Spring remembered in a glass: elderflower cordial
Last summer throughout England, my husband and I encountered the traditional, quintessential countryside English drink of Elderflower Cordial everywhere we went. Fragrant, light and refreshing, this cordial could be a Yolo County classic given the elderflowers ubiquitous nature on our back roads.
The lacy, large clustered cream-colored flowers line the roadsides and creek beds now through June. The flowers, pollinated by honey bees, solitary bees, flies and Longhorn beetles, will mature into clusters of small, dark fleshy berries in summer. Though I am not heir to a generationally held English family recipe, I’ve created my own now – and it is equally at home and sensible in a cultural narrative of Yolo County.
Years ago, at a cousin’s wedding in the southern English countryside, I had sipped some homemade Elderflower Wine and enjoyed it. This was my first acquaintance with the plant and flower, though it dates in usage back to Victorian and much older times. The plant is simply one of the Western European friends of humans that has seemingly traveled with us, or found itself propagating in many parts of the world. Perhaps because of its ethereal, lateral and lacy nature, as lore and legend has it, fairies hide under elderflowers.
Cordial is simple to make. The flower heads are harvested, steeped in simple syrup (water to sugar, 1:1) with a little lemon and citric acid added to the mixture which sits for 2 days or so before being strained, bottled and refrigerated, in other words, ready to mix with ice and sparkling water or wine, or tumble into gin and tonic.
The flowers gathered for this purpose from the elderberry bush, also called Sambucus nigra, have a honey-like fragrance, but given that there are hundreds of honey’s each with a unique fragrance, I’ll add my own notes of vanilla, star anise, cinnamon, and a finish of green – like a distant field of fresh mowed hay – to that generic description. The taste of the cordial is similar to the fragrance, and mildly sweet and sour, like spring remembered in a glass. The color is chartreuse.
The elderflower cordial recipe I concocted, reviewing 10 or more I had collected in England and here at home, uses a food grade citric acid powder. According to Harold McGee, in his classic text “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”, citric acid is a natural, weak organic acid found in fruit. Here it’s used to keep the color of the drink and as a preservative.
Hank Shaw, the wild forager, blogger and author of the book, “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook,” says the citric acid will keep the syrup from molding up on you in the fridge, and it adds acidity to the cordial – as does the lemon. Perhaps that’s why many recipes use a lot of lemon. My recipe uses less lemon and steeps more elderflowers longer – though not long enough to foster fermentation, which the citric acid also helps to control against.
Citric acid powder is sold at most grocery stores. Locally look for it in bulk in the bulk spice section at the Davis Food Co-op, or at Nugget Markets in a 16-ounce bag in the baking section.
I’ll serve Yolo Elderflower Cordial throughout the summer, and put aside a bit in the freezer for winter. I’ll pick elderberries in August and transform them into jewel-toned elderberry syrup, which will go into a traditional, quintessential English Christmas trifle for which I do have a family recipe. Around the table, we’ll raise our glasses in toast, and talk of spring and summer, gone but not forgotten.
Gathering wild flowers to preserve the season is one of life’s great pleasures and is automatic membership in the time-honored gatherer’s tribe. Harvest flower heads in full cream-colored bloom, not heads that are brown, drooping, or with unopened green buds. Cut flower heads with a minimum of stem and place in a paper bag. Process the same day to preserve fragrance. Place the bag in refrigerator until you are ready to process.
10 cups water
10 cups sugar
40 flower heads (yield approximately 8 cups of flowers)
1 lemon (Eureka or Lisbon, not Meyer)
2 tablespoons citric acid powder (food grade)
Chinois (conical sieve) or medium size fine, wire-mesh strainer
Glass bottles with lids – about 13-14 cups worth
Putting it together
In a large, non-reactive pot over high heat, add the water and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and stir with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved. Turn heat down to medium, and cook for another 5 minutes, producing a simple syrup (1:1 water and sugar). Remove the pan from the heat and let syrup cool.
While syrup is cooling, prepare the flowers. Do not wash the heads or flowers as this removes the fragrance. Shake each head to dislodge particulate matter such as small bugs (any still remaining will come out in straining the syrup.) Using scissors, snip off as much of the stem as possible, leaving just the flowers (the stems are bitter and slightly toxic) and place in a large bowl. Sort through the snipped flowers once again, cutting off any overlooked larger stems.
Zest and juice the lemon and add to flower mixture. Pour the cooled syrup over the flowers and lemon. Add the citric acid powder. Using a wooden spoon, mix the flowers and syrup thoroughly. Refrigerate for 48-60 hours, stirring occasionally.
To bottle the cordial, begin with pouring the syrup through a Chinois or strainer into a large bowl. When all the cordial has been strained, place 2 layers of cheesecloth over the Chinoise or strainer. Run the cordial through the cheesecloth two times to ensure removal of all particulate matter. Using a funnel, pour cordial into glass bottles, fasten with a lid, label, and store in refrigerator until ready to use. The cordial will last up to 6 months.
To serve, dilute cordial with fizzy water to taste and serve over ice. For an alcoholic drink, add gin or vodka to taste, or other liquor of choice. Cordial can also be added to sparkling wine for a refreshing summer before dinner drink.
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) or reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.