Sunday, June 12, 2011
For me, hedgerows are the quintessence of life in the English countryside. I grew up with wide open spaces and barbed wire; how different and mysterious are these living fences. They line every narrow road, and make a secret garden of every neighbour's property. They divide up the countryside like the embroidery thread of a patchwork quilt.
All year long, the hedgerows brim and buzz with life . . . and edible things. After many years in England, I mostly don't recognise the different kinds of greenery until it actually presents its treasure of blossom or berries. I still have the constant feeling of surprise.
Unlike me, my youngest daughter is an observant person -- and it was she who pointed out that the elderflower had come into bloom. It's one of those things that I mean to look for, and pick, every year; but most years, I miss it. First comes the blackthorn blossom, then comes "the may" (hawthorn), and for about three weeks in June, you can find the creamy-yellow elderflower blooming.
Last week, I seemed to spend most of my week in the car . . . and everywhere I drove -- through Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey -- I saw masses of elderflower blossoms on the roadside verges. (It thrives in sunny, open places, but it obviously doesn't mind a bit of car exhaust, either.) I kept wanting to stop the car and gather up armfuls of the stuff. Blink, and it will be gone; and that's a shame, because homemade elderflower cordial is delicious stuff.
You want to pick your elderflower just as the blossoms are opening . . . if they are still green, the elderflower won't have much scent or flavour, and if they've gone a bit brown it will tend to bitterness. A perfectly ripe elderflower will be rich with scent -- a somewhat lemony, but otherwise indescribable, smell all its own. Elderflower is one of the flavours of English summer -- and unlike the sun, which is being highly temperamental at the moment, you can bottle it.
1.3 litres/2 1/2 pints water
1.8kg/4 lb granulated sugar
25 elderflower heads
2 lemons, sliced in rounds
65 g/2 1/2 oz citric acid (in England, this can be purchased from the chemist)
First, give the elderflower heads a good shake (to make sure they are free of dirt and tiny bugs) -- but don't wash them, as that will dilute their flavour.
You want to strip off the flowers -- leaving as little of the green stem as possible.
(If you are like me, give this job to a willing child.)
Then, place the water and the sugar in a large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. When all of the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat.
Place the elderflowers, slices of lemon and citric acid in a large plastic or glass container and pour the sugar syrup over the other ingredients.
Cover, and leave the mixture to infuse for three days. You should stir it once a day.
After infusing, you need to strain your mixture -- ideally, through a muslin-covered colander into a clean bowl. Then decant into containers (plastic or glass containers with lids) and store in the refrigerator.
It should keep for months . . . but only if you don't actually offer it to anyone!
We had an (indoor, sadly) barbeque last weekend and I passed around the elderflower cordial with an arguably too-lavish hospitality. Hopefully, I can steep another batch of it before the end of its short season.
I like elderflower cordial as a drink -- made with sparkling water (but still water is good, too). Fill the glass with ice, and then add approximately one part cordial to three/four parts of water. (It depends on how sweet you like it.) A slice of lemon, and maybe a sprig of mint, makes a nice garnish.
You can also add elderflower cordial to spirits -- like vodka or gin.
Or, splash your ripe June strawberries with it.