Category Archives: Elderflower

elderflower blackberry 1

Elderflowers and blackberries.

(in which I gather a lot of things, get a few bug bites, and try to stay connected to the earth)

There’s one hand and it contains relaxation, and everything I’ve ever mentioned about moving through space at one’s own pace. And then there’s the other hand which holds a to-do list a mile long, there’s the frenetic pace of spring, there’s gathering twenty million different things, and processing them, and buying more booze in a 2-month space than the entire other Bev Mo customers combined. In between the two hands there are stolen moments.

My stolen moments look like this: Up a tree, with a jar of something herbal, infused and delicious, gazing up at the canopy of leaves, listening to the sounds of city-nature, which is very different to country-nature. And it works. Its grounding and calming. And then I go back indoors to work some more.

When I look at the city, it reminds me of a big scab, over something living. One continuous slab of concrete with spaces in between it on occasion. Concrete does its best to cover up what’s underneath it (BB cream for the planet), and finding that earthiness is much harder when walking on a layer of foundation, but its not impossible.  The thing is that the earth is everywhere and just because it seems that its more THERE when out in the wild, its actually that there’s less interference. Out in the wild its like tuning a radio directly to the station (do people still tune their own radios or are they all digital?). In the city there’s a bunch of white noise making it really hard to hear the music. But you can, especially if you know the song already– you know what to listen for and where to pick it up, then you can shut out the white noise and just hear that song. I think there are movements about this, called ‘Earthing’ and such, where the earth is touted as some new scientific new-age discovery. I can’t help but think that we’ve come so far from where we were, quite literally, our roots, that it takes a giant scientific discovery and technology to make us look down. Of course, thats not all of us.

I walk a block away for my coffee every morning. Lately, in spring-filled excitement, there are plants growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. I’m sure that the City of Los Angeles people will come and spray something nasty on them soon– for some reason wild plants are an atrocity whereas the feat of construction being two buildings that are being hammered into place as I type is a triumph of man, even if they are hideous and noisy and had to cut down a big old tree to put them in. But in the meantime, there are feathery plants pushing up through the sidewalk, mushrooms growing on peoples’ lawns, resilient little plants thrusting their way up towards the sunlight that streams between buildings. I notice them because I notice the earth, and I notice that they find whatever cracks they can. Its resilient, and it reminds me of all nature, human nature, animal nature, earth nature. That nature is survival and self-expression, and I think all of us try to find our cracks to slip through regardless of what is painted over the top.

Most of the herbs I gather are resilient like that: many of us herbalists think the wild weeds make the strongest medicine. I’ve been collecting them like a madwoman lately, in full spring fervor. In the last few weeks or so, I have gathered California poppy, peach leaves, apricot leaves, alder leaves and bark, yerba santa, sweet clover, elderflowers, white sage, black sage, ocotillo bark and flowers, chaparral, desert lavender, mugwort, pine pollen. I’ve accrued a series of bug bites so big and so itchy and red and swollen that my super effective Bug Bite Balm had to be applied 3 times to make it go away (which is a big deal because it usually works in 1 or 2). The frenetic pace of spring starts slow and reaches its climax between now and the end of May. Most of these I bring home and immediately process for medicine- stripping bark, pulling leaves, scrubbing dirt off things, immersing in oils or vinegars or alcohol or honey. My storage cabinet is nearing full again. Of all these, there’s one thing I actually bring home for food first, even if its damn good medicine: elderflowers.

I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve been in the northern hemisphere. Even in the middle of a city in India. I assume they grow in the south too, though I’ve never been south of the equator so I don’t know for sure. Their flavour is floral and fragrant and distinctly one of its own, and since ours in Southern California have been out for a few weeks, they’ll start blooming spreading north from here, and I’d start looking sooner or later depending on where you are. Once you spot them, you’ll spot them everywhere. And I make food with them before I make medicine partly because they’re so abundant and partly because by the time spring has arrived I MISS them like you wouldn’t believe.

First thing I made was cordial. And the second thing I made was this cake. Its gluten free, though you couldn’t tell apart from the slightly crumbly texture. Its light and fluffy and it tastes of spring. And I highly recommend that you make some as soon as your elderflowers start to blossom.

