It's just past midsummer here in Chicago, which means that the elders (Sambucus nigra) have already reached their peak bloom, but for those in cooler, higher climes, there's still time to get out and harvest the fragrant flowering heads of this incredible plant.
Elderflower is commonly used in the Western materia medica as a cooling, relaxing diaphoretic, possibly with antiviral activity (the ripe berry is especially prized for this -- stay tuned for Fall when I'll share some fantastic recipes for these). People often ask me how I escape Chicago winters with no colds or flu, and I attribute my good fortune directly to my use of big cups of hot elderflower tea with honey and frequent doses of elderberry syrup at the first sign of disease (this is one of the few herbs I use exclusively as a simple).
When I am lucky enough to harvest fresh elderflower at the Summer Solstice, I set aside a few blossoming corymbs on screens to dry for winter tea, but most of my spoils are used fresh in foods, representing some of the most fleeting joys of the season. I'd like to share two of my favorite recipes with you in this post.
I was introduced to this on my first solo trip to Glastonbury in 2001. I'd spent an unseasonably hot May day hiking all over the countryside, across fields of nonplussed cows to Gog and Magog, and up the Tor and down again. Dusty, hot, and tired, on the way home I stopped in at Cafe Galatea on the High Street (the only place at the time with public Internet terminals, paid for by the quarter-hour chunk) and found an "Elderflower Spritzer" on the menu. I ordered it. I drank it. Then I ordered another one. And drank that.
Let me tell you, there is no better way to end a hot summer day in England than by having a little elderflower cordial in a glass with ice, fresh lemon, and bubbly water.
And really there's nothing now that says summer to me like the elderflower spritzer, for its fleeting delicate beauty. Here's what you need to make this refreshing, low-alcohol drink at home:
- elderflower syrup or liqueur
- dry white wine (torrontes, pinot grigio or viognier do well with their fruity grassy notes; vinho verde or a sparkling white are also nice and up the bubble factor)
- sparkling water
- fresh lemon
- elderflowers for garnish
If you have lots of fresh elderflower, you can make your own syrup as a base for this cocktail following a recipe like this one recorded by Langdon Cook at Fat of the Land. Alternatively, you can go to your local bougie market and buy an elderflower liqueur like St. Germain, or, perhaps more commonly found, one of the many brands of ready-made elderflower syrup (D'Arbo is a tried and true brand).
I've evolved into an 'eyeball' cook -- that is, I don't often measure, and this non-principle applies tot he making of this cocktail. So here's how you assemble your Elderflower Spritzer:
- Pour a little elderflower syrup or liqueur into the bottom of your glass. How much depends on the size of the glass, but for a regular wine goblet I'd say it's a couple of tablespoons or so. You may add or subtract more to taste -- that is, how elder-y or how sweet you wish your drink to be.
- Add two or three cubes of ice.
- Add one or two thin wedges of lemon, squeezing the juice over the ice.
- Now fill the glass with half white wine and half sparkling water. You can adjust this ratio also, depending on how sparkly or how wine-y you wish your drink to be.
- Garnish with individual fresh elder blossoms, if you have them -- these add the high summer magic of the sidhe to your goblet.
Keep in mind that if you use liqueur instead of syrup, you'll have a squiffier cocktail -- you can cut back on the wine in this case, or eliminate it all together.
I learned how to make these from my teacher Althea, and her husband, John. The making of elderflower pancakes for breakfast at Summer Solstice by these spiritual parents of mine is something I look forward to every year. We wake up on a Sunday morning after celebrating the Solstice, and Althea sits with a bowl in her lap, into which she gently denudes elder corymbs of their fragrant starlike blossoms. Then John folds these carefully into a thin pancake batter and fries the cakes in a buttered pan. The flowers disappear into the moist and airy cakes, imparting their delicate but distinctive flavor. These pancakes taste like elderflower clouds!
I like to dot the cakes with fresh blueberries once they are poured onto the pan -- just wait until you start to see the first bubble on the raw side of the batter. By the time you've added your berries it's probably time to flip the cake. Consider using elderflower syrup instead of maple, or dusting the pancakes with powdered sugar and finishing with a squeeze of lemon. You might also add a few scrapes of lemon zest to the batter. Heaven.