I love this recipe. It’s no harder to make than a cup of tea, fills your kitchen with fragrance and is a great introduction to using foraged foods in the home.
Living in the city, with no garden or balcony, and not even a sunny window box for herbs, it seems hopeless to think of producing even a tiny bit of food for yourself. Then you start to walk around with open eyes, and maybe a foraging guide, like Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, and a new world of possibilities opens up.
I live in Graz, Austria, the second-biggest city in the country, and yet, even here, in this lively and prosperous city, little nuggets of wildness survive. The river banks are steep and lined with trees, many of them apples, walnuts and cherry.
In the poorer, more neglected parts of the city, old workshops crumble, and in the ruins grow brambles, nettles and dandelions.
The city’s limits have swollen in recent years, expanding to take in land that only a few decades ago was agricultural. You often see old farmhouses, low-roofed with bulging wooden walls, hugging a courtyard where chickens still run, and on either side loom shiny metal blocks of flats. I often think about these little farms, lost in the city, and wonder if they can feel the loss of their fields.
Almost invariably, these houses have an elder tree planted somewhere on the property. Usually, you only see elder as a multi stemmed bush, hacked down each winter as a weed. The old farmers who built these houses valued the elder, and trained them into magnificent trees with thick, twisting stems.
In ancient Germanic legend, the elder tree was the seat of the goddess Holler, who would look after your family and animals – if you looked after her home.
I own a bar, and a very popular feminine drink in the summer is the Holler Spritzer, white wine mixed with soda and a splash of elderflower syrup. I love the taste of the syrup, sweet and floral without being overpoweringly so.
It improves too-dry wine, and is also fabulous served in a pitcher with ice, some fresh mint, a few slices of lemon and topped up with tap water. It can also be used as an ingredient in other recipes — when the gooseberries are ripe, I am going to try an elderflower and gooseberry sorbet with the syrup.
Makes about 2 pints
• 4 cups of sugar
• 1 lemon, sliced
• 1Tbsp citric acid
• About 25 heads of elderflowers
Note: Do not wash the elderflower heads, as this removes the scent. Shake them gently to remove the bugs, and pick the beasties off with your fingers. It is best to pick on a warm, sunny day when the bugs are flying about to minimise this problem. It is not necessary to remove the flowers from the stems
1. Boil two pints of water, and dissolve the sugar. Add the lemon and the citric acid.
2. Put the elderflowers in a vessel big enough to take all the water. I would recommend a very large canning jar that you can cover and keep in the fridge while infusing, but I just used a normal mixing bowl with a tea towel over it and it worked fine.
3. Pour the hot, sugary liquid over the flowers and leave to infuse overnight.
4. The next day, strain the liquid through a cloth and a sieve back into a pan. Gather up the cloth and give the flowers a good squeeze to get all the liquid out.
5. Sterilise bottles and put them in the oven to warm.
6. Boil the syrup. Pour the hot syrup into the warm bottles.
7. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and leave to cool.
Hannah Wernet grew up self-sufficiently on a sheep farm in Wales. When she was 20, she moved to Austria where she works as a teacher and owns a small expat bar. She dreams of one day returning to a self-sufficient life in the French countryside.
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