Early summer brings the elderflower (Sambucus nigra, either a variable species or a species complex) into flower in hedgerows, woodland openings and waste ground throughout Europe. The flowers have a unique sweet smell, and making elderflower champagne, a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade-type drink, is one of the pleasures of what is the first (and sometimes last) warm period in the English summer.
Add a bag of sugar (1kg/2lbs) to a bucket of warm water (10 litres/2 gallons), slice, squeeze and add four lemons, then cover the surface with fresh flowers pulled from the stalks from about 6 inflorescences. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm (25-30C) place for about 24 hours. The wild yeasts from the flowers will start to ferment in that time, the warm cupboard should be full of the sweet smell, and you can hear and see some fizzing. (If there is no fizzing, then add some bakers yeast – it gives a less elderflowery-taste, and also makes more CO2 than the wild yeasts – and leave for a further day.)
Strain the drink through a tea-strainer into washed 2l PET plastic bottles, put on the caps and return to the warm place for a further 24hr. By then, the bottles should be hard and the drink is ready – warm, cold or with ice. Release the pressure very slowly, and do this every day or the bottles may explode. I left one slightly too long and it proved to contain 12g of CO2 – quite a carbon footprint for a bottle of drink! The drink will keep for months apparently, although our brews are finished much more rapidly. The BBC’s take on the brew is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ h2g2/A593363 , although I beg to differ on a few points. There is no need to leave for 2 weeks unless you want something significantly alcoholic, and 2ol is more nearly a scant supply for a week from a family of four, rather than an ample supply for a year.
Elderflower cordial is another variant: same as above, but only 1l not 10l of water (so near-saturated with sugar), leave overnight, strain and bottle. Drink diluted with tap water 1:5. The sugar preserves this a long time.
Breakfast this morning was elderflower fritters: dip the flower heads into runny pancake batter and fry in oil. Cut off the stalks while frying and then turn over to cook the other side.
Once the flowering season is over, you can change to using the purple-black berries for sauces or jams (good with meat or with sweets).
Then, once you have harvested the berries, you can cut the branches off the plants and remove the pith from the centre of branches more than 2cm or so thick. For the electron microscopists among you, this pith is the perfect (and long-standing) material to clean diamond knives used in microtomes for thin sectioning. A careful rub with the pith will not damage the $5000 diamond knife edge, but will remove any gummy deposit from imperfectly polymerized resin, or sections that have adhered and bent over the knife edge. A quick Google also suggests the pith is used to clean resin or pitch from diamond saws.
Good luck with the drink making!
An addition for midsummer, 21 June
Here are the elderflower fritters being made – the heads are dipped in a medium pancake batter and shallow fried. Once the batter is set, the stalks are cut off and the flower turned over to cook the other side. Serve sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice.