Lemon drenched summer meadow, blossom stuffed citrus foam, fizzy floral lime lawn. Elderflowers, Sambucus nigra. The heady herald to summer, the scent of patio doors flung open to barefoot tennis, the schlock of croquet mallets, the promise of long navy dark evenings.
The little lace handfuls of blossom normally appear in early June but are just beginning to open in the Cornish countryside. Nigel Slater offsets the poetry with a frank addition that, “On a less romantic note, I detect a hint of fresh yeast and tomcats.” Suffice to say that one of our best loved and most common flowers is complex, contradictory, evocative.
Think of the little pinprick blossoms as a flavouring, to be treated much as a spice or herb. The easiest way to extract the flavour is to wrap a few flower heads in a muslin bag and use as a ‘tea bag’ in stewed apple; for a simple elderflower drink, put a bunch of the flowers in a jug with boiling water, strain when cool and sweeten to taste.
Capture the scent of summer in a cordial, champagne, jelly, sorbet, salad dressing, custard, fritter, gooseberry jam or even just straight off the tree as advocated by Richard Mabey in Food For Free, claiming that they: “taste as frothy as a glass of ice cream soda.” Mr Slater however, warns against such behavior claiming that raw, the flowers are mildly poisonous. But for any of the above, one simple rule: don’t wash the flowers otherwise much of the delicate fragrance will be lost.
Fail-safe elderflower cordial:
26 heads of flowers
3 and 1/2 lbs sugar
2 pints cold but boiled water
2oz/50g citric acid
Put the flower heads, chopped lemons, sugar, water, and citric acid in a bowl. Leave for 3 days stirring occasionally. Strain through muslin and bottle. Keep in the fridge. Can be frozen.
For a fail-safe, light as clouds fritter recipe, I’m opting for Nigel:
16 large elderflower heads
Oil for deep frying
A plate thickly dusted with caster sugar
For the batter:
100g plain flour
2 tbsps sunflower oil
175ml sparkling mineral water
1 tbsp caster sugar
An egg white
Sift the flour in a basin, add the oil and water beating slowly to a thick paste. Stir in the sugar and set aside for a very important 30 minutes. Beat the egg white until almost stiff and fold into the batter at the last moment.
Shake the flowers free of any insects and put the frying oil on to heat up. Test the oil to check it’s hot enough by chucking in a bit of bread, it should quickly become golden. Dip the elderflowers in the batter and lower them into the hot oil. Push down until the batter is pale gold and crisp, then straight out into the sugar and eat.