Monday, 9 June 2008

Cooling herbs for summer – Elderflower

This article is posted as part of the Herbwifery Forum blog party hosted by Alchemille (

As the brightness of hawthorn flowers slowly fades in the hedgerows, our eyes are caught by a new dazzling white array amongst cool green leaves. The elder is in flower.

Every one who loves elder trees knows the joy elderflowers can bring – not only from their aroma, but also the myriad uses in summer drinks. Elderflower cordial has always been a commercial favourite – now freely available in every supermarket, but less people know the flavour of the elderflower as a simple tea to bring cooling in the heat of summer or to soothe the fevered brow during colds, flu, fevers or the hot flushes of menopause.

Elderflower has always worked well in combination with peppermint and yarrow for the classic “cold tea” which was the first herbal combination I ever learned about.

There are so many wonderful things elderflower can make. Here are some of them.

Elderflower tea
Pick 2-4 elderflowers and place in a teapot or cafatiere. Pour over just boiled water, replace the lid and let steep for 10 minutes, strain and enjoy. The tea is naturally sweet and refreshing.

Elderflower cordial
(This is basically Sophie Grigson’s recipe without the citric acid
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.

You may want to use elderflower’s cooling properties on your skin. Gail Faith Edwards has a wonderfully simple recipe for making elderflower water, which can be used as a cleanser.

Elderflower water
Place elderflowers in a stainless steel or enamel saucepan and cover with fresh spring or distilled water. Cover and slowly heat to just below a simmer. Turn the heat as low as it will go and continue heating for about ten minutes tightly covered. Turn off the heat and allow all to sit, covered, overnight. The next morning, strain the infusion off. You will need to strain at least twice through muslin or kitchen towel to remove all the floating debris. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place. I looked at my elderflower water 24 hours after bottling and there is a yellow sediment at the bottom which is probably pollen.

Elderflower’s cooling properties can also be captured in a double infused oil. I use the general method for double infusing in sunflower oil. The oil is beautifully fragrant and will stay that way for two years or more in a cool, dark place. I was giving an introduction to herbs talk a few weeks ago and found out a sample of elderflower oil I’d made back in 2006 and it was still as aromatic now as it was when it was made. It can be used as a massage oil or to help reduce the heat in swollen, hot joints.

Do be careful when drying fresh elderflowers. If there is any dampness, it will develop mould. I’ve lost two entire harvests from carelessness – not checking the drying herbs for several weeks – and then having to throw everything away! I now dry the flowers flat on top of newspaper in a dark, warm place covered with a second piece of newspaper. Things are hectic at the moment, so I haven’t had the energy to harvest elderflowers for drying yet, but I’m hoping to do so before too long.

There are many other culinary delights involving elderflower. I’ve not yet tried elderflower fritters, but muscadet jam which is made by adding elderflowers to gooseberry jam is wonderful! I also made a very simple gooseberry fool adding two elderflower heads and some sweet cicely during the cooking of the gooseberries, which made the flavour very subtle. Let me know if you would like me to post recipes for the fritters, jam and gooseberry fool.

Fifteen years ago when I was working in patient involvement in the NHS, I attended a talk by a young dietician working with diabetic patients. The locality where the hospital was based had a very high number of people from south asia, who had a genetic predisposition to diabetes. She told us how these communities had very strange ways of looking at their food, calling them hot or cold. She obviously didn’t understand what they meant and neither, at that time, did I. Now I know better.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah :)

I just wondered how you're stopping your elderflower water from fermenting? When I make elderflower champagne the flowers feremnt on their own because of the natural yeast they contain. Could be that boiling the water stops the fermentation, but thought I check first?

mygrandmalucy said...

I would love it if you'd post your recipes/techniques for all the products you make with elder flower in them. I have a batch of cordial going and it was just in time; we're dealing with a severe respiratory bug here, going on 3 1/2 weeks :(

Sarah Head said...

Hi Debs

I haven't checked the cordial this week but it doesn't look as if it's started fermenting at all. The fridge is pretty cold, so I thought it should be ok. I left the previous batch in the larder and it went off in a couple of weeks. I have frozen half of the cordial in 2 separate plastic bottles so we can enjoy it later.


You may find some of the recipes you are asking for on my elderflower article on the Herb Society website.

If you would like a handout on basic methods, let me have your email and I'll send you one.

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Unknown said...

I have dried sone elderflowers and they smell abit fishy and quite dusty is this bad? There dry so it doesn't seem to be mould ?

Sarah Head said...

If your elderflowers smell fishy, you have probably picked some of the last of the harvest. The smell does change as the flowers age. The dust is the pollen and you do gets loads which flies everywhere when the flowers are dried.