Savouring the End of Summer: Elderberry Balsamic Vinegar
Reaching into the larder and bringing out last year's elderberry balsamic vinegar (of which we are down to a third of the last bottle) I see from the date I scribbled on the label (7th August 2019) that I'm now overdue making 2020's batch. To be able to make something not only edible, but delicious from this humble, yet versatile plant, is truly joyous.
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 unkept – whilst the other trees were pruned and tendered to – not because they were disliked, but because they were forgotten.
But it is the appearance of the dark berries at the end of Summer that excite me most, seeming to foreshadow the coming of Autumn.
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!)
Possibly the most miraculous thing about the elder is that it has two seperate harvests. The Spring brings bright sprays of small pure white flowers that look like cloud bursts among the green leaves. I like to sprinkle the flowers on cakes to add a little rustic magic; I have enjoyed other people’s elderflower cordial; and have dreamt of making my own elder champagne.
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.
Last year was my first attempted at elderberry balsamic. We had it drizzled over salads at family BBQs, in a dish with a good glug of extra virgin olive oil for dipping fresh rosemary focaccia from the bakery, and for roasting sticky root vegetables for winter feasts. It was such a success that there is no way I'm going to miss the opportunity to make it again this year.
This recipe takes time, but it is well worth the effort. The most time-consuming part is removing the elderberries from their stalks and weighing them. It could become an arduous task, so this is best done sitting outside in the evening with a glass of good wine and good company. It's also best to spread the berries out on a surface to allow any stowaways to escape: elderberries seem particularly popular with earwigs.
Straightforward, therapeutic, and with only a few ingredients, this is something anyone can easily have a go at.
Elderberry Balsamic Vinegar
Makes about 1 litre
Prep time: 30 minutes (+ 5-6 days steeping)
Cooking time: 15 minutes
about 300g ripe (i.e., dark and glossy) elderberries
600ml organic white wine vinegar
750g caster sugar
A 1 litre sterilised bottle (or a few smaller bottles totalling 1 litre), with airtight lid(s)
A sterilised funnel
Pick all the ripe berries from their stalks and add them to the scales. You will want around 300g of berries, but do not fret if they come to a little more or a little less.
Add your berries to a large wide bowl, and pour over the white wine vinegar. The berries should all be covered. Give it a little stir with a metal spoon to help kick-start the infusion process, and to make sure any floating berries lose their buoyancy and sink.
Cover, and leave in a cool corner to steep for 5 to 6 days. Check the berries daily, giving them a gentle stir.
Drain the vinegar into a saucepan using a sieve and discard the soaked berries. Add the caster sugar to the saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring, and then simmer for 15 minutes. The sugar should have dissolved, and the liquid should have thickened slightly. Whilst still hot, pour your balsamic vinegar into sterilised jars and label.
Serve with focaccia, as a salad dressing, or indeed anywhere you would usually have to resort to shop-bought balsamic vinegar!