Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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Glass of elderflower cordial

Elderflower cordial is the ultimate summer drink, scent and medicine. As I sit here in my kitchen I'm enjoying their light, dreamy scent wafting across the room, of the ones I picked this morning.

Summer foraging for elderflowers is almost as popular as blackberries in autumn, or wild garlic in spring, and all for good reason. Elderflower cordial is the perfect way to capture and preserve the scent of summer. Foraging for edible wild plants is so rewarding too! Make your own homemade cordial to enjoy with friends and family.

Elder tree in flower

Where to find elderflowers

The elder tree is often considered a weed, it often grows on wasteland, in hedgerows and at the edge of woods. It loves the sun but can cope with shade, I often see them alongside roads and backing onto railway lines, which is often very frustrating because I'm rushing by!

When do elder flowers bloom?

Elderflowers start appearing in late spring and early summer. Here in the UK that means May to July, though this is dependant on how warm it is and whether spring started early or late. Sometimes July is still great for picking, and other years they have started to turn and are not worth picking.

Elderflowers can also be frozen. A few years ago my aunt froze a whole carrier bag of elderflowers for me. Once defrosted, they obviously don't look as good as when they are fresh, but you can still use them for making cordial or dry them for making elderflower herbal tea.

I also like to freeze some of my elderflower cordial in an ice cube tray, then I have ready to use portions!

How and why to dry elderflowers

Elderflowers can be used for herbal tea. You can dry them in the sun, in a dehydrator or at the lowest temperature in the oven and keep them for the winter months as medicine for colds, flu, coughs or bronchial issues.

How to make and use elderflower cordial

See below - a summary on this video and the full recipe at the end of the blog.

Use in cocktails, sorbet, ice cream, sweet bread, as a doughnut dip, elderflower champagne or dilute for hot and cold drinks. You can also freeze the cordial in an ice cube tray or bag and pop in soda water or defrost and dilute from frozen.

Why is elder flower cordial so good?

Many of us have a soft spot for sweet, and the combination of light and heady, citrus and sweet seems to be the ultimate combination!

Is elder flower cordial good for you?

Elderflowers have anti viral properties and can help treat colds and flu and quicken recovery. They can also be used to sooth sore throats, coughs and bronchial infections. Elder flowers are delicious and a medicinal plant.

Before I begin, a word of warning. Elder (Sambucus nigra) has umbel-like clusters of flowers, similar to that of the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family. To avoid fatal mistakes with deadly plants within this family, you must be 100% sure that you are picking the correct plant. This blog is focusing on the recipe, not on the identification, always check with an expert, so you can continue to enjoy foraging for food!

Also, a word for the plant... If you pick all the flowers there will be no elderberries later in the year - which would be very sad, for us and the birds. Bare this in mind & never pick more than 25% of flowers of a single plant.

ELDERFLOWER CORDIAL RECIPE

This recipe needs some pre-planning - a bucket or heat-proof bowl, clean screw-top bottles, lemon squeezer, a funnel and a seive/muslin cloth is needed. You can alter the measurements depending on how many elderflower heads you pick

Ingredients
25 elder flower heads (flowers left on stalks)
3 unwaxed lemons (or 2 lemons and 1 orange)
400 g unrefined sugar
1.2 litres boiling water
2-3oz citric acid (if you’re going to store the cordial for a while)

Ideally pick the flowers in full sun. Fork the flowers off the stalks or snip off the main stalks, putting flowers aside and discarding the rest. Place sugar in a pan and pour boiling water over, stirring until dissolved. Place the elderflowers (check to remove bugs) in a clean bucket and pour hot sugar mixture over it. Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into the bucket, then grate the lemon zest and add this too. Stir, cover, and leave for 24-48 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain the mixture through a sieve, or preferably a fine muslin cloth, and funnel into clean bottles, or dilute and serve immediately!

For Elder Flower Sorbet

Follow all the instructions above, omitting the citric acid and dilute with two-thirds water and beat in one whipped egg white. Use an ice cream maker or get ready for these next steps... Freeze the cordial in a sturdy tupperware (plastic container with a lid) for 2-4 hours. Remove & mash up with a fork or in a food blender. Repeat at least once more. Serve on its own or with a variety of other desserts, particularly good with sponge cakes.

Researching regional names of plants is a fascinating and usually an amusing pastime. Common Hogweed  (Heracleum sphondylium) is one of those plants, and as it’s now in season (april to june) I thought I’d dedicate a whole blog article to it.

