I remember the very first time I ever tasted elderflower cordial. It was an extremely hot summer and I had traveled the great distance between the North and the South of England (which is a far greater divide psychologically than physically, as anyone from ‘Up North’ will confirm) to be with my boyfriend during the holidays. As the sun beat down on the yellowing grass, we sipped cool, refreshing drinks of elderflower cordial and loitered with our fellow bellringers in the shady ringing chambers of old church towers.
The taste of elderflower cordial today transports me straight back to that time. Only now, the boyfriend is my husband and we have three young children who are already in love with the smell and taste of elderflowers.
Although elderflowers grow abundantly in the hedgerows of Devon, this is the first year that we have collected the flowers to make our own cordial. It was O’s idea last weekend.
My collection of cookbooks on the kitchen bookshelves yielded two recipes for elderflower cordial. The first was by Sophie Grigson and the second was in The Cook’s Scrapbook (a lovely book with a whole section on foods from the wild). At first sight, Sophie Grigson’s recipe seemed the more appealing as the elderflowers only required steeping overnight, rather than the five days called for in the second recipe. However, Sophie’s recipe also used relatively more sugar, and we wanted to avoid making the cordial too sickly sweet. In the end, we decided to combine the two recipes by using less sugar and straining the mixture after one day (largely through fears that it would become a mildewed pond if left for any longer).
Both recipes included citric acid, something which I do not happen to keep in ready supply. Apparently, this acts as a preservative so that the bottled cordial can be kept for up to a year. It also enhances the charateristic sour zing of the elderflowers.
Although citric acid is found naturally in the juice of the lemons that are also used in the recipes, it is in too small a quantity in lemons to provide a substitute for the amount of citric acid required – it would take about thirteen lemons to produce an equivalent amount of citric acid, something which would also override the essence of elderflower in the cordial.
Unfortunately, the larger chain pharmacy stores in the UK no longer stock citric acid because it can be used to make heroin more soluble. However, it is also used in wine-making so can be found in small quantities in home brewing shops. We tracked down a supply locally at Quay Side Easy Brew on the Historic Quay in Exeter.
If you haven’t yet made elderflower cordial, I can reassure you that it is simply the easiest thing to do. The most important part is to make sure that the flowers you gather are fresh and white and not creamy or brown, which means that you have to get the timing right – generally, the flowers will be at their best for only two weeks in the early summer of each year. Apparently, it’s also best not to pick blossoms from beside a road … a piece of advice that we didn’t follow to the letter, although the narrow Devon lanes we get around here could hardly be classified as major motorways .
2 kg / 4 lb 6 oz caster sugar
1700 ml / 3 pints boiling water
90 g / 3 oz citric acid
30 large elderflower heads, flowers snipped from stems
3 lemons, sliced
Put the sugar into a large bowl and add the boiling water. Stir until all of the sugar has dissolved, then add the citric acid, elderflowers and lemons (we were concerned about the many bugs that seemed to be living in the flowers, so we put the pot on the oven top and boiled everything up for a minute or so … I haven’t seen anywhere that recommends you do this, but it certainly didn’t impair the flavour of our finished cordial at all).
Cover the bowl and leave to stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
Scald a sieve, jug and muslin cloth with boiling water, then strain the cordial through the muslin (double-thickness) into the jug.
Clean and scald 3 or 4 bottles (we used wine bottles with screw caps). Pour the strained cordial into the bottles. Cork or cap the bottles, then store in the fridge.
To drink, dilute one part cordial with two or three parts water (still or sparkling), tonic, soda or gin.