Elderflower and blackberry cake

Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe

For the syrup:

1 cup elderflowers
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon

For the cake:

12 tb salted butter (or unsalted but add about 1/2 tsp salt to the batter with the flour)
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sweet white rice flour
1/3 cup potato starch
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup almond flour
2 tb ground flax or chia seeds
2 tsp baking powder
2 tb milk
8oz (about 2 cups) blackberries- either fresh or frozen
First things first, get the elderflower syrup on- put the elderflowers, water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat immediately, and leave to sit for up to an hour. Taste it. Does it taste strongly of elderflowers and spring? Then you can strain out the liquid and set it aside.

Next, preheat the oven to 350.

Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer until they’re light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are incorporated fully. Then, add the milk, and two tablespoons of the elderflower syrup. Mix together all the flours, and the baking powder, and, with the mixer on  very slow, add the flour in 3 batches. Once its fully incorporated, stir in the blackberries by hand. They might start to stain the batter, and that’s ok, but do it lightly and not too much so that you don’t end up with purple cake (not that there’s anything wrong with purple cake, we are not purplist here at C&C).

Oil up a 9″ round springform pan. Quite honestly, I am lazy and I use olive oil for this, but you can be non-lazy and use butter. Just, olive oil works too. Use something oily. Then, scrape in the cake batter. Bake at 350 for an hour. At 50 minutes, pull it out and press the top slightly, if it feels firm then check it with a skewer or sharp knife- when it comes out clean the cake is done. It should be around an hour though.

Remove from the oven, and prick the top of it with a sharp knife, about 10 times, in 10 different places. Then pour over the elderflower syrup you made earlier. Pour it so that it gets every inch of the top of the cake. It should sink in quite quickly. Leave until cool in the pan, then run a knife around the edges. You can try and slide it off the base, but I found it safer to just leave it there and pretend it’s meant to be presented like that. Decorate with powdered sugar, blackberries and elderflowers. Serve with fresh cream.

It’ll be quite crumbly until its cool.  This shouldn’t matter too much though.

 

 

Elder elixir

Elderberry Elixir

From the perch of my bed, I like to watch a family of ravens that hang out atop a cypress tree that’s about a block away. Last week, when a storm came through the city, Jam and I sat and watched as one brave raven continued to sit on his perch, facing into the wind, despite the constant battering. He was a brave bird. When it comes to flu season, I feel a lot like that bird. There’s a constant battering going on: of commercials for flu products (honestly, taking a bunch of pills to suppress your symptoms and get back to work really isn’t the answer!), of commercials for flu shots, of germs flying around, of everyone around me getting sick, and I’m just doing what I can to cling on to my health and sanity.

I read once, in a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner, about herbal ‘antibiotics’ and why they’re so much more effective than chemical ones. Viruses mutate. Its a fact of life. You know what else mutates? Plants. Fact. So just as a virus can psychically pass on all its viral information to other viruses (and by the way, can we please learn to communicate like that more?), plants do the same. So some guy in a lab coat extracts one chemical from one plant that reportedly kills X virus but its only a matter of time before the virus figures out the chemical and mutates so that it is no longer affected by it. Kinda like people, who, under duress for long enough will mutate to accept those circumstances as normal. So there’s this chase-and-catch up thing where people try to manufacture things that kill viruses and then the viruses mutate and then another chemical needs to be made, and its a frantic, circular dance. But then you have plants, some of which have over a hundred chemicals in them. A HUNDRED*! In one little plant! One hundred chemicals are a good adversary for a nasty virus. And even if the virus mutates, plants are clever. There’s a whole conversation going on out there in nature that we’re not privy to, and I trust it to carry on in the same way its been carrying on for millennia.

My point being that there are things out there that are perfectly suited to helping our bodies not get sick, or dramatically reduce the length of a sickness. Elderberry is one of them, and its probably in my top-ten-most-used list. This is my recipe for elderberry elixir– the same one I sell in my shop, and have had hundreds of people report back on the efficacy of. It can be customised for you and your area, for example, if you live in the North East where its often cold and damp, maybe add more ginger and orange peel (both warming). If you live in the southwest like me and are often prone to dried out irritated respiratory passages, add some marshmallow (warning, this will go gooey). If you get more lung stuff add mullein and if you don’t have mullein add thyme. Really, the possibilities are almost endless, but here’s a list of possible modifiers or ingredients for you to play around with:

