The other day while taking Hank and Holly on a mushroom odyssey I surprised a few drivers behind me in a curvy stretch of canyon by yanking my van off the road at speed and coming to a dusty stop in the dirt. A flat? Sudden engine trouble? Naw, I just happened to spy the creamy white flowers of a blue elderberry tree on the roadside.
The blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) is a prolific bloomer on the east slope of the Cascades where it inhabits canyons, hillsides, and farm country, often near water. River corridors are a good place to look for this variety up and down the West Coast. Other varieties are common across the continental U.S. and throughout much of the temperate and sub-tropical world.
Last year I made elderberry syrup. This year I wanted to catch the flowering so I could make an equally distinctive though more delicate concoction. The thick berry syrup goes great with yogurt and ice cream; the flower variety is perfect for a refreshing summer drink or, even better, to enliven a sparkling flute of prosecco.
Everyone has their own preferred method for making the syrup, but besides the addition of exotic ingredients the main difference is the time you allow the flowers to steep. I used Hank’s recipe as a guide, eschewing the citric acid (two lemons seemed plenty, and anyway I’d used up my stash of citric acid on Dandelion Wine earlier this spring) and, in a happy accident, steeped my flowers for five days instead of two or three. The extra time only strengthened the subtle flavor without having any funky side effects, though you might exercise caution in really hot locales.
Definitely use a cheese cloth when straining your liquid. It’s an unavoidable fact that little critters like to make their homes in eldflower clusters. The recipe below makes about a quart of syrup. I canned two half-pints and refrigerated the other pint. It will be interesting to see if the canning process had any effect on the delicate flavor.
20 large elderflower clusters
1 quart water
4 cups sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
Zest of 2 lemons
1. Trim flowers into a large bowl and try to remove as much of the stem as possible (most of the elderberry tree other than the flowers and berries is toxic). Rolling the flowers between thumb and forefinger is a good way to separate stem from flower. Continue to pick through flower pile, removing as many little stems as possible.
2. Add lemon zest and juice to bowl.
3. Bring quart of water and sugar to boil, stirring to make sure sugar is well dissolved.
4. Pour liquid over flower and lemon mixture. Stir.
5. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and allow elderflowers to steep for 5 days.
6. Strain through cheese cloth and fine mesh strainer. Refrigerate syrup or process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Third photo by www.heyserphoto.com