On a small link road, about a step above a narrow lane, a woman was snipping doilies of the white lace heads of elderflower (Sambucus nigra ) into a pillow case. The flowers are a summer marker, the berries that follow signalling season’s end. Rain and sunshine have helped these strange bushes of mystery and folklore to produce sweet-smelling clusters of blooms.
Neither the flower-gathering nor the later black elderberry-picking is observed as regularly as in the past. The blooms picker admitted no ambition to make a sparkling wine — just cordial, now regularly seen as a commercial product on supermarket shelves.
A firm in the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire last year sold 10 million bottles of the stuff.
Elderflowers are best picked when the sun is out and they are not drenched by rain. The sprays are full of yellow pollen which is necessary to flavour the cordial; rain will wash this away. Don’t pick them if there is even a tiny shade of brown or the resultant product will be ruined by an aroma of passing cats. Gather the flowers while dry and shake off any insects.
The naturalist Richard Mabey says elderflower has more uses than any other hedge blossom. There are many recipes, especially in Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1935) which has 11 pages for wines, cordials, soft drinks, jams etc. Mabey prefers to eat the flowers fresh from the bush and fried in a batter. They are cool and frothy, he says. I prefer to try a puree or preserve with gooseberries and cream — a marvellous taste experience.
Gooseberries are now plentiful so a preserve may be made using about 1lb of gooseberries and four elderflower heads. Put the berries in a pan with a pint of water and simmer for half an hour, mushing to a pulp. Add about 500g of sugar, stir and bring to the boil. Then add the elderflowers in a muslin bag and boil rapidly until the mix is about to set. Remove the bag and pot the preserve. The flavour is like Muscat grapes and transforms the gooseberry jam. You may seek sparkling wine recipes elsewhere.
Foraging in the countryside, once the almost exclusive hobby of specialist magazine readers, has now become a popular pursuit. But, as always, great care must be exercised in handling and gathering plants deemed poisonous such as hemlock, hemlock water-dropwort, hellebores and fool’s parsley.
There are many excellent field guides to help with identity, but some are not as clear as others in emphasising the dangers of accidental ingestion. Early editions of Mabey’s Food for Free included a useful list of poisonous growths.
But the most comprehensive and clearly illustrated guide to food-in-the-wild of recent times is without doubt The Wild Food Plants of Ireland by Tom Curtis and Paul Whelan, with a foreword by Darina Allen, published by Orla Kelly with a Department of Agriculture imprimatur.
The format is too wide for use as a pocket guide and future publishing plans should consider this. And a distinctive, well-illustrated section on poisonous plants would be a considerable addition to this excellent book, which should be on every forager’s shelf and is a terrific read for all countryside ramblers.