Back in June 1979 I hitched a ride with a theatre company to the Hood Faire on the banks of the River Dart (just outside of Totnes). This was a small faire with a Mediaeval theme, comprised of local craftsmen, artisanal food and drink makers, theatre companies and even a sweat lodge made out of mud and stones straight from the river. I distinctly remember sitting in the branches of a tree at dusk, dangling over the Dart, watching Forkbeard Fantasy perform a play, knee deep in water (by candlelight) while I drank a delicious sparkling alcoholic drink, made from elderflowers.
Elderflowers come from the Elder tree (known as the Common Elder, Black Elder or Sambucus nigra in Latin) and they are the precursor to Elderberries. They can be found all across Europe and North America and are quite common in Britain. Elderflowers have been used in medicine for thousands of years and are thought to have antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Wood pigeons gorge themselves on the leaves and berries, while domestic racing pigeons are fed an elderberry tincture for their health.
The elder tree can be found in hedgerows, parks, back gardens and cemeteries – it is said to ward off the devil! The tree can live for 60 years and grow to about 50 ft (15m), though they are commonly around 33ft (10m) tall. Elderflowers appear from late May to early June. Both the flowers and berries of the elder can be turned into wine, but the berries should not be eaten raw as they are mildly toxic and can cause stomach upsets. Once cooked, the berries are harmless and can be made into a delicious elderberry jam. The berries grow from the stems of the flowers and can be harvested in the late summer and autumn.
Elderflower Wine recipe:
In order to make Elderflower Champagne, one must first make the wine, which is decanted and fed more sugar to start a second fermentation – this increases the alcohol content and makes carbon dioxide bubbles.
Pick the flowers in the early morning, ideally when they have just opened. When fresh, elderflowers smell delightful, but as they age, they produce an odour like cat pee (which will taint the wine). If you smell the flower before you pick it, you’ll know whether it’s good or bad. Try to pick the flowers from different trees, leave some to produce berries and some for the birds. This year there was a bumper crop of flowers, which is what prompted me to go foraging.
Don’t be tempted to wash the flowers, it will remove the natural yeast, which is needed for fermentation. Check to exclude any insects that may be living on the blossoms.
Dissolve the sugar in 2 pints of boiling water (1lb of honey would be a perfect substitute for the sugar). Allow the sugar water to cool before mixing with the other ingredients.
Combine all the ingredients in a clean bucket, squeeze and slice the lemons. I sterilised the bucket beforehand. Cover with a damp towel and allow to sit for 2 – 5 days at room temperature, stirring once a day.
You will know that you have anaerobic respiration going on, when you get cloudy bubbles in your mixture. When this happens, the potion is ready to proceed to the next stage.
The cloudy bubbles show that there’s alcohol being produced, so it’s time to strain solids from the liquid and begin the fermentation in earnest. Put the filtered liquid into a demijohn and cap with an airlock, to allow the carbon dioxide to escape and keep foreign bodies out – particularly the fruit fly. Store the fermenting wine in a cool dark place.
When I looked at the elderflower wine before going to bed on the first night, the airlock was popping every 5 seconds or so and an alien life form was growing on the surface. When I checked the next morning the airlock was still busy, but the aliens had returned to Mars.
When the fermentation has finished – between 2 to 3 months, the airlock will stop expelling gas and sediment will drop down to the bottom of the demijohn. Decant, using a syphon (a clear plastic tube), being careful to leave the sediment behind.
The elderflower wine will probably be a little sharp and therefore, it’s necessary to add sugar, especially if you wish to make elderflower champagne – this requires sugar for a second fermentation. It’s best to add sugar to taste. In spite of the sharpness, if you run the wine around your mouth a couple of times to acclimatise your palate, it is quite refreshing. It smells distinctly of elderflowers. Half an hour after decanting, some oxidation will have taken place and the wine tastes mellower and fruitier with a hint of lemon (used in the original fermentation).
Mix 4 level dessertspoons of demerara sugar with 80ml warm water – let the sugar dissolve. Add the sugar water to a gallon of elderflower wine. Pour the wine into 500 ml bottles – use Grolsch type or PET for elderflower champagne. Normal wine bottles can explode or the cork will blow out (I’ve seen both happen!). Refrigerate or keep in a cool dark room. A second fermentation will take a couple of weeks – you will know it’s happened when sediment drops down to the bottom of the bottle.
The wine and champagne will keep for several months in a cool dark place.
Elderflowers can also be turned into a delicious non alcoholic cordial (great with gin!) or dipped in batter to make fritters. Elderberries can be used to infuse gin, in the same manner as sloes. Elderberries and sloes should be ready to pick right now.