These ripe purple berries can provide a forager's feast!
MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Upon moving from the Midwest to the Idaho mountains, I was
faced with the task of learning to recognize scads of
new woodland plants. Somehow, though—no matter where
I might look—one particular shrub kept catching my
eye. At first I simply noticed the plentiful plant's showy
compound leaves, each with 5 to 11 leaflets. But then
in June (after everything else had bloomed) this tall bush
suddenly became a striking hillside ornamental packed with
clusters of delicate white flowers. Still later—right at
the ragged end of summer—the blossoms were
transformed into bunches of tiny purple berries. Some of those tasty-looking, double-handful-sized fruit
clumps became so heavy their stems drooped down with the
When I quizzed my nearest neighbor about this abundant yet
mysterious shrub, she said, "Why, they're plain ol'
good-eatin' elderberries, child." So I decided to harvest a
few fruity clusters and kitchen-test them. The berries were
so easy to pick that I was able to gather a bagful in no
time at all. I soon found out, though, that the tedious
task of separating the individual fruits from their tiny
twigs more than made up for the "pickability" of the
many-berried clumps. And to tell the truth, the little
morsels didn't taste all that good to me raw, either
(though I've learned since then that some folks like 'em
fine that way).
I was beginning to wonder if this particular wild food
wasn't better left in the woods. But I quickly reversed my opinion when I started cooking
with them and discovered a multitude of elderberry uses. The
tidbits were downright delectable when baked (especially if
I added a touch of lemon to my fixings): I just substituted elders
in my blueberry recipes and turned out dandy pies,
cobblers, and muffins. (The fruits became naturally mellow
and mouthwatering as soon as I'd dried a few bunches, too.)
Once I'd achieved these culinary successes, I became so
enchanted with elderberries that I even researched the
curious plant in a field guide ... and learned that blue,
purple, and black specimens of Sambucus canadensis are
common all over the U.S., and all are renowned for being
finer sources of vitamin C than even oranges or tomatoes!
There is also a less-common red-fruited
variety—Sambucus racemosa—that's been reported
to make some folks sick. However, since the good elders are
all blue, purple, or black when ripe, the racemosa
berries are easy to avoid.
After my initial enthusiastic elderberry spree, I had to
catch up on a number of neglected homestead chores and
pretty much forgot about the foraged fruit for a couple of
weeks. Then one morning the same neighbor who first told me
about elderberries sent her two boys over with some shopping bags stuffed with the
purple clusters. The fruit actually looked a little old and
dull to me, but when I called up to thank the kind
woman—she explained that those elder rounds came from
her special patch, and that the dusty look of the
berries meant they had reached the peak of ripeness. "That
'bloom' is caused by the light frosts we've been having,"
she told me. "You watch. The birds will gobble up all the
I was glad to have such an abundant supply of berries, but
I didn't feel like "detwigifying" every single purple fruit, so I decided to simply clean out the leaves and
larger branches and make juice. I boiled and mashed the
clumps in small amounts of water, and then I hung the
pulp—twigs and all—in jelly bags until all the
liquid dripped out.
Then, since an old childhood jump-rope jingle ("Elderberry
jelly, huckleberry pie. That's what we like, me oh MY!")
kept running through my head, I started making jelly. I
simply combined a cupful of elderberry juice with
two-thirds cup of honey and boiled down the mixture until
it sheeted. Lo and behold, I ended up with a tender, firm,
sweet-tart product that would have made my mother (the
cooking queen of my childhood's county fairs) proud!
That batch was a great success with my family and friends,
so I kept experimenting with the juice. I soon discovered
that elderberries are low in natural pectin and that if I
added some of the commercial gel-aiding substance, I could
get a lot more jelly for the same amount of work. Better
yet, I found that I could mix a naturally pectin-rich fruit
juice—like grape or green apple—with equal
parts of my elderberry drippings, to give my concoctions a
brand-new tangy flavor!
