The elder tree has no pretensions to grandeur. It grows wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens and even in graveyards.
In northern Europe, where it grows in abundance, countless traditions and superstitions are associated with it. Hidden in its dark green, dense foliage were benign spirits whose role was to keep the bad guys at bay; from its rustling leaves came words of advice whispered into the wind. According to legend, the elder was never struck by lightning, and some pagan traditions advised that the tree should not be cut for burning, for fear of bringing bad luck.
Sticks cut from elder branches were pressed into service in a variety of ways. Sicilians used them for spearing snakes or driving away robbers, Serbs, in their wedding ceremonies, used them to bring happiness to the bridal pair. In Slovakia, the hollow sticks were made into reedy flutes, while English country folk kept pieces in their pockets as talismans to protect against rheumatism; elder is still used in traditional Chinese medicine for the same purpose. In Alsace, France, more prosaically, the sticks were made into water pistols, whistles, pea-shooters or even rudimentary drinking straws.
Window of opportunity short for elderflower
It’s in early summer that the elder comes into its own. All of a sudden, and in a brief moment of glory, this otherwise unremarkable tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which perfume the air with their heady scent. At this time of the year in Alsace, the Black Forest and Switzerland, chefs, housewives and hobby cooks can be spotted in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms and placing them in large baskets.
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Some of the flowers will be put up into syrups (see recipe), cordials or flavored vinegars to be served in drinks or added to desserts. Others are dipped in a light batter, fried till crisp and fragrant and nibbled straight off the stalk.
Here are two delightful recipes that make the most of elderflowers, one for the syrup (or cordial, as it is also known) made by infusing the fresh flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice and another for a delicate elderflower semifreddo.
The syrup can be used in other ways too: Add a splash to fruit salads — it’s particularly lovely combined with lightly cooked rhubarb and strawberries — or use it to perfume a crème anglaise or panna cotta.
Best of all, for a delicate, less sweet version of the ubiquitous blackcurrant-based Kir, pour a little in the bottom of a large wine glass and top it up with sparkling wine (Sekt in the Black Forest, Crémant in Alsace), plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint — a perfect early summer aperitif.
Elderflower Syrup or Cordial
Yield: Makes about 4 cups (1 liter)
25 to 30 elderflower heads
4 cups (1 liter) water
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 untreated lemons
1. Wash the elderflowers and spin them dry in a salad spinner.
2. Place the elderflowers in a large bowl.
3. Put the water, sugar and grated lemon zest in a large pan, heat gently, stirring, till the sugar is dissolved, then allow to boil for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and pour the syrup over the elderflowers.
5. Let cool, then cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for 5 days.
6. Set a colander over a large bowl and strain the syrup. Discard the flowers. Strain the syrup again, this time through muslin or fine cloth to make sure there are no impurities.
7. Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge till needed. The syrup will keep for several months.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3 egg yolks
1 cup (250 milliliters) elderflower syrup
A splash (about 4 tablespoons) of dry white wine
2 cups (500 milliters) whipping cream
Fresh fruit and edible flowers to garnish
1. Place the egg yolks, whole egg, elderflower syrup and wine in a large metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water but sit above it.
2. Beat with a wire whisk or hand-held electric mixer until the mixture thickens and lightens in color and almost doubles in bulk, about 15 minutes.
3. Fill an even larger bowl, or the sink, with cold water and set the bowl with the egg mixture in it. Continue beating till the mixture feels barely warm to the touch.
4. In another bowl, beat the cream till stiff, add 3 to 4 tablespoons to the cooled egg mixture and fold it in using a wire whisk.
5. Tip all the egg mixture into the cream and fold the two together, lifting and folding with a wire whisk. There should be no white splotches of cream visible.
6. Pour the semifreddo into a loaf tin lined with cling film or tip into dariole molds or individual containers. Freeze for at least 4 hours or until firm.
7. Serve in slices (if molded in a loaf tin), or turn out individual molds. Garnish with fresh fruit and edible flowers.
Main photo: Elderflower semifreddo. Credit: Sue Style