Bottling the summer

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Elder represents the very essence of summer with its fragrant flowers at their best in June.

A shrub of woodland edges, hedgerows and grassland scrub, elder can also be found on waste ground, in cemeteries and even on rubbish tips. It prefers rich, fertilised soils, so is a common sight in urban areas and on cultivated ground.

Feared by the devil but favoured by foragers, the plant was once renowned for its magical properties - if you burned it, it was thought that the Devil would appear, but if you kept it by the house, you could keep him at bay. The plant also has a long history of human consumption and is used in a variety of foods.

Elder has strong-smelling, compound leaves, with are divided into five to seven leaflets. It displays white 'umbels' (umbrella-like clusters) of flowers in May and June, and glossy, black-purple berries come autumn. 

The flowers provide nectar for a wide range of insects, whilst the berries are eaten by birds and mammals. Animals such as dormice will eat both the berries and flowers of elder and many different moth caterpillars feed on the foliage.

Regularly used in cooking - the autumn berries and spring flowers can both be eaten (the latter sometimes battered and fried), and the blossom can be used to make the popular elderflower cordial.

You can find an easy cordial recipe below, but remember, never eat a wild plant unless you are 100% sure of its identity.

Elderflower Cordial

Ingredients

15 heads of elderflower
1kg caster sugar (healthier option - 500g caster sugar & 4 tablespoons quality runny honey)
Grated rind & juice of 2 unwaxed lemons or limes
1 litre of boiling water

You will need

Saucepan
Kettle (to boil water)
Bowl
Measuring spoons
Grater
Sieve
Muslin
tea towel
Decanting bottle

Method

1. Gather your elderflowers ensuring that you shake out any insects. Avoid picking flowers near busy roads as they will absorb the traffic fumes.

2. Grate the zest of the lemons/limes into a bowl and add the juice and set aside.

3. Add the sugar or sugar/honey mix to a saucepan, add 1 litre of boiling water and stir until it has dissolved.

4. Add the lemon zest and juice to the pan and continue to stir

5. Double check your flowers for insects and other plant matter and add to the mixture.

6. Cover the mixture and leave for 24-48 hours, stirring occasionally.

7. Strain the mixture into a bowl through a sieve and muslin, squeezing out as much liquid as possible.

8. Add the spent flowers to your compost.

9. Decant your cordial and serve with a slice of lemon and ice!