Now, I tend to get excited about the elder trees in late spring, when their dusty, creamy flowers promise oodles of flavour to add to gin, vodka or cordial to name but a few. I have to admit that I didn’t even know that the berries were anything special, or even edible. I was brought up to be wary of berries that you weren’t 100% sure about, and although I loved eating sloes in front of school friends who were convinced that they were poisonous (along with pulling the flowers off dead nettles and chasing some of my more gullible class-mates), my knowledge of autumn’s berries didn’t extend much further than that.
Last year I found and cooked up a load of crab apples (which I had done before) and rosehips (which I hadn’t), as well as the traditional batch of sloe gin (as soon as I found a laden sloe bush). This year, it’s elder berries.
We went up the hill for milk and eggs at the weekend, and on the way home spotted an elder bush absolutely laden with the things. I had elderberries on the mind because I saw a market fruit and veg stall selling them a couple of hours earlier (and was struck by the fact that I’d never seen anything like that in England – perhaps I just haven’t been in the right places). We only had the rucksack that was holding the milk and eggs, but I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that pass. We filled the poor thing to the brim. My new motto is “if it can be put in gin, then it should be.”
Of course the weight of the berries on top meant that those on the bottom were a little squashed – the egg box is sporting some stains in a pleasing purple colour, and the rucksack is waiting to see whether it will survive the washing machine – but they didn’t seem too much worse for wear.
So when I got home, I set about removing the berries from the stalks, as a quick search of the internet told me that there’s a small amount of cyanide in elderberries, and it’s best to remove all stalkage before using. This wasn’t difficult, they come off pretty easily either by using a fork to “comb” the berries off their stalks, or just by hand. It was pretty time consuming though, and I don’t know if I’d’ve got through it all if I hadn’t had a couple of pretty good rugby games to keep me going. (Well, Japan:South Africa was very good; France:Italy was a bit anticlimactic after that).
The weight of de-stalked berries was 3lb5oz (roughly 1.5kg). I divided them roughly into 3: two parts went towards gin (always a good cause), and the last part went into cordial.
When googling Elderflower gin, something that came up on some pieces I read was the need to cook the berries beforehand (again, because of cyanide). Some, but not all, so I did one batch with cooked berries, and one with raw. The quantities were as follows:
The principle is the same as sloe gin – put the berries in with enough sugar and alcohol that they don’t go off, leave until well infused, strain and drink (not all at once.) I also read somewhere that you shouldn’t leave elderberries in for more than a month (cyanide? probably) so that’s something I’ll have to remember to do, rather than my usual method of putting it in the back of the cupboard or cellar and forgetting about it for months.
The berries for the cooked batch were just put in a pan and had boiling water poured over them. Then they were brought back to the boil and simmered for two minutes without stirring (to try not to pull too much of the flavour out.) These quantities fit nicely into a 1.5l jar (the jar on the left is 2l)
When I poured the water off (into a jug) it was such a lovely colour, and smelled so nice, that I didn’t want to waste it (and I was worried that I might have removed the best part of the flavour from the berries) so I saved it for the cordial.
Water to cover the berries (or, in my case, the juice from the liqueur’s cooked berries.)
10oz sugar per pint liquid, or more if you have a sweet tooth
Juice of 1/2 a lemon per pint liquid
Bring the berries and water to the boil and cook for 15 minutes, then strain through a jelly bag. This isn’t like jelly though, in this one you are allowed to squeeze the bag – it doesn’t matter if the cordial is cloudy.
Add 10oz sugar per pint of liquid. I had exactly a pint from this small(ish) amount of fruit. Put the liquid and sugar back in the pan on the heat, and add the juice of half a lemon her pint. Stir until the sugar’s all dissolved and the boil for 15 or so minutes. Pour into a sterilised bottle.
I would advise, incidentally, not walking off to do some (urgent) knitting while it’s cooking. If it boils over, the liquid is very stainy. It’s a gorgeous colour, but I don’t want my whole kitchen in that colour scheme. It’s bad enough that my hand is from mopping up.
I had just a little too much cordial for a 70cl (ex-vodka) bottle. Given that I spilled some, and then let it boil over I’d say a 75cl bottle would be perfect for this quantity. As if you needed an excuse to empty a bottle of wine.