Foraging: Elderflowers

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Elderflower – image from internet
One of the perks of foraging outdoors is the tiny window during the year when one can harvest elderflowers. They bloom for a very short season, from sometime in May or June for only a couple of weeks. Last year we failed to pick any, the year before we did not do anything with them and left them to shamefully rot. This year, encouraged by my sister’s fete, my mum got on with making elderflower cordial the same day we picked them. To me, elderflower cordial reminds me of birthday parties from my childhood. We would serve elderflower cordial with sparkling water in plastic champagne glass shaped cups with our picnic spread out in the dining room. Once you have gotten over the wafting smell of cat pee when you pick your fresh elderflowers and they quickly start to brown, the elderflower cordial itself smells and tastes refreshingly delightful.
Elders are common, low growing shrub trees. The flowers grow in stalked umbrella sprays, five petalled, cream coloured with yellow stamens whilst the berries that grow from August to September are a dark purple or black with three small pips. Their habitat is ideal for nitrogen-rich areas (e.g. near rabbit warrens) which I suppose is why our favourite elder tree is found in a horse field densely populated by rabbits.
Elder trees have some interesting legends associated with them. To fell and elder tree is unlucky as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Burning the timber in the house will release the devil (despite deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire). Referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’, hanging a cradle from its boughs would encourage the wrath of the witch. However, planting an elder tree near your house is supposed to protect the occupants from evils, it will never be struck by lightening and will therefore protect you from a thunderstorm, warts and sorrows can be moved to an elder’s stick and buried.
Judas hanged himself from the elder and the Cross of Christ was supposed to be made from its timber.
Despite these fears, the elder tree has been used for plenty of medicinal cures over the centuries. Every part of the tree can be found to have been used for some cure.
The tree can be easy to recognise but you must be cautious as a few others can lead you stray – the Wayfaring Tree (earlier-flowering), the Rowan (which I have almost done before, that really does smell of cat wee) can be confusing as can the later Hogweed. The elderflowers will have a sweet smell, faintly of cat pee when the sun is too strong on it. You want to pick the white, opening blossoms and not the ones already turning slightly brown and falling easily from the stem as these will be inferior in your cordials.

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Rowan – image from internet
If you cannot deal with all of your bounty straight away, you can leave them to dry in the oven with the door left open or in a dry place not in the sun. Otherwise, you can wrap them up in bags and freeze them. They will go brown but it will taste just the same in your cordials, according to online discussions and our own experimentation.
Once you have made the elderflower cordial, use as a drink, make into elderflower ice cream or syrup or use it in my latest discovery, Strawberry and Elderflower Cake, coming soon.

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Elderflower Cordial
(Makes 2 litres)
– 25 Elderflower heads, de-stalked – Finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (used separately) – 1kg granulated sugar – 1tsp citric acid
1. Place the harvested flower heads in a large bowl with the stems removed. Add the lemon zest.
2. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour it over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag/piece of muslin over a large saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the citric acid. Heat the ingredients gently to dissolve the sugar then turn it down to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
4. In an oven preheated to 120C, sterilise glass bottles. Remove them from the oven once they are hot and leave to cool.
5. Using a funnel, pour the hot syrup into the sterilised bottles. Seal with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Leave them to cool and then keep in the fridge for 4 weeks or put it in the freezer to keep for a few months. Alternatively, you can sterilise plastic bottles or ice cream containers using hot water and keep the cordial frozen in these – leave a small gap between the top of the plastic bottle/container and the cordial itself to prevent them from exploding in the freezer.
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Jumbleberry Jam

My sister is currently raising money for her trip to Tanzania next summer. One event she had to do lately was set up a stall at a fete. As chief jam maker of the house, it was way of contributing. Problem was there were no berries for picking and the jams I had from last year were gooseberry, bramble jelly and apple jelly, all packaged in Bonne Mamen jars (you can’t sell it in a branded jar) and quite old with goodness knows what growing under the lids… It was the perfect time to dig out all of the plastic bags and yoghurt pots containing mixtures of fruit that had been shoved inside the freezer as they were ‘too much effort’ to go picking through. A mixture of raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, jostaberries and tayberries went in the pot together and ended up with something pretty edible and with a wonderful name I found online – ‘Jumbleberry Jam’. I only made 15 jars and my sister sold 11 (15 and a half, I got to keep and eat the half jar as a cook’s perk). The blackcurrants dominated the mixture along with the raspberries – just as well as those are two of the best jams in the world!

