A fragrant declaration of summer’s
approach from the elder tree
Story and photos by Kristen Rasmussen
The gifts from the elder tree bookend summer: The elegantly refined flower blossoms of Sambucus aromatically communicate the end of spring, while the tree’s wild, dark berry clusters mark the shift into autumn.
The plant is likely called “elder” because of its plethora of culinary and medicinal benefits known for centuries by cultures throughout the world, and so it’s no surprise that much folklore surrounds it.
Elderflower, which grows in delicate blossom sprays, delights with its pungent honey-floral fragrance, which also draws birds and butterflies. This characteristic leads to the flower’s frequent use in cordials, preserves, and desserts. As a cocktail ingredient, the distinctive essence of elderflower has been been popularized by St-Germain, an industrially produced brand of liqueur in which elderflower is a minor ingredient.
Elderflower can also work in savory applications (like the elderflower fritters on the next page). Simple recipes will allow the flavor of the flowers to shine through.
A Late-Spring Elderflower Foray
Elder trees prefer damp environments, so they are most likely to be found near flowing water. They can grow up to 25 feet tall and have reddish bark and pinnate leaves that grow opposite each other. The elder plant found in Northern California (and most of the Western United States) is Sambucus cerulea, also known as blue elder for its dark-blue berries. Although the berries have not yet formed in the season when we are foraging elderflower (May through June in the East Bay), the tree and the flowers themselves are distinctive enough for identification. The tree’s tiny star-shaped flowers are a yellowish-white color and grow in clusters. The Bay Area Forager, a book by Kevin Feinstein and Mia Andler, is a helpful resource for identifying elder and other wild plants. (Also visit forage.berkeley.edu for a handy pocket guide of common wild edibles in the Bay Area.)
To remove the flowers, simply clip off at the base of the spray where several stems intersect. The flowers have a tendency to fall off of the stems, so I like to hold a bucket or lay a towel or sheet at my feet to collect the floaters. When using the flowers for culinary applications, remove as much of the stem as possible, as the toxins are more concentrated in the stem than in the flowers.
Preparing the flowers for use: Inspect the elderflower sprays carefully and remove any hitchhiking insects by shaking the flower or picking them off. Dunk the flowers into a large bowl of cold water, then remove and shake off as much water as possible (and perhaps more bugs). Remove as much of the large stem as possible by plucking the smaller flower clusters (about 1-inch diameter) from larger clusters. Smaller stems should remain in order to hold the small flower clusters together. Set cleaned flowers aside on a paper towel to dry.
Classic Elderflower Cordial
Cordial—essentially flavored and diluted simple syrup—is the most common way to preserve this special summer forage. Enjoy in beverages from lemonade to champagne or drizzle over huckleberry pound cake or panna cotta.
Makes 1 liter
20 medium elderflower heads (about 2 to 3 inches across)
Grated zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 lemons
4 cups water
3½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon citric acid (an optional ingredient helpful in preserving the cordial)
A 1-liter bottle and cap or cork (or enough smaller bottles to accommodate 1 liter of liquid)
Clean the flowers as described above, then drain and place them in a large bowl together with the lemon zest. Bring the water to a boil and pour over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
Prepare bottles and caps by washing with soapy water then plunging into boiling water for 5 minutes to sterilize and allowing them to air dry. (Corks should not be washed or soaked, so purchase clean new corks from a wine-supply company.)
Strain the liquid through cheesecloth and pour into a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and sugar. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into the sterilized bottles and seal with a sterilized cap or cork. Allow to cool, then store in the refrigerator or freezer. Without citric acid, the cordial will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks and in the freezer for 1 year. Try freezing the cordial in smaller batches for use as needed.
Elderflower Chive Fritters
The batter for this savory dish contains lemon zest and chives, which add complexity without overpowering the floral qualities of the elderflower.
Makes 40 to 45 small fritters.
About 10 medium to large elderflower heads, broken up into 40 to 45 small florets
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch instant baker’s yeast
6–8 fluid ounces sparkling water
½ tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon sea salt, divided
2 tablespoons diced chives, divided
Grapeseed oil for frying
Ponzu for dipping (optional)
Whisk flour with yeast, 6 ounces sparkling water, lemon zest, and ⅛ teaspoon salt until combined. Batter should be runny (similar to pancake batter) and will start to fluff up from the yeast. If batter is not runny enough, add more sparkling water. Gently whisk in 1½ tablespoons of the diced chives.
Pour grapeseed oil ½ inch deep into a frying pan. Heat to high.
Dip florets (one at a time) into batter, shaking off any large clumps of batter, and fry in the heated oil until golden brown. This should take about 1 to 2 minutes on the first side and another 30 seconds after florets are flipped. Do not crowd florets into frying pan: Fry a few at a time, remove to drain on paper towels, and repeat in batches until all florets are fried.
Top fritters with dusting of remaining salt and remaining chives. Serve hot with ponzu, if desired.
Kristen is a Culinary Nutritionist who teaches at UC Berkeley and the Culinary Institute of America on topics ranging from food science to foraging. Find her at rootedfood.com.