There’s a sweet smell of sherbet in the air. The elderflower blossom is here, which for me means a month-long frenzy of foraging as many snowy flowers as possible to make as much cordial and champagne as I can fit on the shelves. It won’t last long, becoming a staple luxury thirst quencher with soda, as well as a welcome addition to summer spritzers, cocktails, sorbets and puddings.
I like to forage far and wide for a variation in elderflowers. Some blossoms provide a slightly bigger flower and fruitier fragrance, others a daintier, more flowery and delicate palate. It’s the mix that provides the best, inimitable, honey-sweet taste – as with apples and cider. To gather your elderflowers, take a stroll across green land with a plastic bag in your pocket. Look for lush bushes punctuated with creamy clouds of blossom. They are bountiful on the rolling hills around Playden and Peasmarsh and along the flats and ridges from Camber Castle to Winchelsea beach.
Pick each head carefully so as not to lose the pollen. Gently shake out any creepy crawlies (don’t lose the pollen) and pop the heads in your plastic bag. You will need no fewer than 10 heads for every 1.5 litres of cordial, four for a gallon of fizz. When you’re home, put a kilo of caster sugar in a large bowl (I use a jam pan) and add a large jug or just short of a litre of warm water and stir until dissolved. Grate the skin of an organic, unwaxed lemon (available at Johnson’s Fruiterers on Rye High Street), cut the fruit into long quarters, slice them up and add to the syrup. Stir in 25g of citric acid (from Rye Health Foods) and then drop in 10-12 elderflower heads.
Allow the mix to steep for no less than 24 hours, stirring occasionally, and cover it with a tea towel. When you’re ready, pour the syrup through a fine sieve or muslin cloth into a wider jug or pan and then decant into two cleaned and sterilised wine bottles and plug a new cork in the top (bottle corks from Rye DIY).
For champagne, dissolve a kilo of sugar to a gallon of water in a large pan or bowl, add one lemon grated and cut up as before and 2-3 tablespoons of either white wine or cider vinegar (my preference). Allow the mix to steep for four days before bottling. Use sterilised screw tops or Kilner jars as you do get pressure from the fizz. Once bottled you can serve after another week or so, but it will keep for a year. The alcohol comes from the natural yeast on the blossom. Many think it’s best to grab your heads on a sunny morning, but this is not necessarily the case. Refrigerate, of course, before serving.
Your home-made, priceless, irresistible and addictive cordial can be used as a non-alcoholic diluted squash, mixed with sparkling wine, or with a dash of vodka and soda for a long sun-downer. If you can’t wait for next year, elderflowers freeze really well so you can make more cordial or champagne all year round.
Foraging adventures with Timberlina aka Tim Redfern. Main photo: Tim Redfern