GATHERING elderflowers and brewing up refreshing cordials is all the rage, but what about the flowery umbels that remain on the tree and magically turn into deep autumnal juicy red-black berries?
The elder tree is one of the must generous of all our natives and even though it looks rather unkempt from late October until May, it never fails to delight us with its summer fragrant blooms and its tart, distinctive elderberries in autumn. Great bunches of elderberries can now be found hanging off the hedgerows and adorning country lanes, roadsides, graveyards, parks and gardens and are almost begging to be picked. Like other berries, elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are abundant this year, but one needs to get out and forage fast as peckish birds are equally abundant.
Elderberries are used to make wine, jam, jellies, chutney, sauces, syrups, cordial and to flavour vinegar and spirits. They can be added fresh to pies and puddings, but be warned their tart flavour may not appeal to everybody, even when masked with sugar.
Elderberries work well in jams, chutneys and jellies, especially if mixed with other autumnal harvests such as blackberries and apples. If dried and rehydrated, they can be added to cakes and muffins, making a decent subsitute for raisins and blueberries. They work especially well when blended with warm spices in syrups and cordials, making a drink that tastes absolutely incredible and is also known to be a remedy for preventing and recovering from flu, colds, excessive mucus and sore throats.
Due to the large amount of antioxidants, beta carotene, calcium and vitamin C in elderberries, they are prized for their immune boosting benefits and have a long history of use in traditional medicine.
Elderberries can start to ripen as early as August and berries are ready for picking when clusters start to hang upside down. When heading out on a berry-expedition, go equipped with a small bucket for collecting and a crook for gently tugging branches into easier reach. It can pay to wear a heavy leather belt on which you can sling the bucket whilst you pick, as that way, your container will be suspended at your waist within easy reach and you’ll have both hands free for easier and faster picking. If you plan to gather large quantities, take along another container to collect the contents of your filled bucket. Collect clusters whole by nipping them off at the stem and make sure to only harvest fresh juicy berries, avoiding those that are dried or shrivelled.
Clean them well and strip from stalks using a fork. As always, good forager ethics need to be upheld so avoid over-harvesting or trampling and breaking bushes.
Remember also to spare some of the berry booty for the birds and avoid foraging food from the side of busy roads or sprayed fields.
This recipe produces a warm, rich liqueur that will remind you of a tawny port wine, only without the port. I always omit the rum from the recipe and find that it holds equally well in flavour and shelf life.
Ingredients: 1 plastic bag of umbels = 1 litre of juice
* Wash berries. Use fork to scrape them into saucepan. Cook for about 10 minutes until they burst.
* Strain through a muslin cloth and pour juice back into the pan. For every litre of juice, add 10 cardamom pods, 10 cloves and a stick of cinnamon and the rind and juice of 1 lemon.
* Heat for 10 minutes and then add a kilo of sugar.
* Make sure sugar is dissolved, bring the liquid to the boil and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
* Cool and bottle.
* Add 500ml of dark rum if desired.
This delicious medicinal cordial served as a hot drink is the perfect winter cold buster.
ELDERBERRY AND CRAB APPLE JELLY
500g crab apples or cooking apples, 1kg elderberries Sugar, Cinnamon stick and cloves for spicing
Method: Chop apples and place them in a saucepan with enough water to three-quarter cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Next add berries removed from stalks and bruise into apple mix with a wooden spoon. Add cinnamon stick and cloves if desired.
Cook until the fruit is pulpy and strain through a jelly bag. To each ½ litre of juice, add 425g of heated sugar, bringing slowly to the boil until sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly until the jelly sets (about 10–20 minutes). Skim the mixture well, pour into clean sterilised jars and enjoy a delicious brilliantly bright black-purple jelly.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved