It’s been brought to my attention that the elderberry season is starting. Although I have 3 elder trees in my garden hedge, I have ignored their sour fruit to date, leaving them for the birds.
It’s the elder flowers, with their heady wedding-white froth, that I’m usually attracted to. Every spring, I make a mental note to harvest them to make sparking wine, and yet I never get round to it (although I did have a go at a rushed cordial this year). Why do I always miss that window of opportunity? In my mental calendar, early summer is a frenzy of soil-focused plotting and planting. Harvesting the hedgerow is a late summer activity. That’s all I can put it down to.
There’s not a lot of information on cooking or preserving elderberries, so these are easily missed too. They also need to be picked as ripe as possible but before the birds get them… A rare moment. And maybe because of their slightly toxic make-up?… What I read is, that as long as you remove all the unripe berries, stems, leaves and stalks, the ripe berries themselves have very, very low levels of cyanide, and any ill-effect of that is destroyed by cooking. Convinced?! Ok! Let’s get picking!
As one of my elders already has ripening fruit, I chose to have a go at making elderberry gin. The scant recipes seem to conflict on methods of when and how to add the elderberries. Some require the juice to be extracted first by squishing the cooked berries through muslin. Some boil them.
I chose one that recommended putting microwaved berries into a large sterilised mason jar with 100g of sugar, pouring on the gin, and steeping them together for a month before removing the berries. The idea of the microwave was not to over-cook them to a mush. As I don’t have a microwave, I cooked mine in the oven (after removing them from their stems with the tines of a fork then meticulously removing any stalks and unripe berries). Spread on a large baking tray so the heat would get to them evenly, I cooked them just until they were piping hot and the juices had started to run (took about 20 minutes).
Some recipes say use cheap gin. I don’t see the point of that when you put all that effort into it. Having said that, I used a whole litre of Bombay Sapphire in mine, and as the last drop disappeared into the mason jar I thought maybe an elderberry cordial might have been a more prudent idea! You can then make gin cocktails with it (and flavour other things too), but if the whole thing fails at least it’s not a waste of gin! But that wouldn’t keep very long.
Anyway, I’ll now give the jar a daily shake. After a month I’ll remove the berries, taste it to see if it needs any more sugar before bottling and leaving it in a dark place to develop over a few more months… I do look forward to trying it!
With that deep red colour, it’ll make a perfect festive gift, don’t you think?