It's June and the recipe of the month is for elderflower cordial. Delicious with fizzy water, put it in a champagne glass and celebrate with a clear head, or cook with it in both sweet and savoury recipes.
As you might have seen on my website, www.jessicabarrah.com, among my favourite smells are a lane of cow parsley, and elderflowers in bloom. At the start of June, with roses starting to come out and the cow parsley still frothing up the hedgerows, everything smells just gorgeous. Making elderflower cordial seems to me like bottling up a golden sunny day in early summer. It's something I love to do with my children, who when they were younger called it 'the flower drink'. It makes me feel very rustic and or 'Good Life' - esque, as though I should be wearing plaits and long skirts to trail through the grass.
Here in Sussex it seems that elderflowers come out towards the end of May, although it could be slightly earlier or later where you live. They grow on woody stemmed bushes or trees that you can often find in hedgerows. I planted a few in our garden as a boundary hedge that I cut back in winter when the leaves have fallen off.
Pick elderflower in the morning, on a sunny, or at least non-rainy day for the strongest flavour. The flowers should be open, and creamy white. Avoid the ones which are turning brown. I usually go out with a bag or basket, and a pair of scissors to snip them, although you could just snap them off with your fingers. Before cooking, remove as much of the stalk as you can, leaving only the smaller bits where the flowers themselves are attached. Shake the flowers into a tea towel, or brush to try to remove any insects.
I did once try and make elderflower champagne. The consequences weren't as disastrous as they could have been - I had visions of exploding glass and sticky goop everywhere - but instead, it was just disappointing. The liquid definitely tasted of alcohol, but disappointingly, also of mould. We had bottles of it in the shed for ages, hoping that musty taste might have matured into something delicious - but in the end I just poured it down the drain. Elderflower cordial is a lot easier and quicker - and there's no risk of explosions!
There is, however, a shocking amount of sugar in elderflower cordial. You could try and reduce it, but I think perhaps it's just like cake. Nothing in it is actually good for you, but it tastes nice, and as long as you just have a little bit, once in a while, it's okay. You can use small amounts for example to flavour a dressing, or to cook with tart tasting fruits such as rhubarb or gooseberry. I once stewed some gooseberries with elderflower cordial, and then made a 'gooseberry ripple' ice-cream in my ice-cream maker.
Citric acid helps to keep the cordial fresh for longer. I've had more success finding it in health food shops than in normal supermarkets. However, if you are going to be drinking the cordial quickly - for example if you're making it for a party, then you can do without citric acid, and just use lemons. Add it to prosecco or champagne, or sparkling water for a refreshing drink. You can also freeze it in cubes, or dilute slightly and pour into lolly moulds.
The recipe below is mainly from BBC Good Food - there are lots of recipes on the internet, including ones without citric acid, but with more lemons. The BBC Good Food recipe said to wash the flowers - but others said not to do that, since it gets rid of some of the elderflower scent and flavour. You can also strain the liquid through a muslin bag before decanting it into sterilised bottles, rather than a tea-towel - I think I'd prefer that than a sticky, syrup sodden tea-towel. Enjoy!
2 ½kg white sugar , either granulated or caster
2 unwaxed lemons
20 fresh elderflower heads, (stalks trimmed)
85g citric acid
STEP 1 Put the sugar and 1.5 litres/2¾ pints water into the largest saucepan you have. Gently heat, without boiling, until the sugar has dissolved. Give it a stir every now and again. Pare the zest from the lemons using a potato peeler, then slice the lemons into rounds.
STEP 2 Once the sugar has dissolved, bring the pan of syrup to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the flowers to the syrup along with the lemons, zest and citric acid, then stir well. Cover the pan and leave to infuse for 24 hrs.
STEP 3 Line a colander with a clean tea towel, then sit it over a large bowl or pan. Ladle in the syrup – let it drip slowly through. Discard the bits left in the towel. Use a funnel and a ladle to fill sterilised bottles (run glass bottles through the dishwasher, or wash well with soapy water. Rinse, then leave to dry in a low oven). The cordial is ready to drink straight away and will keep in the fridge for up to 6 weeks.