Frankly I am a bit surprised. Everywhere I read on the internet, it said that elderberries don’t come ripe until September — and what’s more, they follow blackberries and precede wild grapes; our blackberries are still green. But few of those online sources are from California, where drought and sun ripens everything early.
Friday morning Holly and I went down to the American River to check on some wild grape leaves; I am looking for a vine with exceptionally large leaves so I can preserve them to make dolmades down the road. “I think we should also check on the elderberries, just in case,” I said, and Holly agreed.
When we arrived at the first of the many bushes I watch over, it was loaded with black berries, many with the characteristic bloom that makes them look like miniature grapes. (More on the grape-elderberry connection later.) When I saw all those ripe berries, I admit I had an attack of smug: Despite EVERYONE telling me that elderberries don’t come ripe until autumn, I was certain I could find ripe ones now.
How? Highway 50 showed me the way. On my way home from work every day, I pass three elderberry bushes along Folsom Boulevard. Even whizzing down the road, I can check their progress daily. I first saw dark berries on one of the bushes nearly a month ago, and almost rear-ended someone because I did such an extended double-take. Dark berries in June? Maybe it was just the exposed location of these bushes, with no tree cover and a constant exhaust bath.
But more and more berries had darkened on those bushes, and this past weekend I had both the time and the inclination to check on them in less polluted places. Our efforts Friday morning were rewarded: Checking on the string of bushes I’d scoped out getting the Lay of the Land, we managed to pick 4 1/2 pounds within two hours.
The secret to elderberries, it seems, is that they are a rolling bush: Parts of some bushes are still in flower (meaning you can still make elderflower syrup and liqueur if you hurry!) while the berries below have already ripened. Even when I picked my stash of elderflowers in May there were green berries on some.
So in a way I guess it is true that elderberries will be ripe in September — yet you can start picking them long before that. But beware, slackers! Ripe elderberries are sweet — sweet enough that the deer like them very much. We saw a lot of nibbled-off spots on the bushes we picked from. By September I suspect the only remaining elderberries will be too high for the deer to get; and then you need to worry about birds.
How did I know I had 4 1/2 pounds of elderberries? I weighed them after spending two hours destemming them. This is the least fun part of dealing with elderberries, but it needs to be done: The stems and leaves of the plant are slightly toxic, and definitely bitter.
Turns out taking elderberries off their stems isn’t so hard after all. You need to be patient and have a light hand, however, as the berries are fragile. Work with small portions of each cluster at a time, and gently rake your half-open hand over the berries, letting them fall into a bowl set beneath you.
Again, let me stress the word “gentle.” Unripe berries hold onto the stem, ripe ones fall off easily. And you don’t want to eat unripe berries.
The best berries are on stalks that have begun to turn a bit reddish; there will be a few elderberry raisins on them. But the larger black berries on stalks with light green stems are also OK. Just be sure to avoid clusters that have red berries. Ripe elderberries are black.
What to do with all these berries? Admire them, to start. Poured into a large, flat Tupperware, they looked like $10,000 worth of caviar: Shiny, tiny black orbs. So pretty! Dip your face close, and you will get the unmistakable aroma of winegrapes.
It was at this moment I realized just how good these could be in the hands of a competant winemaker — only you’ll never find one working with elderberries in California, as this place heaps so much scorn on “fruit” wines that I can barely mention them in public. Tyranny of the Grape, I call it.
I made an elderberry wine years ago, from store-bought “medicinal” juice. It was thin. To do it right you need real berries, and a lot of them. I reckon at least 5 pounds per gallon. Maybe I will go for it and make a 3-gallon batch, but I still haven’t decided…
I did make some liquor, though. In fact, I made two kinds of elderberry liqueur: One with whole berries in vodka with lemon zest, the other with crushed berries, sugar and lemon juice. I will keep you posted on how they finish up in the coming months.
I also did something I have not done in a long, long time. I made jelly. Or tried to, at least. Why jelly?
Elderberries share one more thing in common with winegrapes: They have little seeds in them, which are edible enough but would make a jam grittier than a rustic strawberry jam. Besides, my main reason for making this jelly is not to put on toast. It is as a base for the classic Cumberland sauce I make to go with wild game such as duck and venison.
Cumberland sauce is traditionally made with red currant jelly, but elderberry seems more natural here in California. For one, red currants don’t grow here. And the local deer eat elderberries. So do the quail and pheasants. I bet wild pigs would, too. Pigs eat anything. So I made a big batch of this jelly to store for the winter.
Which, I think, was the problem. I’d forgotten that big batches of jelly won’t set for some reason, even with commercial pectin. My batch has not yet set, several days later. I think it’ll be syrup forever. But that’s OK, I like syrup, too, and you need to melt the jelly for Cumberland sauce anyway.
So jelly, liqueur and possibly wine — any other uses for elderberries I am missing? I’ve got time, and the season has just begun…