April is a wonderful month. Flowers are everywhere, fishing is getting into gear and the summer garden is laden with promise. Foraging can be a little thin in my neck of the woods, however, as the greens are starting to go as the weather warms, But there is one delight to be had: Elderflowers.
Finding the buttercream flowers isn’t too tough: Elderberries grow everywhere near rivers, and the American River is loaded with bushes big and small. I’ve never seen them before April in Northern California, but they bloom even earlier in SoCal, and in the Southeast. I’ve seen elderflowers all over the place in Georgia and Florida in early spring. The farther north you live — or the higher in elevation — the later you must wait.
Keep in mind you are looking for blue or black elderberries, not red elderberries. Red elders are borderline toxic. You want Sambucus nigra or S. mexicana.
Keep in mind that an elderberry bush is a large plant, and can even grow into a small tree. Study the leaves in the photo above: They are a lush dark green, slightly serrated on their edges, and form on stalks; each leaf should be opposite to another. The flowers are cream-colored, not white.
Sometimes over-eager foragers fail to look at the plant they are picking from and grab hemlock by mistake. This can be fatal. But hemlock looks nothing like elderberry, so I have a tough time figuring out how this mistake happens…
A good rule to live by is to not take more than a few flower heads from each elderberry bush: This ensures that the bush will have enough to spread itself, it makes you find more bushes — it’s never a good thing to have only one spot for anything you forage for — and, most importantly, selective picking means you can come back in a few months for the berries.
Only choose the most beautiful flower heads; you don’t want flowers that have yet to open or are past their prime. Collect them in a paper bag so they can breathe. Plastic will make them wilt and sweat.
You will need a lot of flowers to make cordial, and even then the flavors of these sunny drinks are subtle. What does it taste like? It is more of an aroma thing, although the elderflower “lemonade” I am drinking right now has a certain tannic backbone to it that says it is not just lemonade.
It does look like lemonade, doesn’t it? There’s a reason. You make the base for elderflower cordial by preparing a simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water), bringing it to a boil and pouring it over lemon zest, a little lemon juice, LOTS of elderflowers, and a little citric acid, which adds flavor and keeps everything stable. You let this sit at room temperature for 2 or 3 days to macerate, and the result after you strain it through cheesecloth is this lovely-looking syrup.
NOTE: If you just want to make an elderflower simple syrup, which will ferment very fast if you don’t keep it really cold, skip all the lemon and citric acid. For a quart, boil 3 cups sugar and 3 cups water. Let it cool enough so you can stick your finger in it, then pour it over a quart Mason jar full of elderflowers. Steep 24 to 48 hours, then strain. Use within 3 weeks.
I add about a tablespoon of the syrup to a pint of water to make a drink with the level of flavor Gatorade has; add more syrup for a stronger drink. It tastes a lot like an Arnold Palmer (50-50 iced sweet tea and lemonade), but as elderflowers are known to be seriously good for you, I like this better.
Holly added some syrup to vodka to make an “Elder-tini,” which, when added to some cherries, make a damn good cocktail. Elderflower syrup is also excellent mixed with Champange (a classic), and its Italian cousin Prosecco. Heather makes a drink called a Caddisfly Nymph, which is elderflower syrup, Prosecco and a touch of Peychaud bitters.
- 1 quart water
- 4 cups sugar
- Juice of 2 lemons
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1 teaspoon citric acid
- 25 elderflower heads, about 2 cups flowers, stems removed
- Snip off the flowers from the stalks into a large bowl or bucket that will hold everything. Try to remove as much of the stems as you can; they are toxic. A few stray bits of stems will not hurt you, but you want to minimize it.
- Zest the lemons and add it to the bowl, then the citric acid and lemon juice.
- Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve. Let the syrup cool enough so that you can stick your finger in it without getting burned; you can leave it to cool to room temperature, too. Pour the syrup over the flowers, lemons et al and stir to combine. Cover the bowl or bucket with a towel and leave it for 2 or 3 days.
- When you are ready, strain it through a fine-meshed sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel into a clean Mason jar. Seal the jar and store in the fridge.
- To serve, pour 1 to 3 tablespoons of the syrup into a pint glass and add water or seltzer. Or you can add a tablespoon to a glass of sparkling wine, or to a couple shots of vodka or gin.