An elder tree isn’t much to look at most of the year, but it comes into its own at the start and then again at the end of summer. Using its delicate white flowers to make a cordial (or even better, an elderflower Bellini) in June is like bottling the taste of an Irish summer. Then a few months later, it will reward you with elderberries, which can be made into jam or a syrup.
I’ve been watching the elderberries ripen on the tree outside my kitchen window for the past few weeks, right next to the wild blackberries growing in my hedge. Elderberries are in season during August and September and the berries are ready to pick when they’re an inky purple-black colour and are heavy-hanging on the tree. And when they’re ready, act fast before the birds get them all.
Elderberries are an old folk remedy and are rich in vitamin C, amongst other things, so they’re commonly used to boost the immune system and to fight off coughs, colds and the flu. I made this syrup with medicinal purposes in mind for the coming winter, but the sweet, fruity syrup can be used many other ways. Stir it into natural yoghurt, drizzle it on top of pancakes, porridge or ice cream, add a tablespoon or two to sparkling water, Prosecco, vodka or to spice up a hot toddy, add a dash to make a gin elder sour, or stir 2 tablespoons of the syrup into a mug of just-boiled water along with a spoonful of honey and a squeeze of lemon juice (and maybe a splash of whiskey?) for a warming drink or to soothe a sore throat. It seems there’s no end to the benefits of this small but mighty berry.
Spiced Wild Elderberry Syrup
adapted from Food & Wine Magazine, September 2011
Makes about 750 ml (3 cups)
Not all varieties of elderberries are edible (and even the edible kinds should never be eaten raw), so always check first to make sure yours are safe for consumption. The elderberry juice will stain everything it touches, so wear an apron and cover your work surface with a tea towel you’re not too precious about so you don’t stain your counters. This recipe can be doubled.
1 kg (2 lb) elderberries
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
Pick all the berries off their stems, then wash the berries well (get yourself comfortably set up at the kitchen table, put on some music and maybe pour yourself something nice to drink — picking off all the berries will take awhile!). Put the berries, cinnamon and cloves in a non-reactive pot and cover the berries with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the berries are soft. Strain into a glass bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, a jelly bag or clean muslin, pushing on the berries with a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible.
Now measure the juice — for every 500 ml (2 cups) of juice, add 450 g (1 lb) of sugar. Place the juice and the sugar back in the pot over a high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil and allow to boil for 10 minutes. Pour the syrup into clean, sterilised bottles and seal. The syrup can be stored in the fridge for up to 1 year or you could pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze it, then pop the cubes out and store them in a plastic bag in the freezer.