My grandmother would be an eco-warrior by the standards of today – she foraged, grew, recycled and repurposed everything. She’d painstakingly cut up cereal packets for shopping lists, make art from hoarded bottle tops, amass great folios of butter paper for greasing tins, and lay down armies of rather gritty jams (“Just scrape the mould off!”). In the summer, her Lakeland kitchen filled with bubbling demijohns of elderflower champagne and wonky bottles of elderflower cordial – a nectar that I’m convinced, to this day, is always better homemade, rather than shop-bought.  

An elderflower fizz at Boath House in the Scottish Highlands
An elderflower fizz at Boath House in the Scottish Highlands

The season for foraging the elder’s lacy white clusters of flowers is May and June, when hedgerows and parks are filled with their citrussy, honeyed, slightly musky-rose perfume. “It’s magical when they first start to appear – it’s a moment full of promise,” says Dan Cox, chef-patron of Crocadon restaurant in Cornwall, which has a 120-acre farm planted with 300 elder trees. “We use elderflower to make cordial, flower vinegar and tangy shrubs for serving long with soda.” They also pickle the blooms for serving with dishes such as crab in winter time.

“Be sure to pick the elderflower heads on a dry day, early in the morning, and use ASAP after picking,” advises Angela Clutton, author of Seasoning: How to Cook and Celebrate the Seasons (£30, Murdoch Books). “Gently shake to dislodge any insects, but don’t wash the heads or the flavour will disappear.” Elderflower’s aroma can swing from high-toned and pure to downright funky, depending on the individual tree and lateness in the season. So let your nose be your guide – pick the umbels with the scent you find most pleasing. 

Elderflower growing at Crocadon, Cornwall
Elderflower growing at Crocadon, Cornwall
Pickled elderflower blooms at Crocadon
Pickled elderflower blooms at Crocadon

It’s then essentially just a case of steeping them in sugar syrup. But the devil’s in the detail. Every cordial maker I know does it a little differently. Clutton favours a sugar-to-water ratio that’s roughly 2:3, which makes the cordial richer and more shelf-stable; but some cooks I know go as light as 1:10 (which makes a cordial that’s more fragile). Clutton adds lemons for brightness; others flavour with honey, or add a tang of white-wine vinegar. It’s also common to add a little citric acid as a preservative.

Elderflower season is a favourite time at Boath HouseSessions Arts Club’s off-shoot in the Scottish Highlands. This summer, the new restaurant will be serving the house cordial in a Hugo Spritz made with mint, lime and sparkling wine – for a non-alcoholic version use soda or lemonade. “We also grow pink elderflower, which we love to scatter along with vanilla-y meadowsweet flowers over big bowls of Highland berries,” says chef Philip Mcenaney. My grandmother would have approved. 

Elderflower cordial

QuantityIngredients
15freshly picked elderflower heads
2lemons
500gcaster sugar
30gcitric acid
850mlwater

Makes about 1 litre

  1. Cut the lemons into quarters, prise the flesh away from the pith, and put in a big pot with the sugar and citric acid.

  2. Boil the water, pour over the sugar and citric acid and stir, then gently push in the elderflowers so they are fully immersed.

  3. Cover and leave to steep for 24 hours.

  4. Fine-strain and bottle. Store in the fridge.

From Seasoning – How to Cook and Celebrate the Seasons by Angela Clutton 

Boath House Hugo Spritz 

QuantityIngredients
10mint leaves
25mllime juice
25mlhomemade elderflower cordial
125mlEnglish sparkling wine
  1. Gently crush the mint in your hands and place it into a Collins or large wine glass. 

  2. Add the lime juice and elderflower cordial and mix well together. Add lots of ice, the sparkling wine, stir and serve garnished with mint.

@alicelascelles

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