Elder – Sambucus negra
Elderflowers are one of natures finest edible treasures and for me, the signature wild food of early summer. This is all the more welcome during the ‘June gap’, when the fresh shoots of spring start to look (and taste) tired and other bounty is still to fruit. Their elegant, sweet, heady fragrance translates into lots of delicious drinks and desserts. Occasionally, this delightful scent can develop from muscat bananas through musky to cat pee. You should be able to avoid this if you harvest them on bright, sunny mornings. Good luck finding one of them this “summer”!
Elder is a common low-growing large shrub/small tree that produces a near blanket of creamy-white umbeliferous flower heads from mid may to July, so you should not find them hard to come by. Do be sure that you are picking them from a substantial woody-stemmed plant or you could be harvesting a member of the carrot family which all have superficially similar umbels of white flowers. It is this and a passing similarity in leaf shape (pointed ovals with a serrated edge growing from a central stem) that got ground elder its name. This is a painless error as ground elder is edible, but you may be disappointed at how your wine turns out!
The gnarled and lichen-laden trunks of elder are a key feature that differentiates them from rowan and wayfaring trees which also have sprays of off-white flowers. I suspect that these tormented trunks are largely responsible for the wealth of folklore associated with elder. Like many such traditions, some of the myths at first seem contradictory, but on reflection can be seen as different types of reverence. For example, elder was widely refered to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’ and to hang a cradle from its boughs would invite her wrath. Nevertheless, it was considered bad luck not to have one near your house. On no account should you burn elder if you are of a superstitious nature as this will surely curse you for eternity. If, like me, you lean more towards bushcraft, perhaps you might risk it as the hollow stems flare up nicely. Its this that got elder its name – from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld for fire.
In the unlikely event that you do have trouble finding it, you are probably looking too far from civilisation. I was helping to make a TV program a couple of weeks ago, and fruitlessly trailed two celebrity chefs and a film crew around dense forest for an hour before I remembered this. Sure enough, when we headed back to where we had parked there was a huge elder tree right by a farmhouse. It was a tricky afternoon all round actually – after banging on about how common wood sorrel is in January’s seasonal notes, we had to search quite hard before finding one measly patch. Foraging loves to bite you on the bum sometimes!
When picking saintly, angelic elderflowers, always keep an eye out for their sinister, twisted step-cousin the edible jelly ear fungus (Auricularia auricularia-judae) which only grows on elder trees that are past their prime. This rather dubious looking little mushroom’s latin name comes from its traditional name of “jew’s ear”, which I suspect isn’t very PC nowadays. It also references the christian tradition that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree. Either he was very small, or it was a particularly substantial specimen, or, as I suspect, christianity was trying to enhance its plausability by ‘cashing in’ on pagan traditions that long predate it. Despite its slippery and somewhat sinister appearance, jelly ear is revered in chinese cookery, lending itself well to miso soups and stir-fries.
As already mentioned, pick the flower heads on bright mornings before the bees have stolen their nectar. Shake free of insects but do not wash them or they will lose their charm. Flower heads are often used whole, but if a recipe requires you to use the individual blossoms they can be easily stripped with a fork in the comfort of your kitchen.
My very favourite non-alcoholic drink is elderflower champagne. It is light, fragrant and if you get it just right, full of naturally fermented effervescence. If you try only one recipe from this site, try this one which comes from Roger Phillips excellent “Wild Food” book.
Elderflowers are great in any number of other recipes – wines, sorbets and turkish delight spring to mind. Tonight I am pairing them with their ultimate summer companion, gooseberries, in a fool.
Don’t get too carried away with the wonders of elderflowers though. If you strip the trees of reachable blossoms in summer, you will have no elderberries come autumn. Elderberries make excellent wine, chutneys and jams, but best of all, a magnificent vinegar.