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July 15, 2011

The last Elderflower in England

I recently took a train to the Cotswold's, that ancient place where the cottages are all cute and crumbly, and where strangers wave at you as they pass you in the lane. We were just entering one such cottage when my friend Muppet and her sister Eva started to lament their laziness at not picking elderflowers earlier, as the season was nearly spent.

I was a little confused. Days previously, I had collected bushels of elderflower (or so I thought) on the side of the road. The white heads were absolutely everywhere. The only reason why I hadn’t made my cordial yet was because I couldn’t find any citric acid. (I must mention at this point that I had never really seen elderflower before, but was going on a vague memory of something I'd seen on google image once.) I pointed out to Muppet, sheepishly.. that there was loads of elderflower in their driveway.

Well now Carina. That is in fact- Cow Parsley. I was stunned at this revelation, and very relieved. The cow parsley that had been standing in a bowl in our kitchen reeked. It smelt as if a musty cow had taken up residence behind the fridge. Every time I got a whiff of it, my mind boggled as to how this flower could produce the sweet cordial that the English so fancy drinking.
Those little white heads on the left, are NOT elderflower. But the tree on the far right had some blossoms. 
Luckily I was saved by the fact that I decided to visit Greenhampton at the last minute, abandoning my cow- parsley cordial making event, and our laughter at my folly inspired a serious elderflower cordial mission. But the season was almost over indeed. We had to clamber up on walls with a window hook.

We walked up and down the road, and out to the field in our search. We leaned over fences and got attacked my stinging nettles. The pickings were slim. So we decided to turn our excursion to the beautiful old Saxon town of Winchcombe into an elderflower hunt. As we drove along the lanes, we glared at the hedges like safari tourists searching for the Big 5. Every now and then- a shriek! Bingo. The car stopped, out bundled three girls and a window stick; and the passers-by would stare, baffled, as we manoeuvered our long pole about in the bushes, counting the heads as we went along. About two hours of hard tracking yielded 75 blossom heads. Perfect.

And then for the cordial. An easy feat after our long hunt. The recipe is Eva’s- and it is terrific. The addition of oranges (as opposed to all-lemons) was Jemima’s idea- she is one of the great cooks behind Britain's wonderful  Potted Game Company (coming soon to Borough Market, I am pleased to inform you). I do plan to smuggle a small bottle of cordial home to South Africa for those who want to taste it there. Luckily for all of those in the UK, Eva and Muppet have started a great catering company called Two Nightingales. They haven’t got their website up quite yet, but you can find their details on their facebook page.

I do like to believe that we picked the last elderflower in England. But if you still have some blooming nearby- pick quick! Don’t forget your window stick and some anti- nettle gumboots.

There are rumours that the last elderflowers in season make bitter cordial. And also that ones picked in the morning are sweeter and better. I taste our cordial, and I say: Bollocks.

Eva’s Elderflower cordial

  • 25 heads elderflower (Please see this image link if you are unsure, and smell it- the scent is unsurprisingly sweet, and not cowpat- like at all)
  • 1.5kg sugar
  • 1,5 l water
  • 3 lemons, thinly sliced
  • 2 oranges, thinly sliced
  • 50g citric acid
    1. Pick through the elderflower heads and make sure there are no bugs on them.
    2. Make a suger syrup with the sugar and water in a large saucepan- stir to dissolve the sugar then bring to boil for about 5 minutes.
    3. Add the remaining ingredients and leave  covered, overnight.
    4. Strain through a piece of muslin cloth in a sieve and funnel into your bottles. Make sure you do get around to sterilizing the bottles, as explained in this post, the precious cordial really will go mouldy quickly if you don’t.

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