E is for Elderberries
I am standing at the open door of the larder, looking at our dwindling supply of elderberry balsamic vinegar: I didn't make any last year, and we are down to our last bottle (marked AUG 2021 in bold Dyno lettering). It's time to start on a new batch: you can find our tried and tested recipe here.
The elder trees that formed such prominent childhood memories were the overgrown elders that framed the entrance to the small woodland I was lucky enough to have at the back of my family's garden when I was growing-up. It is a tree that is so often overlooked: our elders were allowed to grow untamed and unkempt – whilst the other trees were pruned and tendered to – not because they were disliked, but because they were forgotten; they were somehow invisible.
It seems the perfect tree to take advantage of, precisely because it is so often the tree no one notices: people are unlikely to spot a few missing branches or berries. (Of course, as with all wild harvesting, you should never take more than you need!)
In The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood, John Lewis-Stemple highlights the cultural significance of the elder: 'The English summer begins with the elder's flowers, and ends with its berries'. While elderflower, with its bright, white frothy blossom, seems to look back to the spring, the deep purple of elderberries seem to herald the autumn, and looking at the clusters of them hanging from the trees at the end of the garden has got me thinking about mushrooms, pumpkins and cobnuts, and all the other delights that the autumn months bring.
One thing that makes the elder so versatile is that it produces two very different types of harvests at two very different times of year. The flowers are perfect sprinkled on cakes to add a little rustic magic, I have delighted in drinking friends’ homemade elderflower cordial, and have dreamt of making my own elder champagne (I will one day, I promise).
But it is the appearance of the dark berries at the end of Summer that excite me most, providing a welcome food source for the hungry birds, and seeming to foreshadow the coming of Autumn. The small, rich purple beads – some the colour of a deep red wine, some lighter and fruitier – offer the chance to enjoy one of my favourite cooking experiences.
It has been quite a few years now since I made my first glorious batch of elderberry balsamic. I used it drizzled over salads at family barbecues, in a dish with a good glug of extra virgin olive oil for dipping rosemary focaccia from the bakery, and for roasting sticky root vegetables for winter feasts. It has now completely replaced balsamic vinegar in all cooking: from simple lunches to dinner party dishes.
But elderberries are not just for making vinegar: this simple rich-coloured berry has been used as a culinary delight for centuries. In fact, you might be more familiar with elderberries in your diet than you think. Are you a fan of sambuca? It might surprise you to learn that the elder (it’s Latin name being sambucus nigra) was originally a key ingredient, alongside anise and sugar. One day, we will have a go at making our own, so watch this space!
It does seem that the elderberry is an ingredient that lends itself to alcoholic beverages; Caro Willson and Ginny Knox have some delightful suggestions, including elderberry wine in The Hedgerow Cookbook, but also elderberry sorbet and Pontack sauce.
I could not write about elderberries without mentioning their medicinal properties. Adel Nozedar writes in The Hedgerow Handbook ‘[…] the humble elderberry contains an incredibly effective antidote’ to the flu, and when made into a simple syrup and ‘swigged once a day’ it can help protect you from many stains of influenza (and apparently tastes great too!). If you are interested in boosting your immunity, I highly recommend trying her recipe for it.
So there we have it: the simple elderberry, easy to ignore, but once you start exploring the culinary wonders possible with this small fruit, you’ll never tire of its uses, and be thankful that it is your little secret, while others walk past this most humble of wild foods.