For most of the year, elders are little more than weeds in tree form. They grow as fast as willows but have none of the advantages – they cannot be woven into baskets or bent into fences, they create a noxious stink in spring, and even their smoke is mildly toxic.
For a few short weeks in June, though, they burst into elderflowers, clusters of the large white blossoms that line our roads and fields, and the berries that come in August or September can be made into a jam that preserves vitamin C in winter.
The flowers can be made into “champagne,” a mildly alcoholic drink, with the addition of lemons, yeast, bottles, and two weeks. To do this just peel the rinds off four lemons, squeeze their juice into the bucket and throw the lemons in with several elderflowers. Pour in a kilogram of sugar and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Then pour in eight litres of water, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, cover with a cloth and let stand for 24 hours.
The next day or so, strain the mixture and pour it into bottles – large plastic jugs do fine for us. Set them in a cool place for about two weeks, and test the result.
Another easy use for elderflowers is in pancakes. Clip some elderflowers right where it divides from the stem and brush them lightly to make sure no insects are on it. To make the batter, just crack two eggs into a large bowl and stir until smooth, then mix in about 120g of flour – the result should be so thick it is difficult to stir. Then slowly add 200 ml milk until the mixture is runny but not watery. As always, these amounts are approximate -- play with them until you see what works for you.
Put small pan with a little oil under medium-high heat, pour in the batter so that it covers the whole pan in a thin layer, and set one full elderflower into the batter face-down. After a minute or so – whenever the underside of the pancake gets golden-brown – flip it over and fry the other side for another minute or so. The flowers add a fruity taste to the pancakes, as blueberries would.
Elderflower extract is also used to make pancakes, but using the flowers themselves is simpler and more direct.
Do make sure you don’t pick elderflowers from the side of the road or where exhaust could contaminate the plants. Also, make sure you have actual elderflowers and not poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace or some other broad white flower. Elderflowers grow on elder trees and bushes; if it’s growing off the ground, it’s probably something else.