#0045: Respect Your Elder
Just as Midsummer arrives once more, so the swallows have returned to the Secret Coast.
They swoop from the rooftops and dart through the glen.
Past leaves which have turned a deep emerald.
Over bracken which has unfurled and covered the hillsides in a thick, impenetrable blanket.
Under a sun which, even at midnight, will wash the sky with light.
And onward to the elder trees, which hang heavy with flowers.
When I first moved to the cottage, I became enchanted by a crooked, old elder which grew on the bank of the burn which runs through the garden. Its gnarled, deeply furrowed branches arced gracefully over the stream, draped in ferns which hung low to the water.
For most of the year, it would blend into its surroundings, hidden in the hedgerow. But in the summer, it would burst into life. Lacy white clouds of flowers floated over a sea of green, filling the air with a soft, citrus scent, before turning into clusters of dark, shiny berries, glinting like the eyes of the creatures that lived in its shadow.
The years weren't kind to that tree though and, as it began to slip into the burn, it was time for it to come down.
I still get a twinge of sadness when I see the empty space it left behind.
Elderflowers are in season right now, so what better way to celebrate midsummer, and pay respect to my old elder, by foraging some flowers to make a tangy, refreshing, elderflower cordial? This recipe is really simple, it's packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, and it will make your house smell amazing, as soft clouds of sweet scent drift gently out of the kitchen.
So strap on your boots, go for an explore, and find yourself an elder away from any roads, to ensure that it hasn't been tainted by pollution.
Foraging is great fun, and there's a sense of real achievement in cooking with ingredients you have brought home from your latest adventure. However, if you're not too familiar with the species you're looking for, it's best to take an identification book or app with you, so you can be sure you're picking the right thing. If you're in any doubt at all, leave it, do a bit more research, and come back once you are absolutely sure that you have found what you are looking for.
To get the best of your elderflowers, try to pick them in the late morning on a warm, dry day, so that the pollen has not been washed away by rain or dew. Once picked, they'll start to lose their scent quickly, so it's best to pick them right before you use them.
Pick about twenty five flowers which are fully open, smell citrusy and fresh, and haven't started to turn brown at the edges. lnsects feed on the nectar of elderflowers and, later in the year, birds and mice will eat the berries, so only take what you need.
Also, resist the urge to have a nibble. Elder is poisonous when raw, so the flowers need to be cooked before they can be consumed.
Once you're home, give your flowers a good shake, and knock off any loose dirt or creepy crawlies, then place them in a large, heavy bottomed pan, with 2500g of water and 50g of citric acid. Wash and thinly slice a couple of unwaxed lemons, add them to the pan, and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally, to make sure nothing catches.
Once the liquid has boiled, take the pan off the heat, pop a lid on it, and leave the liquid to cool and steep overnight.
This recipe needs sterilised bottles so, the next day, wash a couple of old glass bottles and, before you start the next step, fill them with boiling water. When you're ready to use your bottles, carefully pour out the hot water, and you're good to go.
Meanwhile, strain the liquid through a fine filter, such as a muslin cloth, return it to the pan with 1000g of sugar, and bring it to the boil, stirring frequently, to make sure all the sugar dissolves. Once the liquid is boiling, turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for about five more minutes, before taking the pan off the heat. Then, transfer the hot liquid to your sterilised bottles, seal and leave to cool.
Once cooled, your cordial will last for about a year. Serve it diluted in sparkling water or wine, and raise a glass to your elders and to the summer of adventure which lies ahead!