Elderflowers are the delicate clusters of cream-coloured blossoms on elderberry trees. They burst into flower at the start of the summer, and have a short season - usually no more than a few weeks, before the blossoms are past their best.
Elderflowers grow quite rampantly in British hedgerows. The flowers bloom at head-height, which is a good way of differentiating the blossoms from low-growing cow parsley. Another way of spotting elderflowers is their distinctive smell, which is creamy and floral.
As a species native to Europe, elderflowers' uses date back centuries. In Roman times, the roots would be ground into an ointment for rubbing on ailments. In medieval times, it was said that a witch could turn herself into an elder tree, and it's common material for a 'wand' - with the magical properties of an elder wand even being summoned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In traditional Chinese medicine, it's believed that elder dissolved in wine will treat rheumatism.
In culinary terms, elderflowers' uses are almost as varied. The flowers are most commonly used to flavour syrups for cordials. For many, elderflower cordial or elderflower champagne is a quintessentially British summertime drink, and no afternoon tea, picnic or village fete would be complete without a glass.
Infusion techniques also see the flavour being harnessed for jellies and ice creams. Foraging is often the best way to find elderflowers. On rare occasions, sprays of elderflowers may be available in seasonal vegetable boxes. Elders are also cultivated on a grand scale by big cordial companies, who occasionally call on local pickers to come and help.
Most elderflower recipes use elderflower cordial as a quick and easy way of introducing the flowers' distinctive flavour. Homemade cordials taste very different to shop-bought varieties, and it is worth making your own, so that you have more control over the process. All it involves is steeping the clusters of flowers in a sugar-syrup, and adding a preservative like citric acid. Elderflower cordial can be frozen - so if you decant it into small water bottles, then you can keep defrosting them throughout the year.
A splash of cordial can then be used to flavour any liquids or custards - meaning that it can then be set into ice creams, jellies or a panna cotta. The flowers themselves are edible, and make a delicate and beautiful garnish. Alternatively, the whole head of elderflowers can be deep-fried to make a textured garnish or snack.
Elderflower is a traditional summer flavour, and goes best with traditional summer fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. Martin Wishart uses an elderflower jelly to set a selection of summer berries, and Simon Hulstone makes an elderflower crème to go with his strawberry dessert.
Elderflower also makes a good partner to tart fruits like gooseberries and rhubarb - both of which are often served with fish like mackerel - so there's no reason not to venture into a savoury context with elderflowers. Check out out elderflower recipe collection for more inspiration.