Elderberry- The life of the party, seriously.
Elderflower- Elderberry’s partner. Some say the flowers are even more effective than the berries. If you’re ordering berries then place an order for the flowers too and use both.
Cinnamon- Warming, nourishing, boosts digestion, great flavour.
Ginger- warming, dries mucus, tastes good.
Cardamom- as with the other spices, its warming, good for the phlegmmy stuff and tastes good.
Echinacea- stimulates immune function
Aralia racemosa (or Californica)- supports lung function in worn out chronic overtired conditions. Beautiful little plant.
Mullein- personal favourite for dried out chronic coughs. I always put this in my elder elixir because there’s always dried out lung stuff here.
Boneset- another one that stimulates immune function. Better fresh, so use it if it grows in your area. Or if you’re like me, go visit friends in Kentucky in the early summer so you can gather it and bring it home on the plane (much to the astonishment of TSA).
Orange peel- Warming and energy moving.
Lemon peel- Cooling and energy-moving.
Rosehips- Great source of vitamin C
Thyme- A favourite lung grunge herb.
Bee balm or oregano- Antimicrobial, bloody delicious, slightly zingy and spicy. 
Juniper-
Antimicrobial

On ingredients: Elderberries are really abundant in nature, and I really recommend you get out there and find some local bushes. But its the middle of winter and you’re unlikely to find any right now unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, so you can order them, and everything else on the list, from Mountain Rose Herbs.

On flu season: There’s some nasty flu bugs going around right now. I know this because I’ve caught at least two of them, and because we herbalists are like a mycelial network, passing information back and forth. Its not just here, in fact I’d say those of us in Southern California have been getting off easy. Make or buy some elderberry elixir. Make some fire cider. Take your Vitamin D daily (for reals).

Some of my favourite flu-season resources:

Herbs for the Immune System from Juliet
Creating a herbal medicine chest for colds and flu from Rosalee De La Foret
Green Man’s Guide to Flu Season  by Sean
The Elder Mother’s Pantry
 from Kiva

*I don’t know if this is an accurate number and I haven’t looked it up. The part of my brain that remembered this number is also the part that says ‘I’ll be five minutes’ when it is in fact an hour…

Elderberry Immune Elixir

Quantities are for a quart jar, and using dried ingredients. If you use fresh, reduce the volume by half please.

1 cup dried elderberries.
1/2 cup dried elderflowers.
1/4 cup dried mullein leaf
1/4 cup dried boneset
1 inch fresh ginger, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
peel of 1/2 lemon

Alcohol of your choice- I love brandy, but you can use vodka, whisky, tequila, everclear or gin too.
Honey. Raw and local if possible, but whatever you have works.

Ok, this is the easy part. Once you have all your ingredients, put them all in the jar, then fill a third of the way with honey. This will take a while as the honey is thick.  Don’t worry, just pour it, and come back every 20 minutes to re-pour until its a third of the way up. You can also heat the honey before pouring to make it easier, I just don’t like to do this as it destroys some of the lovely things that are in the honey. After the honey’s in the jar, top it up with your alcohol. Voila. Done. Now, screw the lid on the top, and this is the most important part: LABEL IT: “Elderberry elixir, <date>, and what its for if you’re forgetful.” Give it a good shake, and leave it somewhere prominent that you can shake it once a day or so. After six weeks, its ready. Strain it out and pour it into a pretty bottle. Its shelf-stable for a couple of years.

Dosage: upon first sign of getting sick, start taking about a quarter teaspoon every couple of hours.  Take it until all signs of sickness are gone. If you do actually get sick (which is rare but with these bugs going around right now, its happening), keep taking it. As often as you can muster.

rhubarb custard elderflower tart

Rhubarb and Elderflower-Infused Custard Tart

(on perfect pairings)

Lets talk about first world problems for a minute. There are some that I am ill-equipped to help with: things like ‘oh no, my new smart phone has a glitch’ or ‘I have too many computers’ or ‘my shiny car is sooohoooo last season’. But then there are areas where I can be quite useful. Things like ‘I don’t know what to wear’ or, in this case, ‘oh no, I have too much rhubarb’. Yes, friends, too much rhubarb is an area where I can be useful indeed. You see in the last two weeks alone, I have made rhubarb syrup, rhubarb compote and rhubarb fool (then all of these with rhubarb and strawberries combined, though I will admit to preferring rhubarb alone where you can taste all of its rhubarby glory, unadulterated with the sweetness of the strawberry). All of these I could gladly share.

