June in Indiana is the time to gather Elderflowers, though almost no one does, except me. Some folks here are familiar with the elderberry as an edible fruit for pies or cordials, but floral tastes are not something that seem to be part of the culinary canon here in the midwest. I certainly had never heard of elderflower at all until my first trip to England in 2004, and then it was a revelation.
The task that still haunts my memory most vividly from Old Chapel Farm near Llanidloes, Wales, where I spent a month as a WWOOF volunteer and have returned to many times since, was gathering elderflowers and making wine. Home wine-making, canning, or preserving were not part of my suburban childhood. My mother valiantly tried to introduce us to gardening on our summer holidays, but it never stuck. I came to love it much later, in my own time. But she did always lovingly tend the flowers by the front door and kept houseplants thriving through the winter. Green things always seemed natural companions in our home, more like silent green pets than objects of toil.
At Old Chapel, we trudged up and down the valley in search of elderflower bushes. They always seemed to love ditches and stream beds best, and you would find yourself reaching out precariously over some muddy bank to pick the large lacy flower heads.
Here in Indiana, I had no idea when elderflower would bloom in our much warmer climate, nor even if and where it might grow here. I was lucky to get advice from a few of my local foraging friends. It turns out the elderflower still blooms in June. And it still loves ditches and roadsides and fence lines. I found one bush just down an alley near my house. A friend took me for a drive along the winding hilly roads north of Bloomington, where we spotted several enormous bushes. The jury is still out on whether these will produce as fragrant a flavour as the elder in England. I believe these bushes are a slightly different species. The flower heads are enormous, and the fragrance dimmer.
The English love affair with Elderflower is something I wish I could translate here. In the brewery room of the barn at Old Chapel, dozens of glass demi-johns filled with home-made wine lined the walls. Plum, Elderflower, Apple, Rice Wine, Tea Wine. The air was alive with the smell of yeast. A honey extractor stood on the back table. Empty jars overflowed from a bin, waiting to be filled with jams and preserves. To me, this room was the most magical room I could imagine. I would sneak inside just to look at the rows bottles refracting sunlight through the muted jewel tones of the fermenting liquids.
For the cider maker, as one of my friends described it, making elderflower wine is a good distraction in the early summer when next season’s cider making is still several months away. This was certainly true for my friends in the Marches Cyder Circle, in North Herefordshire, who invited me to an Elderflower Champagne party, where everyone brought their fizzy versions of the brew. Prizes went to both the best tasting drink and the bottle that shot the cork highest in the air.
I don’t recall ever seeing a commercial elderflower wine. Elderflower pressé, cordial, jam, etc, was of course available everywhere in Britain. But the wine seemed to be something reserved for home-making. I’ve often wondered why? Is it too difficult to mass-produce? Is it unpalatable for all but the staunch traditionalist?
In June 2012, while I was living in Shropshire and Herefordshire, I met Keith Pybus, a local walker, maker of jams and preserves, and an enthusiast of the elderflower’s culinary history. He helped host an elderflower event with Grow, Cook, Share, a local gardening and cooking initiative. Among the delights was an elderflower cheesecake or Sambocade, adapted from a medieval recipe.
To eat a flower always seems rather strange and indulgent – feasting on delicate aromas and textures that have not had the chance to fill out into the juicy, satisfying substantiality of fruit. To eat a flower is almost to consume an idea of fruit, the logic of its imminent architecture in the flower’s shape, the soul of the plant hovering in its fragrance. I always tend to see the world through hyper-poetic glasses, but isn’t eating a flower savage and elegant all at once? And to drink a flower, to make it into wine: that borders on the magical.
Below is a photograph of the recipe I copied into my journal in June of 2004 at Old Chapel Farm, on which I based my recipe this year, 10 years later. It’s a little off, but a good record of my personal history of elderflower and a fair starting point for a recipe. 5 lbs of sugar should really be 5 kilos (roughly 12 lbs). This time, I used more flower heads to ensure the floral taste, as well as a splosh of black tea for tannin. And I used a commercial wine yeast suited to delicate floral flavors. After fermenting in the brew bucket for about two weeks, I transferred it to the glass carboy with an airlock, and I can report that it is still bubbling slowly several weeks later. Next year, in June, we’ll hopefully be drinking it!