A Cordial June
If the months of the year were colour-coded, then June would definitely be green and white. The hedgerows are bursting with cow parsley and campion, blackthorn blossoms and white-tailed bumble bees, and the meadows are carpets of white clover. For my part, however, the humble elderflower is without question the thing that I wait for more than any of the others because of the pleasure that she affords me in the kitchen. No other scent for me heralds the beginning of the summer quite like hers and her tiers of creamy flowers make her look like a June bride.
Old Badger Bartlett and Mr Bussell had promised to show me where the best middle-of-nowhere elderflowers grew. Mr Bussell lived at Henborough Farm in Devon and to get there you have to drive through a mile and half of wildflower-strewn water meadows. The farmyard itself is a beautiful collection of old stone barns with an ancient pigsty and a cider press. Around the old buildings, crumbling foundations and the abundant hedges grew exactly what we had come looking for – the gnarly old elder tree with her beautiful cobwebby flowers.
Every year the thing that I make this month in large quantities is elderflower cordial. It freezes really well and I generally make enough to last me for a year, as it is one of my favourite drinks. On hot dusty summer days a glass of cold elderflower cordial is the most refreshing drink in the world. Mixed with Prosecco, it is lovely for summer entertaining. I make frozen ice lollies for the children because elderflowers are a natural decongestant, and so lovely and soothing for hot fractious children with sore throats and colds. I also make ice cubes with it – perfect for a gin and tonic – and jars of gooseberry and elderflower jelly to accompany cold meats and cheeses throughout the year. Elderflower cordial also makes a fabulous sorbet.
Elderflower and Gooseberry Jelly
It is often thought that making your own jams and jellies is a bit of a faff but it SO isn't. It is unbelievably satisfying, and the results taste great and make a fabulous present. This is a really good recipe and I make it every year. This is how you do it
2 kg gooseberries
10 heads of elderflower
1 litre water
Wash the gooseberries in a colander – you don’t have to top and tail them. Put them into a large preserving pan with the water, add the elderflower heads and simmer until well pulped. Put this mixture into a muslin jelly bag and leave to drip overnight into a large bowl. Don’t be tempted to force it through or your jelly won’t be clear, and that is what you’re aiming for. The next morning measure the juice, then add 400g granulated sugar to every 500ml of the liquid. Combine the liquid and the sugar in the pan, heat gently and stir until the sugar dissolves. Boil furiously, then test the jelly by putting a teaspoonful on a cold plate (I put my plate in the deep freezer for roughly 5 minutes so it’s really cold). You know it’s ready when the jelly sets and forms a light skin. Pour into sterilized jars and replace their lids tightly while the liquid is still hot. The easiest way to sterilize jars is to put them through a hot wash in the dishwasher.
Most recipes for elderflower cordial use citric acid to prolong the bottle life of the cordial. I don’t, because I freeze mine. It is quite difficult to get hold of citric acid as it can be used to make illegal drugs (the polar opposite of elderflower cordial), but you can order it online.
2.5 kg white granulated sugar
4 unwaxed lemons, scrubbed
2 limes, scrubbed
25 fresh elderflower heads
1.5 litres water
Always harvest elderflowers towards the end of the day as this is when they hold the most pollen – that is what gives the cordial its unique flavours. Pick over the flowers for bugs, but don’t wash them. Put the sugar and water into your biggest saucepan and dissolve slowly over a low heat. Pare the zest from the lemons with a potato peeler, then slice the fruits and add everything to the pan. I use limes as well, as I love the zestiness that they add. Put the elderflower heads in the pan and bring to the boil. Once boiled, remove from the heat, cover the pan and leave to infuse for 24 hours in a cool place. Line a colander with a clean tea towel and set over a bowl, pour in the liquid and allow it to drip through. When it is completely cool I pour mine into zip-locked freezer bags and freeze them until needed.
Once the cordial has defrosted, it is ready to drink. Pour about an inch into a glass and top up with water.
200 g caster sugar
500 ml water
250 ml elderflower cordial
Put the sugar and 500 ml of water in a pan and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat and stir in the cordial. Pour into a large bowl and leave in the fridge for about 4 hours until it is really cold. If you have an ice cream maker, make the sorbet according to the manufacturer's instructions. If not, do it the old fashioned way. Pour into a freezer container and place in the freezer, stirring every hour until frozen. This should take about 6 hours.