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I am a jam enthusiast. First it was raspberry obsession, then I discovered blackcurrant, homemade plum (shop ones are always disappointing), bramble jelly, apple jelly, gooseberry, boysenberry and of course strawberry. I would love to try making strawberry jam one year but there is no way I will manage to harvest enough this year. We have been eating them fresh every evening and I need at least 1kg for a couple of jars worth – I will have to shelve that fantasy for the time being and stick to making raspberry and allowing myself the occasional indulgence of buying strawberry jam from Sainsbury’s.

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I must admit, I am famous for making runny jam that doesn’t set, even when I add bottled pectin from the shops. However, I think I have worked out how to do it now: do not be impatient about boiling (get on with another job in the kitchen and keep an eye on it rather than standing around waiting), do not be afraid of using lots of lemon juice and use bottle pectin, especially when making jam with berries low in pectin or fruit that has been frozen (they lose some pectin that makes the jam set). The Jumbleberry jam set very well – too well, it was solid and only just spreadable, but after experience I would say most people prefer very set jam to the kind of jam that runs off your toast and goes everywhere but inside your mouth.

This is the perfect recipe for anyone who has old fruit hanging around in the freezer to clear out to make way for this year’s pickings. Enjoy!

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Jumbleberry Jam

(Makes enough for 4 medium sized jars)

  • 1 kg mixed berries and currants – 1 kg granulated sugar – Juice of at least 1 lemon, three is best or more – Half a bottle of — pectin
  1. In a large plan, place the fruit and turn it on to high flame. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir in until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring now and then.
  2. Place a china plate in the freezer in advance for the pectin test.
  3. Allow the fruit to boil furiously for more than ten minutes, stirring occasionally to see how it is going. When the mixture starts to feel slightly gloopy and sticks more to the spoon without looking as runny as it did before when it drips off, remove the plate from the freezer and add a dollop onto the surface. Place it back in the freezer for a couple of minutes then take it out and run your index finger through the middle. If the jam is set and wrinkles where you push your finger through, it is ready. If it does not, continue to boil until it does so.
  4. Once done, turn off the heat and pour in the pectin, stirring it in. Leave the jam to cool.
  5. Preheat the oven to 150C and sterilise the jam jars and the lids inside – they are done when they feel hot to the touch. Remove these from the oven and allow them to cool.
  6. Once the jam has cooled slightly and so have the jars, ladle the jam into the jars, place a wax disk over the top if you have any and put the lid on top, using a damp cloth to clean up any spillage running down the sides. Place the jars overnight in a cool place. They will be ready for eating the following day and should last for months.

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Weekly Update – Saturday, 11th June 2016

The weather this week was a great improvement. It was the sort of weather you wanted to be outside in all day long; half the time playing in the garden, the other half lying in a cooling swimming pool! It was my sister’s fete today, raising money for her school trip to Tanzania next year so we got little done in the garden this week as we donated a fair chunk of time to preparing for it. It involved mum preparing a lot of plants (digging them up, potting them on, etc.), picking elderflowers and making elderflower cordial (more shortly), lemon verbena sugar (again, more coming soon) and for me making fifteen jars of ‘Jumbleberry’ jam (more next week). Well, fifteen and a half – I got to keep the half from one of the batches to eat on my toast myself and it was delicious, I just finished up the pot this afternoon.

This week we managed to:

  • Net some strawberries from the birds that have found them already. We have started picking them (some wild strawberries, some posher ones) which we have eaten with chocolate cake and pouring yoghurt for pudding at night.
  • Mum netted a redcurrant bush today. I netted a blueberry whose flowers have finished.
  • Weeded hamburg parsley, beetroot and turnip broccoli and fed them.
  • Planted out last three courgettes from indoors and the only pumpkin (I only had three seeds left as I never bought anymore this year and only one germinated so it might be pumpkin-free harvest this year. Fortunately, I have LOTS in the freezer left over from last year…). I also fed the other courgettes and winter squashes.
  • I’ve started weeding the garlic patches.
  • Mum fed the potatoes with liquid feed.
  • I planted out Nigella flowers, lupins, cosmos flowers.
  • I planted out two new runner-beans today and sowed indoors more peas and soy beans. The soy beans are just refusing to germinate this year.
  • We harvested more salad, including the first beetroot of the year and some more peas and new kale (I’m giving the old flowered kale to the chickens and pigs now along with two lettuces that bolted. There are plenty left to make lettuce soup from and sharing is caring). The broad beans are ready to start harvesting next week.

On a sadder note, I did see my first cabbage white caterpillars crawling all over a flowered broccoli. There was a mixture of feelings, something like being close-to-tears. I haven’t seen anymore, yet…

Next week I will be posting more information about making Jumbleberry jam to use up any left over fruit in the freezer to make space for this year’s harvests. I will be writing about how to store your harvests shortly and recommend some reading material, for practical and enjoyment purposes!