On the way out of my favorite thimbleberry patch a few weeks ago, armed with a gallon of the hard-won berries—which took the better part of a day to pick and will become Recessionary Christmas presents in the form of jam —I spied a few nice specimens of the Sambucus genus, the Elderberry tree. My feet ached and I needed water, but I just had to have some. Picking the berries of this tree was an exercise in contrasts, with a gallon bag taking about five minutes to fill.
Elderberries are a common sight along the river canyons on the dry side of the Cascades and in many other places across the globe. I’m not sure exactly what species of elderberry these were, but they exhibited the glaucous bloom on the berry—that powdery white dusting visible in the photo at right—that is common in the blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), which is apparently the most common species in eastern Washington and Oregon.
While easy to pick, the real work begins at home with the processing. Because the leaves, stems, bark, and roots of elderberries are toxic, you must be sure to remove any non-berry debris before cooking. The stems in particular require attention. As you pull off the berries, try to remove as many of the tag-along stems as possible.
Family recipes for elderberry syrup abound. I found one that included fresh ginger and another that relied on a healthy dose of vodka. Two of the main considerations are sweetness and viscosity. For thicker syrup, use less water and cook down. Add sugar to taste.
For my syrup I hewed to the simple and direct. I added enough water to the pot of berries so that they were swimming but not entirely covered (in retrospect, I could have used a little less water). After bringing the berry-water mixture to a boil I let it simmer for 30 minutes, periodically working it with a potato masher. This got dumped into a food mill and cranked, removing the skins, and then strained once more to oust the seeds. The resulting 4 cups of juice went back into the pot with 2 1/2 cups of sugar, half a packet of pectin, and the juice of 1 small lemon. I brought it to a boil, killed the heat, and stirred until the foam was gone, then ladled into jars to be processed in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Your mileage may vary. My advice is to to tinker until you’re happy. Pectin isn’t necessary; I used it because I was in a hurry. The resulting syrup was aces over yogurt. Ice cream will be next, then maybe a cocktail of some sort…