For me, Elderflower is the quintessential taste of British Summertime. Since I discovered I can’t really drink booze any more (it makes my heart go funny) Pimms is out of the window and Elderflower is what you’ll find me necking by the gallon on hot sunny days instead. Now I’m making Water Kefir, I’ll be using this cordial in my second fermentation to make it nice and fizzy and also help reduce some of the sugar I’d otherwise be consuming from cordial.
For those of you who don’t know, it is currently Elderflower season, which means the Elder trees are nodding drowsy heads full of clouds of little star-shaped flowers. For me, this means yelling “STOP!!!” at the chap while driving along country lanes, and scrambling through brambles and nettles to get to Elder trees on bridleways. I usually get stung to buggery on nettles because I never seem to have the foresight to not wear shorts/dresses when out on a jolly, and the chap almost always seems to find a tick (thankfully not always attached).
River Cottage is generally my go-to resource for recipes for syrupy hedgerow-y things, so obviously when I had a bag brimming with flowers, that’s where I went.
The recipe was simple: per 24 heads of elderflower you want: zest of 3 lemons & 1 orange, 1tsp citric acid, 1kg sugar.
Debug the flowers, chuck them in a bowl with the citrus zest, add 1.5L boiling water, cover and leave it to steep overnight.
Strain through a muslin into a saucepan with the juice from the lemons and orange and the citric acid and sugar, heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then heat up and bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes,
then transfer to your swing top bottles.
TADAAAAA – Elderflower Cordial.
Sounds easy doesn’t it?
I mean, yes, it is easy, but there are some (reasonably important things) that the River Cottage recipe doesn’t tell you that you should probably know before you go wading into a sea of nettles to try and score some elderflowers for your own cordial.
1. Picking the flowers
According to the chap who used to make cordial with his mum when he was a kid, you want the freshest, newest flowers you can find, preferably with some flowers in the spray still closed. The flowers should smell fresh, rather than stale with browning on the flowers. To be honest, initially they all smelled like cat pee to me, but you do develop a nose for the good ones pretty quickly. The older flowers definitely stink of stale cat pee (quite a bit like cow parsley), and the newer ones smell more tart, and are more likely to make you sneeze. Don’t pick your flowers from the roadside to avoid pollution, and hedges bordering fields could have got sprayed with pesticides/slurry when farmers are spraying their crops.
2. Sugar doesn’t really boil visibly
Once you’ve got all your sugar dissolved, you need to simmer it. It’s not like water. You’ll hear it simmering, but you’ll only really get it bubbling if you crank the stove up to max, which I’m not sure is strictly necessary.
A friend made elderflower cordial last week and gave me a little bottle. Hers was clear. Mine was the colour of urine from an extremely dehydrated person. Which is pretty unappetising to look at quite frankly. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why this happened:
1) Using orange zest/juice. It does nothing for the flavour of the cordial. If I was to make this again I wouldn’t bother with orange zest/juice and would add in maybe a couple of limes instead or a couple more lemons.
2) I didn’t de-stalk my flower heads. I didn’t have much of a stalk – just a couple of inches, but according to another recipe I looked at later & my instagram fam, you should cut as much of the green stems off as possible. I think a combination of stalks and oranges did for my cordial. It still tastes good it just doesn’t look the way you’d expect.
4. Heat your bottles
Use glass if you can (so you don’t have plastics leeching into your drink and it helps the environment and all that..). Wash your bottles to make sure they’re clean. if you’re using swing tops, make sure you take the tops off and stick them in a mug of boiling water to sterilise them. Then put your glass in the oven. Switch it on to 100’C and let it heat them up and sterilise them while you’re cooking your cordial. Having hot bottles when it comes to pouring means that the glass won’t crack/explode when you fill it with molten lava sugar. And for gods sake use oven gloves when holding onto the bottle so you don’t forget it’s hot and burn yourself or accidentally pour sugar-lava on your hand.
5. De-bugging takes ages
If you’re pretty nonchalant about eating insects then good for you. Debugging my flowers took me well over an hour, and I’m not even half as bad as the chap who loves all insects and will spend literally hours meticulously examining each flower, rescuing every single insect he finds and carefully finding it a new home suited to its species. I just don’t want the things in my drink, and will pick them off and flick them into the nearest plant and let them figure their own shit out. I don’t particularly want to squash them because I don’t particularly want insect guts in my drink. It’s amazing how much wildlife you find in a bag full of elderflowers. I had beetles, spittlebugs, very large fat aphids, spiders, snow fleas… Basically, if you want to make this, set aside a decent chunk of time for debugging. Actually making the cordial takes very little time or effort. Debugging takes plenty of both. Although my instapal @victoriafreer suggested using a hairdryer on cool to blast them off, which is a brilliant idea.
Would I recommend the River Cottage Recipe for DIY Elderflower Cordial?
Ehh…. yes and no.
Super easy. As long as you know for sure which trees are elderflowers, you’re golden.
Peace of mind
I know exactly where my elderflowers came from. I know that they are organic. I know that I’ve only picked the best, freshest flowers. I know exactly what has gone into my cordial and there aren’t any additives, squished insects, weird chemicals I can’t pronounce, fillers or artificial preservatives.
Good for the Environment
No chemicals or pesticides were used on the flowers although I can’t speak for the other ingredients. We picked them up when we were out doing something else, so there was no specific shipping involved. I’m upcycling bottles I already had, so not producing extra waste apart from the plastic mesh thing the lemons came in because I frustratingly couldn’t get unwaxed lemons that aren’t packaged.
Price – is DIY actually cost-effective? or just indulging my DIY nerd-ism?
This was my shopping list for 4 litres of cordial
2x 5 pack unwaxed lemons £3
2x oranges £0.70
5kg bag of granulated sugar £3.30
Belvoir Elderflower Cordial is the closest to home-made when it comes to the ingredients list, although it’s not advertised as being organic. While I write this post, Sainsbury’s are selling it for £3.15 for a 500ml bottle. 4 litres of Belvoir would cost £25.20.
By DIY-ing you save £18.20.
In general it doesn’t taste much different to what you get in the shops. I wouldn’t recommend the River Cottage recipe because it’s too sweet. I know it’s basically syrup, but there’s not enough tang to it for me once it’s been diluted. Like I’ve already said I’d leave off the orange and swap it for more lemons or limes next time I make it.
Time & Effort
I don’t mind spending a few hours picking the flowers because I love foraging, and I’m not squeamish so I don’t mind picking off bugs. The debugging was a bit time-consuming even by my standards but it’s something you can do in an afternoon if you don’t have anything planned other than basking in the sun.