Posted 7th Apr 2014
In season for just a few short weeks, elderflowers are prized amongst foragers and chefs alike and now is the time to head to the hedgerows to harvest them
If you take a stroll out into the British countryside during May and June you will no doubt be stopped in your tracks by the heady, honeyed scent of the elderflower long before you even see the plant. But the elder is not hard to spot at this time of year as this large shrub will be covered in saucer-sized clusters of frothy cream blossom. If you're new to foraging, elderflowers are one of the easiest of Mother Nature's free foods to start collecting. Don't go overboard though, pick a little here and there, leaving some blossoms for other foragers and for wildlife. The berries that follow on are particularly loved by many birds as they fatten themselves up in autumn. When collecting the blossoms pinch or snip the heads from the bush at the first joint. Use them immediately to get the most of their unique flavour. Alternatively, you can dry them outdoors in the sunshine by the laying them, flowers facing down, until dried. Once dry, shake them to release the flowers from the stems. These dried flowers will keep their flavour and scent if kept in an airtight container. But nothing really beats the flavour of freshly picked elderflowers, especially when they are dipped in a light tempura batter and served deep fried with a lemon sorbet or made into a refreshing, aromatic cordial.
One company that eagerly awaits the start of the elderflower season is Belvoir Fruit Farms. Every June they frantically harvest the lacy, cream blossoms and transform them into delicious cordials and pressés. A typical day during harvest time begins at 7am when the team of workers go out to the 90-acre orchard to pick the blossoms. Experienced pickers can harvest up to 45 kilos of elderflowers a day and 40-50 tonnes of elderflowers are considered a good harvest.
‘Every bottle of Belvoir elderflower cordial contains about eight elderflowers,' explains MD Pev Manners. ‘Each summer we make enough bottles of cordial and pressé to last the year - that's a lot of elderflowers,' he chuckles.
Belvoir's elderflower cordial is still produced using the original recipe devised by Pev'smother, the late Lady Manners, more than 27 years ago. Mary Manners started making cordials in her kitchen in the Seventies by infusing the elderflowers and pressing the fruit grown on the farm, which is located on the idyllic Belvoir Castle Estate, near Grantham. To ensure there are enough elderflowers to meet demand, Belvoir enlists the help of local villagers, paying them for any elderflowers they pick from the wild in the surrounding Lincolnshire countryside. The locals bring bags of elderflowers to the company to be weighed and they receive around £2 per kilo for their efforts.
‘Helping with the harvest is a wonderful opportunity to take part in an historic tradition,' Pev explains. ‘People return to the farm year after year to meet new friends, see old ones and enjoy being in touch with nature.'
Once the flowers come in from the orchard and hedgerows, they are infused in a lemon and sugar syrup before having local spring water from the estate added. It is all mixed together in large vats and left to rest, after which the cordial is strained off and bottled. The process is surprisingly simple. No preservatives or artificial ingredients are added, so the finished cordial is just as nature intended.
‘The secret to really good elderflower cordial,' says Pev ‘is to use masses of flowers that have been picked in the sunshine when they are warm and heavy with yellow pollen, then get them into the vat within three hours. It is this freshness that gives Belvoir's cordial its intense bouquet.'
Read the rest of this feature on p.44 of the May/June 2014 issue...
Photos courtesy of Belvoir Fruit Farms