“Foraging”- when I hear it I can’t help but think of people from stone age civilisations picking berries in bushes, or cutting roots from trees and stewing them; the last resort for food before people starved. Perhaps in Lord of The Rings, Frodo and Sam couldn’t find anything for dinner, so they foraged for a while. That’s the kind of association I have for foraging- not something found in the modern era of supermarkets and year-round availability of produce. But although times have changed, a lot of the wild plants haven’t. Elderflowers, Nettles, Damsons, Rose, Violets, Lavender and many more can be found wild in the UK, and all provide a unique taste to food. It might be that the knowledge of what’s good to find wild hasn’t been passed on to the current generation, or maybe we don’t spend so much time out in the countryside anymore.
In any case, June-July is the season for elderflowers in England. Elderflower cordial is one of my favourite drinks, I’ve had some very agreeable elderflower “shampagne”, and recently an elderflower sorbet was terrific in the middle of a meal. They’re meant to be really common in England at this time of year, so were a very appealing target for my first attempt at foraging. They’re very easy to make into a flavoured syrup, which can be dilulted with sparkling water to make a fizzy drink, added to sparkling wine to make a tasty aperitif, or used in cooking in things like jelly. A bottle of elderflower syrup would also make a great gift.
One of the things I was worried about when looking for elderflowers is that I would mistake something else for them- cow parsley, for example. Cow parsley is edible, but tastes quite unpleasant, so if I ended up with some of that in with any elderflower, I’d end up with bad result. Fortunately there are a couple of key identifiers for elderflowers though. Firstly, elderflowers definitely do smell like you would expect, a wonderful smell of summer. Secondly, the leafs are a big giveaway, usually in groups of five, and with slightly serrated edges (see above photo).
Armed with this only this information and a carrier bag, one beautiful summer’s day I left the house on my bike, not knowing what I would find. Of course, I struck gold almost immediately, finding two large elder trees on the road just outside my housing area. Trees which I had cycled past every day, and completely ignored. I picked all of the nice flowers the trees had, which took a little effort with some of the flowers that were higher off the ground (if you aren’t particularly tall, using a stick of some sort to help bend the branches down is a useful trick). Once I had plenty for my purposes, I reluctantly left the sun and blue skies, and headed back to make the syrup.
They syrup is very straightforward to make. You simply de-stem the elderflowers (which can take a while), add water, sugar, and lemon juice, heat it up for a short while, and then leave to infuse. I’ve taken the following recipe from Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food. This recipe will make quite a lot of syrup, so you might want some sterilised bottles or kilner jars to preserve it in. You can make less syrup, or more concentrated syrup, if you aren’t able to store so much of it.
1 carrier bag of elderflowers, about 800g or around 20 heads.
1kg caster sugar
4 litres water
1. De-stem the elderflowers and put in a large pan. Add the water and sugar. Juice the lemons, add the juice and the used lemon halves.
2. Bring to the boil, simmer for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and cover with cling film. Allow to infuse for 24 hours.
3. Strain through a muslin and bottle with sterlised bottles or jars. If you just use the syrup as is, it will last a few days- bottled will obviously last a lot longer.