I have always associated elderberry (sambucus nigra) with Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The delicate elderflower syrup was an import and a bit of a luxury to me. So when I discovered that it does grow here in Ontario, I determined to find some before the beautiful flowers disappeared.
This large shrub or tree can grow to about 6 meters high and wide. It has clusters of dainty white five-petalled flowers. The leaves are pointed and serrated, and about two inches in length. It grows in sunny, moist areas, usually near swamps, rivers or lakes. They have a pleasant but mild scent.
The leaves, stems and unripe berries are toxic. The flowers are rich in bioflavonoids, and have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. The one contraindication for them is that because they reduce blood sugar levels, they are not recommended for diabetics. If you are interested in reading more on the health effects, refer to this site.
To pick them, it is recommended to pick just one cluster of flowers from each branch so that the rest can produce berries. Lightening the load a bit will not only not harm the plant, but will remove some of the excess growth. Wild plants need a little pruning sometimes too.
Once properly identified, the clusters are easy to remove. And just a few will go a long way.
They can be dried, fermented, infused, baked or fried. To start with my first batch I decided to make a simple syrup and some fritters.
First I checked each flower for any insects and gave them a gentle shake. I did not wash them as they are delicate and didn’t want to wash away any of the flavour.
To make the syrup, I simply snipped off the umbrels (or individual clusters) and put them in a pot and covered them with water. I brought the water to a boil, strained the lot through a fine sieve lined with a paper towel. Once the flowers are in boiling water, they turn yellow and develop a delicious aroma.
I returned the hot liquid to the pot and added sugar, about 1/2 cup for 4 cups of liquid, at which point the yellow became even deeper. Heat just enough to dissolve and pour into a clean jar. This syrup will not have a long shelf life, but refrigerated will last about a week. A small amount like this can be consumed in no time.
To serve, I mixed about 1 part syrup with 3-4 parts soda water, A little ice and you have yourself a refreshing and nutritious drink.
For the fritters, I used a recipe which can be found here. The batter is a simple mixture of 4 Tbsp of plain flour, and enough sparkling water to make a thin batter. I used 10 Tbsp, slightly less than the recipe called for.
Dip the umbrels in the batter and deep fry them for about 1-2 minutes. When the flowers become stiff, but before they brown, they are ready. Drain them well on absorbent paper.
For the sauce, I mixed together some crabapple paste, chipotle sauce and a little olive oil. The mixture of 1 tsp each of salt and sugar along with a spicy sauce really make these little fritters special.
With the remaining flowers I have collected, I am thinking of fermenting some to make an elderflower ‘bubbly’, drying some for tea, and perhaps using some of my syrup to make a soda. More on that later