After stuffing my shelves with a variety of elder jellies,
I still had a kegful of juice, so I tied my apron back
on and created a juice-and-dumpling dessert: elderberry
slump. First I mixed together 2 cups of elderberry juice,
2/3 cup of honey, a sprinkle of cornstarch (for thickener),
and 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice. I let that combination
simmer slowly in a pot while I started on the dumplings.
To fix these dough morsels, I measured out 1 cup of cake
flour (3/4 cup of bread flour and one tablespoon of
cornstarch could be substituted), 2 teaspoons of baking
powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. I mixed these ingredients
and sifted them three times to make the dumplings light and
airy. Then I filled a 1/2-cup measure with one beaten egg
and milk, and stirred that liquid combination into the dry
"siftings" to make a stiff batter.
I dropped spoonfuls of the tasty paste into my simmering
elder juice and then cooked the dumplings—covered—for two
minutes on each side. The last step was to serve the
finished elderberry slump with whipped cream ... and
watch my family scrape the plates clean!
However, even after my whole family ate their fill of elderberry slump
I still had lots of juice. So I set out to brew
up a batch of that legendary inebriant: elderberry wine.
Unfortunately, my earlier vinting attempts had earned me
the title of "li'l ol' winewrecker." Nevertheless I figured the
possible rewards would certainly be worth the effort, so I
altered a simple grape wine recipe that my parents had used
into my own formula for elderberry balloon wine.
I started off by sterilizing a gallon jug (to be sure that
no vinegar-making bacteria would subvert my efforts) and
combining—in this container—1 quart of
elderberry juice, 1/4 teaspoon of dry yeast, and 3 cups of
sugar. Then I filled the vessel with water and tied a big,
heavy balloon—as firmly as possible—over the
neck of the jug.
The readily made concoction frothed and bubbled wildly, and
the balloon became so inflated I thought it would burst.
But it held together somehow, and—amazingly
enough—when I took the air bag off six weeks later I
had a tart, scarlet berry wine with no vinegar taste!
Since my pantry was nigh onto overflowing with elderberry
goodies by this time, I decided to freeze the rest of my
juice until midwinter when the fruity liquid could be
used for special cold weather treats.
I did take measures to save space, though, by placing
blocks of frozen juice in cheesecloth and letting the
thawing product drip down into storage containers. The
elder fluid melted first (leaving the water content still
iced), and gave me a low-volume elderberry concentrate to
refreeze and put away.
That September gave me an elderberry harvest I'll never
forget. However—as I learned the following
June—I had completely missed out on half of the
amazing plant's food products: the flowers!
The white-petaled clusters—called
"elderblow"—can be used to make tea; added to
muffins, pancakes, and custards; cooked up as fritters
(just dip an unshucked cluster in your favorite batter and
fry); and more.
All in all, I bless the day my neighbor told me about
elderberries. I still wonder, however, how the generous
plant came by its name. Perhaps it's because the "elder"
berries ripen when the other wild fruits are pretty much
gone, or just because folks have known about the
source of good eating for so long. But one thing's for
sure: Since I keep on learning new culinary uses for the
delectable fruit and flowers, elderberries will never get
old for me!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Marion has discovered a great deal about
elderberry "eats", but she's right when she says there's
more to be learned! Here are some good leads for further
food and drink fixing ideas:
 There is an easy way to pick
the ripe berries off all those twigs! Simply put a small
piece of 1/2" mesh hardware cloth over a bucket or large
bowl and rub the berry bunches across this screen. The
fruit will come off cleaner (and with less bruising) than
if you'd picked them all by hand!
 If you want to absorb some helpful knowledge about
other elderberry—and elderblow—wines, you'd do
well to read Sandra Oddo's "Homemade Wine Recipe: Make Elderflower Wine."
 And for more elderberry and flower
recipes—covering everything from cough syrup to
chutney to exquisite elder-sumac jelly—the best
resource just has to be that old forager's masterpiece:
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.