This winter I’ve been dreaming of elderflower champagne. It’s fun, and fizzy, and it reminds me of summer. Elderflower champagne is sometimes described as “bottled sunlight”.
It’s sort of flowery, and sort of aromatic, and something else again. It’s one of my favourite things.
Both elderflowers and elderberries are great for making interesting and delicious beverages that sit at the intersection between drinks and European herbalism.
I’ve just made a batch of non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, using dried elderflowers from my friend Sarah Hargreaves, who also took the photos for this post. Read on for some recipes.
A splash of elderflower cordial in a glass of carbonated water is a classy drink with as much or as little sweetness as I want, depending on the amount of cordial. And if I get bored, I can add a dash of bitters, or some lime juice, or some ginger, or …
Elderflowers go in and out of fashion. Currently they’re somewhat in vogue.
Barker’s of Geraldine produce various elderflower drinks, including a delicious elderflower and apple cider vinegar beverage which is available in my local New World supermarket, alongside kombucha and organic ginger beer.
My first elderflower champagne
I can still remember my first glass of elderflower champagne, at my cousins’ place in Gloucestershire. The taste and aroma was unlike anything I’d ever had before. But at the same time, it was strangely familiar, like something sitting at the edge of my memory.
Elders definitely weren’t part of my childhood, which was mainly spent in Auckland and New Guinea.
I don’t think they have elder trees in New Guinea. Lots of other interesting plants though.
The elder is a common perennial shrub or small tree that grows from 1m to 10m in height.
The elder tree is native to Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, according to the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. There are also native elder species in North America.
The main species found in New Zealand is the common or European elderberry, Sambucus nigra. Elders were introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century with European settlers.
Sambucus canadensis is a North American elder species that’s frequently used by American herbalists. Sambucus racemose is another American elder species that is poisonous, but can be easily identified by its red berries.
The fruits of the European elder species are safe, according to Susanna Lyle’s authoritative book Discovering Fruit and Nuts: A comprehensive guide to the cultivation, uses and health benefits of over 300 food-producing plants (David Bateman, 2006). However, elderberries are usually cooked or fermented. If eaten raw they may cause stomach upsets.
There are also ornamental elder varieties, grown in gardens for the pretty flowers and berries.
The elder is an important tree in European folk culture.
It’s considered to be a magical tree. It’s one of the sacred trees of the Celts. Ruis the Elder is the tree of the thirteenth month (all the trees have corresponding months). In Danish tradition the elder tree mother, the dryad Hylde Moer, lived in the elder tree and watched over it.
Planting an elder tree near the back door is a European folk tradition to ward off trouble.
The genus name, Sambucus, refers to the tree being the “pipe of Pan”. An instrument called the sambuca was made from elder wood and played in medieval and renaissance times.
In the Harry Potter books the Elder Wand is literally the dealbreaker.
Elders in herbalism
All parts of the elder are used by traditional herbalists. Elderflowers and berries are frequently used for colds, sinus issues, sore throats etc. If you’ve ever taken a herbal remedy for a cold, chances are it includes elderberries and/or flowers.
Dunedin-based herbalist Dr Sandra Clair includes elderflowers in her Artemis Immuno Boost tea. It’s one of my favourite winter remedies, but she’s already sold out for this season.
Elisabeth Brooke in A Woman’s Book of Herbs (The Women’s Press, 1998) says elder shifts the emotions. “Elder is a light, airy, expansive plant, useful to lighten heavy, stuck emotional states. It gladdens the heart and opens out and lifts the spirits upwards.”
Ethnobotanist and herbalist James Wong includes several DIY home remedies using elderflower and elderberries in Grow Your Own Drugs (HarperCollins).
American herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, one of my favourite books, says the world “elder” can be traced to not only the Old English word eldo, meaning “old age”, but also the Old English aeld, meaning “fire”. Which he says may refer to the natural bubbly fermentation that occurs with elder beers and wines. But another American herbalist, Matthew Wood, has suggested that the fire connection may also refer to the use of elder as a powerful medicine for fevers in traditional herbalism.
Where to find elders
Elder trees grow wild in many parts of New Zealand, especially regions with cold winters. In much of the South Island they are considered a pest.
Elder trees can also be grown in home gardens. They prefer a sunny spot.
In New Zealand elder trees flower from November to January, and the berries ripen in late summer. However, elderflowers are easier to find than elderberries, because you’re competing with birds for the berries.
I found dried elderflowers (imported from overseas) at my local herbalists, The Herbal Shop. They can’t get a consistent local supply of dried elderflowers.
