Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Foraging for elderflower.

One of the most basic joys of summer is the blossoming of the elderflower. The flowers of the elder (Sambucus) yield a sweet, musky aroma that in itself defines summer for me.

Elderflower is a versatile little bloom that can be used in several drinks and dishes. However, I've usually used it in brewing Elderflower champagne and making elderflower cordial. This year, depending on how much I'm able to collect, I'd like to expand this into making wine, tea and drying as much as possible for use over the coming year.

The best time to forage for elderflower is on a sunny day, when their scent seems to be at its most powerful. Elders are an extremely common tree, and (in Ireland in any case) can be found in nearly any stretch of hedgerow. They're by no means limited to this however, and I've often seen them growing in disused ground in urban areas (one overhangs the car park in my local convenience store, for example).

So, after a pretty miserable weekend, today turned out reasonably sunny (with a few clouds). After a morning digging in the allotment, I decided that I might not get another decent day to go foraging for elderflower before it's all gone, so after lunch, armed with a scissors and wicker basket, I made my way up the fields.

 The hedgerow is always lovely, but in the summer, with rose hips and hawthorn (picture above) flowering, it's especially beautiful.

I know the lay of the land around my home town very well, and I've my favourite spots for many of the fruits I forage for - be it sloe, bramley apple of elderflower. As such, I knew the path I would be taking in my search for today's quarry.

I follow certain rules when foraging for elderflower.
The first is to never take too many elderflower heads from the one tree - after all, the flowers develop into elderberries, a fantastic autumn harvest.
My next rule is to give the head I'm looking at cutting off a sniff - some simply don't pass the "smell" test and are left on the branch.
The third rule is to try and cut off heads that are mostly flower - some have not yet fully bloomed (with too many buds) and are not much use to me (as displayed in the picture on the left). 

Tradition holds that one must ask the hag that resides in the elder tree permission to take the flowers of the elder tree. I'm a stickler for tradition, so ask permission and then assume the maxim of "Qui tacet consentire videtur", before taking what I need.

Because of my first rule, I ended up on a decent walk across the fields. With the sunny weather, this was a real pleasure.
I spotted a couple of rabbits out frolicking.

Not long after, I came across my second find of the day - an edible fungus called "Jelly Ear". This fungus favours Elder, so the find was no real surprise, but I was delighted to discover it nonetheless.
The tree was fairly laden with them, so I made a mental note to come back another day soon to collect as many of them as I could.

Sometimes elderflower can be slightly challenging to collect - nothing too difficult, but I did come away today with my legs stinging from nettles and a few grazes where thorns of brambles caught me. These are minor setbacks when the bounty of the elderflower is considered. In all, it took me around two hours to collect a basketful of elderflower heads. Most of the trees have not yet fully blossomed, so with a little luck, I'll get out again in another week to collect more of these delightful little white flowers.

For the moment, I've to decide what to do with the ones I foraged today!


Niamh Hogan said...

Hi Paddy - Do you have a recipe for Elderflower cordial - would love to give it a go if its not too complicated. There are a few trees growing in the farm (my Dads) beside us. Thanks! Niamh.

Paddy Halligan said...

Hi Niamh,
It's really easy to make cordial:
Collect 25 elderflower heads. Bung them in a big saucepan. Add the zest of three lemons and an Orange. Add a litre and a half of boiling water. Cover and leave overnight.
Next day, strain the infused water through a jelly bag or muslin. Add the juice of the lemons and orange. Put in a kilo of sugar, and heat till the sugar dissolves. Simmer for a few minutes and then funnel into sterlised bottles.

It should keep for about two weeks. Use it like you would Ribena or any other fruit cordial.

P.S I mixed it up a little this year, and substituted a lime for one of the lemons. Turned out great!
Let me know how it goes...!

Niamh Hogan said...

Thanks Paddy - really looking forward to trying this - never tasted it before and I love the aroma from the flowers, so it should be interesting! Thanks again!!! Niamh.