Elderflower Syrup

This morning was a morning for cocktails.

I don’t mean I got up at 7am and started drinking. Though I might not always decline a mimosa or Bloody Mary when offered (yes, please!), I’m generally not much for the wake-and-partake.

Well, OK, I’ll admit: after 10am, all bets are off. But today I wasn’t drinking cocktails; I was preparing mixers – I swear.

The result of my morning efforts? Three very different (and very tasty) drink syrups that I will be bringing with me to music camp next week.

First, I assembled a tonic syrup made with cinchona (quinine) bark, lemongrass, and citrus – recipe thanks to my good friend and food guru Alanna at Bojon Gourmet. I had always heard that making tonic was a terribly complicated process. After reading The Food Dude’s hilarious article (part 1, part 2) about his tonic-making woes, I had pretty much decided it was not for me. What a mess! But Alanna, ever the intrepid culinary explorer, did all the dirty work and concocted a marvelous little recipe that was easy to follow, and made a superb tonic syrup.

Which, in turn, made a *superb* cocktail. Ahem.

Secondly, I finished processing my very first batch of homemade grenadine (which should never ever EVER be bought from a store, as what is sold is often merely HFCS with some red dye/additives). I had tried some of the good stuff while staying at a friend’s house a few weeks back which they had made from store-bought pomegranate juice. It was remarkably flavorful, with hints of citrus, clove, cinnamon, and pepper. Remembering that I had canned some home-made syrup last year after finding a great deal on pomegranates at the farmer’s market, I decided to doctor it up a bit and see if I couldn’t reproduce their resounding grenadine success. I simmered the syrup with some black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and grapefruit zest. I tried a bit of it while it was cooling, and though it may not be the glorious Nectar of the Gods that Kate and Nathan made, it is certainly not bad.

I’ll be playing around with this recipe a bit (read: mixing a lot of drinks) and will post my findings when I’ve settled on a winner (read: sobered up).

Third syrup of the morning was a syrup infused with the flower of the blue elder plant (which my brother and I harvested locally). Elderflower has received quite a bit of attention recently. I had my first run-in with elderflower this winter at the Charles Dickens Christmas Fair, where I was invited to try St. Germain – a delicious floral liqueur ostensibly infused with flowers hand-picked by old French dudes on bicycles.

Whether this story is true or not, the liqueur certainly got me thinking about elder and I resolved to harvest my own flowers this year and experiment with them. With a bit of searching, I found that two of my favorite foraged food bloggers (Hank Shaw and Langdon Cook) posted elderflower syrup recipes!

Elder grows wild all over the place! Once I knew what I was looking for (and made sure I knew the difference between the flowers of the blue/American elder – GOOD and red elder – BAD; they both grow around here), it was very easy to head out with a pair of garden snippers and a big canvas bag and come home with more elderflower than I could ever wish for.

The process of making elderflower syrup is super easy. A simple syrup is poured over fresh elder flowers and allowed to infuse for several days, then strained and stored.

This syrup can be used in alcoholic drinks, but is also very refreshing mixed with some lemonade, some sparkling water, or (as we happily discovered), added to some strong home-brewed kombucha. Because of the added citric acid, it is somewhat shelf-stable, but I would recommend it be kept in the refrigerator to prevent fermentation.

When harvesting elder, it is best to pick the flower heads early in the morning. As the day progresses and it heats up, the flowers will lose much of their potent scent. Simply cut the entire head off of the branch when collecting – the stems can be discarded later.

Once you have collected enough flowers (one brown paper grocery bag full of flower heads is about enough to make a quart of syrup), they need to be cleaned. The most effective way I have found to remove the flowers from the stems is to rub the clusters of flowers in my palm in a circular motion (like cleaning a paintbrush), allowing the petals to fall off into a large bowl or tray. Once the flowers are gone, the stems can be discarded.

Note: letting the flowers sit for a little bit at this point will give the (inevitable) insect population some time to vacate the premises. Not necessary, but some people don’t like bugs in their drinks.

Elderflower Syrup

4c water
3c sugar
2 lemons, zest and juice
2 Tbsp citric acid (optional – preservative)
4c packed fresh elder flowers (cleaned, stems removed)

In a large non-reactive stock pot, bring the water, sugar, citric acid, and lemon zest up to a boil. Simmer until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and add in the lemon juice. Strain and allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, pack the cleaned elder flowers into a jar large enough to accommodate the syrup. Fill the jar with flowers (I make it in quart jars). When the syrup has cooled enough to handle, pour it over the flowers and seal the jar. Let this infusion sit for several days, shaking the jar to agitate the syrup.

When the infusion is finished (taste it after 3-4 days, it should be quite floral and not funky or sour), pour the flowers/syrup into a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth (over a bowl). Squeeze the remaining syrup out of the flowers, and either discard the flowers or use them for baking (maybe an elderflower cheese tart, or elderflower fritters?).

Keep the syrup in glass jars in the refrigerator for long-term storage.


A few closing remarks about responsible wild foraging:

– always be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN of your plant before eating something you have foraged. If you are not clear, consult an expert. There are many wonderful books and websites that can give you reliable information, but nothing is as good as a trip out with someone who really knows the local flora.

– that said, don’t get freaked out. Once you know a plant is safe to eat, EAT IT! There is a lot of misinformation about the dangers of foraging. Armed with knowledge and good field guides, the dangers are minimal. If you are really worried, stick to harvesting only plants that have no dangerous look-alikes.

– never “clean out” a plant or area of all of its goodies. Remember that animals and other humans may be relying on this food source, and that the plant needs a certain amount of its own seed to mature in order to reproduce. A good rule of thumb is to only take 1/3 of any forageable plant at a time. This leaves enough to ensure the health and longevity of the plant.

– sometimes a plant can be harvested in several different stages of its life cycle. Remember that elder flowers become elderberries, which are also a tasty wild treat. Flower petals can be shaken directly off the heads (leaving the center of the flower intact to fruit later in the season). If the tree is large, just remember to leave some flowers un-picked to ripen for later foraging!

– plants directly next to busy roads may have icky chemicals from exhaust and oil/car juices leaked into the ground. Be careful where you forage (the farther away from heavy traffic, the better!), and remember to wash everything thoroughly when you get it home.
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