Fresh elderflowers should be used within about 24 hours, or else you can dry them to use later.
My friend Sarah Hargreaves, who gave me some of her elderflowers and elderberry wine, says elderflowers are easy to dry. She spreads them on a tray and leaves them in a cool airy place.
Popular elderflower recipes include my favourite fizzy “champagne” which is refreshing for summer celebrations, non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, and also a bubbly white wine, which probably contains a fair amount of alcohol.
Elderflowers are also added to pancakes, or dipped in batter and fried.
I make this fun fizzy drink in December for our family Christmas celebration.
Because it’s fermented for a short time it’s not really alcoholic, although it may contain a very small amount of alcohol.
Fresh elderflowers have a natural yeast (or something like that) which means they ferment easily. If you’re using dried elderflowers, you may need to add some yeast to get the fermentation going.
4 litres boiling water
2 ½ cups sugar
7 heads of elderflowers
2 sliced lemons
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
You’ll need some clean plastic soft-drink bottles with screw on lids. You can either use recycled bottles or buy new bottles from a home brewing store. Elderflower champagne can go very fizzy very quickly, so I don’t recommend using glass bottles.
Pour the boiling water over the sugar in a large food grade bucket.
Stir well and leave to cool.
When cold add the remaining ingredients and stir again.
Leave for 24 hours.
Strain through a fine strainer.
Pour into bottles and screw on the lids.
Do not fill the bottles too full, as this drink is very fizzy.
Leave in a cool place for a week.
Keep checking the bottles and let off the fizz gradually. Otherwise you may get a big surprise!
Ready to drink in 1-2 weeks.
Elderflower champagne will keep on fermenting. You can store the bottles in the fridge to slow down the process.
Elderflower cordial (non-alcoholic)
This recipe specifies dried elderflowers. You could also use fresh elderflowers, but they may start fermenting. Keep the cordial in the fridge and use within a few days.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup dried elderflowers
1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid powder
Bring the water and sugar to a boil over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let this simple syrup cool.
Wash and slice lemon and place in a sealable glass jar along with the elderflower and citric acid powder. Pour in cooled syrup, seal, and shake.
Store in the refrigerator for a minimum of 24 hours (and up to 72 hours, if stronger flavor is desired).
Strain your cordial through cheesecloth into your desired container, pressing down to extract all the liquid.
Store in a sealed glass bottle in the refrigerator for up to three months.
To drink, add cordial to a jug of water, either fresh or bubbly.
This delicious jelly has elderflower cordial as its key ingredient. It makes a great summer dessert with fresh raspberries.
1 Tbs powdered gelatin
150ml elderflower cordial
3 freshly picked heads of elderflower, rinsed and dried (optional)
Soak the gelatine in 75ml cold water until it “blooms” or expands.
Put half the cordial, half the water and all the sugar into a saucepan on a medium-high heat. Just before it comes to the boil, remove from the heat and add the bloomed gelatin, stirring well.
Place two elderflower heads in the hot elderflower mix with the stalks poking out, trying to completely submerge the flowers so they don’t discolour. Add the remaining water and cordial, stir well, and allow to infuse and cool for about 10 minutes.
Strain the mixture and pour into a bowl or mould. Pick the tiny flowers off the last head of elderflower and sprinkle in the jelly (try not to get any bits of stalk in). They will float to the surface but can be redistributed later.
When the jelly is just starting to set, stir gently to distribute the elderflowers. If you forget and the jelly sets a bit too much, just leave as it is.
Place in the refrigerator and leave to fully set for two to three hours.
Serve with fresh raspberries.
Elderberries are usually cooked or fermented. If eaten raw they may cause stomach upsets.
Jams and pies
Elderberries are good for making jams and pies. Blackberry and elderberry jam is a traditional combination. Elderberries also combine well with rhubarb.
This recipe comes from A New Zealand Country Harvest Cookbook, by Gilian Painter (Penguin, 1997).
4 litres water
Wine yeast and nutrient (from a home-brew store)
Strip the berries from their stalks with a fork and weigh them into a food grade plastic bucket with half the sugar.
Pour over boiling water, stir well and leave to cool.
Add wine yeast and nutrient.
Cover the bucket with a cloth.
Stir daily for 3 days.
Strain the wine onto the remaining sugar. Stir to dissolve.
Pour into dark glass containers and leave to ferment.
Big thanks to Sarah Hargreaves, for sharing her elderflowers (fresh and dried) and also her delicious elderberry wine. And for the beautiful photos.