Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Making elderflower cordial

Every June I try to make a batch of elderflower cordial, the quintessential British summertime soft drink. I got hooked on elderflower cordial a few years ago when I found it in our local Whole Foods, sold under the Belvoir label. Suddenly, Whole Foods stopped selling it, but by then, I'd learned how to ID elderberry bushes that grow in profusion all over New England. They start to blossom in late May, their showy white blooms ubiquitous along country roads as well as major interstate highways. I tend to pick my blossoms at a local state park, far from the exhaust of roadways, and in a marshy area next to our town's senior center , which cracks me up, because elder? Elderly? Get it? Okay, you get it. (Sambucus nigri is the Latin name for the elderberry shrub; weirdly enough, the liqueur Sambuca is anise-flavored, not elderberry-flavored.)  Once July hits, the flowers die off to reveal little green berries that will ripen into dark purpley-black elderberries by late August ... just in time to harvest for my famous cough syrup.*

I made a huge batch of cordial last summer, and because I was working on a monster work project this June, I didn't get around to making a fresh batch. But for the last year I've been meaning to blog about how I make this cordial, so I'm just going to do it now, even though it's slightly past elderflower season. When next May and June roll around, you'll be all set to make your own cordial. (If you are in Zone 5 and under -- meaning the far north of the U.S. or Canada, you may still have a couple days to gather elderflowers.)

How do I use my cordial? Mostly as a syrup to add to sparkling water to create a grapey/floral kind of soda that's oh-so-refreshing after a stint in the garden or a long day at work. I also use a teaspoon or two to sweeten whipped cream for desserts. You can also use it as a syrup to flavor cocktails. My concoction keeps for ages because I add citric acid as a preservative and store it in sterilized glass jars.

I use a Sophie Grigson recipe for my cordial. Chronicle Books just sent me a copy of The River Cottage Preserves Handbook (I'll be reviewing this delightful little manual later this summer) that includes a recipe, which looks not be as sweet as Grigson's version. (Some people don't like how sweet my cordial is, so if you're not in possession of a sweet-tooth, then try the River Cottage version.)

Elderflower Cordial

Yield: A lot

20 elderflower heads, picked on a dry, sunny day
1.8 kg sugar
1.2 liters water
2 unwaxed organic lemons
75 g. citric acid

Gently shake the elderflower heads to dislodge any small bugs or spiders that didn't jump off during the free ride to your kitchen. Place them in a large bowl -- there's no need to pick off the tiny flowers. Stems and all into the bowl!

In a large pot over medium heat, add the sugar to the water and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Now take your lemons and, with a peeler or paring knife, remove the peel from the lemon in thin strips. Add the peel to the bowl. Cut the lemon into thin slices, and squeeze them over the bowl. Then add the squeezed slices to the bowl.

Pour the hot sugar syrup over the flower heads and lemon. Stir in the citric acid, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let sit undisturbed for 24 hours.

The next day, line a sieve with some cheesecloth and procure another large container to capture the sieved cordial. Pour the cordial through the sieve and toss out the spent flower blossoms, lemon peel, and lemon slices. Divvy up the cordial among smaller containers, preferably ones that have been sterilized (I use mason jars). If you use sterilized jars, you can keep the cordial in your fridge for a year, even longer. The shelf life of cordial in unsterilized containers is much shorter, maybe a couple weeks. You could also try freezing it, although I wonder if the delicate flavor of the elderflowers wouldn't fare so well here.

Let me know how cordial-making goes for you in the comments below.

*Several years ago I read that elderberries are known to reduce the effects of flu, fevers, colds -- even asthma and bronchitis -- so I made up a thick sweet syrup in the fall out of elderberries I'd gathered around town and stored it in our freezer. My husband came down with a brutal cold that winter, and because he doesn't like to take anything with alcohol, he tried my syrup. Within a day he was feeling  much better, and throughout the rest of his illness he took a couple tablespoons-full a day, usually stirred into a hot water. Hey, you can't beat the price and it's probably just as good -- if not better -- than the OTC stuff they pack with artificial sweeteners, colorings, and alcohol at the drugstore.


  1. I love the taste of elderflowers (totally hooked on the St. Germain liqueur.) Your cordial sounds utterly delicious!! Thanks for including the photo; now I know what to look for!

  2. Such a nice flavor, isn't it? I noticed today there are a few groves of elderberry bushes in bloom, but they're not looking as fresh as they did a few weeks ago. Ah well -- now that you know what they look like, you'll see them everywhere.

  3. hi

    could you please tell me if the flower head is the whole flower or the the smaller flowers that make up the head


  4. It's the bunch of tiny flowers that make up the head. Each head might have 200-300 tiny flowers on it.


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