Citric acid lasts almost forever, so buy plenty and then you wont have to worry next year.
2. PICK FRESH. Pick your elderflowers early in the morning on a dry day – rain does the flowers no favours and their aroma is stronger first thing. Whatever you do, don’t pick them until you have procured all your other ingredients, as the aroma vanishes within hours of picking.
3. PICK EARLY. Avoid older ‘turning’ elderflowers – the smell is quite unpleasant in the finished product. Make your cordial at the beginning of the season in late May and early June (although this can vary – my Elder has already finished for this year, but elsewhere in the country they’re only just starting to bloom), and pick only the freshest-looking, bright white blooms.
Now you’re ready to make your cordial. I’d make as much as you possibly can, as it makes excellent presents (the commercial stuff can’t hold a candle to it, and your friends & relatives will love you forever). Most recipes will tell you it lasts at most a few months, but I’ve found (with this recipe at least) that it will easily last a year if you sterilise your bottles before decanting, and keep it nice and cool – I keep my sealed bottles in a box in the garage, and opened bottles in the fridge. There’ll be some sediment after a few months but just give it a shake before pouring.
Makes 1.5 litres (approx)
25-30 elderflower heads
3 unwaxed lemons
2kg granulated sugar
75g Citric acid
De-bug your elderflower heads* and place in a large heatproof bowl. Disssolve the sugar in a saucepan with 1.1litres cold tap water in a saucepan on a low heat (stir gently but frequently).
Increase the heat and bring to the boil, then stir in the citric acid and the zest (remove it with a peeler) of the lemons. Allow to cool slightly then pour over the elderflower heads and add the lemon remains, cut into thick slices. Leave to cool, cover with clingfilm or muslin and leave to steep for 24 hours.
Strain through a muslin-lined sieve into a jug, and decant into bottles. For long-lasting results sterilise bottles, jug, funnel, sieve and muslin with copious amounts of freshly boiled water straight from the kettle. Seal the filled bottles ASAP and store in a cool dark place.
Serve diluted with chilled water (still or sparkling) or tonic water – I love the way the quinine in the tonic brings out the citrus and herbal notes in the drink. You can also use the cordial to make fragrant jellies (try lemon & elderflower, or champagne, elderflower and whole fresh berries); mix it with whipped cream for a perfumed fool with gooseberries, or mix it with vermouth and gin for a heady elderflower martini.
*Elderflowers are a magnet for all manner of creeping, flying, buzzing insects, and you really don’t want them in your beautiful drink. I find putting the flower heads in a clear plastic bowl and leaving them for 5-10 minutes is the best way to ensure you’re bug-free (shaking them is rather ineffective as a method of insect-removal, and you lose lots of aromatic pollen in the process). For some reason the bugs gravitate towards the plastic, and you’ll suddenly have a bowl crawling with teensy flies and nice wildlife-free flowers. Give them a check over for any bigger bugs before steeping, just in case.