Inspired also by local names such as Pig Flop (an image of a pig collapsing after pleasantly over-indulging on this plants passes through my mind!), Cow Weed (what’s its known as on the Scilly Isles), Cow ParsnipCow Belly and even Humperscrump, according to Forager and Author John Lewis-Stempel. It's also known as a type of poorman's asparagus, although I think it's superior.

To me, this plant has always been known simply and humbly as hogweed, and I’m going to share with you some facts about identification, names, tastes and recipe ideas.

Starting with identification, common hogweed can be found across the UK, it really is common and usually considered a pain. Its habitat can be varied and includes fields, open woodland, hedgerows and roadsides. Often people are sceptical when I introduce it as a potential food and for two understandable reasons.

Firstly,

For some it has the association of being poisonous, mainly because if the sap gets on your skin and is combined with sunlight, for example when strimming the plant on a hot summer’s day in t-shirt and shorts, one can come up in horrible blisters that can scar. Not an experience I’ve shared, though I’ve heard enough stories to know it to be an unpleasant encounter.

Secondly,

There is the issue of correct identification. Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is in the Apiaceae (Carrot) family and shares a similar flower structure with edibles such as carrot (funnily enough), parsley, fennel, chervil as well as the deadly poisonous plants; hemlock and hemlock water dropwort. Needless to say, mistakes can be lethal and enough to put many people off. However, there are distinguishing characteristics that can be learnt. Reading a few words and seeing a few images is not generally suffice for this, though it is a good start, so here it goes!

Flower head of Common Hogweed

Hogweed generally grows up to 2 metres tall (related & non-edible Giant hogweed grows up to 5 metres). Hogweed has hollow, ridged stems that are hairy, almost furry, that can give a white-ish tinge to the stems. The leaves are soft/furry with undulating lobes (see images) and stems can sometimes be purple, though normally green (NOT purple spots like hemlock). Like anything, take your time to get to know the plant (it will always return the following year if you’re still unsure) check with experts & you will be duly rewarded.

Leaves of Common Hogweed (slightly undulating and definitely furry)

So with so many obstacles to over-come before even picking it, why bother at all? Well, of course its the taste. Like many wild edibles, it has, at times, been called poor man’s asparagus - as its the young shoots you’re looking for in spring. I like to think that this is sly way to protect a valuable plant which has an unusual taste that could easily be at home on many gourmet’s plates. The history of so-called poor man’s food includes beliefs such as inferiority of taste, too common (abundant) or inadequate in flavour (unlikely these days in comparison with bland, long shelf-life shop bought veg). As a modern day forager its a great plant - abundance is perfect (making it very hard to over-pick) and the unusual flavour is one of the exciting aspects of wild food. It is also rich in vitamin C and carbohydrate.

How to enjoy it at its best? Well John Wright (from River Cottage) covers the young shoots in beer batter. For me, I simply steam those young shoots, drizzle in butter or hollandaise sauce and serve as an accompaniment to fish or meat dishes. I’ve also chopped them up and added them as a flavouring for dhal (combines well with wild carrot seed ).

Finally, you’ll all be asking what the flavour is. Well, the true answer is inside of you - we all experience tastes differently - though I describe it as perfumed, aromatic, sometimes a hint of bitterness & rich.

Hogweed Shoots with Hollandaise Sauce Recipe

To serve 2 persons

  • 6 young hogweed shoots (Poor man's asparagus)
  • 175ml white wine vinegar
  • 2 free range egg yolks
  • 70ml unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • Squeeze lemon juice

Boil the vinegar with peppercorns & reduce by half. Strain and put aside. Boil a large pan of water, then reduce to a simmer. Using a large balloon whisk, beat together the yolks and 2 tsp of the reduced wine vinegar in a heatproof bowl that fits snugly over the pan. Beat vigorously until the mixture forms a foam, but make sure that it doesn’t get too hot. To prevent the sauce from overheating, take it on & off the heat while you whisk, scraping around the sides with a plastic spatula until you achieve a golden, airy foam.
Meanwhile put the poor man’s asaragus shoots on to steam (4-5 minutes). Whisk in a tablespoon of the warmed butter, a little at a time, then return the bowl over a gentle heat to cook a little more. Remove from the heat again and whisk in another tablespoon of butter. Repeat until all the butter is incorporated and you have a texture as thick as mayonnaise. Finally, whisk in lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste plus a little warm water from the pan if the mixture is too thick. Drizzle over the hogweed shoots & serve as a starter or alongside meat or fish.

(Hollandaise Sauce image, thanks to - ourkitchen.fisherpaykel.com)

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