But my crowning glory, the barb on my rhu, would have to be rhubarb, elderflower and custard tart. For what two things go better together than rhubarb and custard? Apples and blackberries? Lysander and Hermia (which would be the worst name ever, given its similarity to hernia)? Barbecues and beer? No, rhubarb and custard is one of those matches that, in my opinion, is star-crossed from the beginning. Were I the type of person who thought that the natural world existed solely for our disposal, I’d be inclined to also believe that rhubarb exists solely for the purpose of being paired with custard. But that’s like saying that a woman who is a good cook exists solely for the purpose of feeding her husband. As in, outrageous.

Over the past couple of years, my friend Butter and I must have sent each other close to a thousand emails. Some short, some long, the majority discussing food, herbs and foraging. It was a fated friendship- both of us were looking to broaden our horizons a bit- she to learn about how to her use foraged food for medicine, and me just starting to realise that wildcrafted herbs could also be edible. It spawned a Wild Things roundup, that Butter still does monthly, and countless ideas being tossed back and forth, of interesting and delicious ways to use wild foods and herbs, and a friendship of immeasurable value. Where Butter knows food, I know medicine. Where Butter is reliable and steady, I’m like a bouncy ball (ie. not very steady). Where Butter has almost unlimited stamina (like a turtle), I need a nap after a sprint (like a hare). We, in my opinion, make a really good pair. In one of those many emails last week, we discovered that we were both making a similar dessert (please re-read treatise on perfection of rhubarb and custardy things for explanation of how such things happened) and decided to post them together. A reunification of forces. Which makes me extremely happy. So here’s to friendship, and good ideas, and perfect pairings. Here’s Butter’s Rhubarb Elderflower Sour Cream Pie .<3

ps. If you do anything this week, make this tart. Your stomach and all your neighbours will thank you. Promise.

 

Rhubarb and Elderflower-Infused Custard Tart. 

1 portion basic sweet tart crust

1 lb rhubarb
1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh elderflowers, or 1/4 cup dry
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1/4 cup tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla or a pinch of vanilla powder

 

Make up the tart crust in advance, placing it in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours before you roll it out. Roll it out and drape it over a 9″ tart pan, poke little holes in the bottom with a fork, then bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and beautiful.

Meanwhile, start the custard. Put the milk and elderflowers in a saucepan, and heat up the milk gently until it’s hot to the touch. Switch off and leave to steep for 30 minutes to an hour. The flavour of the elderflowers will infuse in the milk. Strain out the flowers, and return the milk to the pan. Add the sugar, vanilla, and salt, then start to heat again, until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and the eggs until smooth. Add a couple of big spoonfuls of the warm milk to the egg mixture, give it a stir, then add back to the saucepan and return to the heat. Bring to a boil, slowly, stirring or whisking constantly- don’t let anything stick to the bottom. It’ll start to thicken. Once boiling, stir vigorously for about a minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Put it in a bowl, cover with cling film, and allow to cool completely.

Cut the ends off the rhubarb, and cut each piece so that its about 5″ long. More or less. Put all the rhubarb in a big pan, dust with the sugar, and sprinkle with water- about 1/3 cup for the whole lot. Put in the oven at 400 for about 20 minutes, until the water is gone and the sugar has gone caramelly and the rhubarb is looking cooked but not mushy yet (if you have a distaster and it goes mushy completely, it doesn’t matter, just make a different design). Allow to cool.

With all your pre-cooked and cooled ingredients, assemble the tart. Spread the custard in a thick layer over the bottom of the tart, then decorate the top with rhubarb. You can serve it immediately, though I think it tastes better after a few hours.

 

Elderflower 1

Elderflower cordial

(dancing on the edges of things)

I remember the day I first fell in love with the elderflower: it was a hot Glaswegian summer day. I was sitting on my favourite grassy knoll, in the shade of a big craggy old hawthorn bush, with a bounty. All of my adventures involved a bounty of some kind, be it wood sorrel (no plant was safe), wild blackberries, or, in this case, chocolate chip cookies and soda. My soda of choice was usually sparkling apple cider, but, on that day, they were out of stock, and right next to that empty spot was sparkling elderflower.

It sounded old; like something my grandparents would have drunk years ago, before the war, on a sweltering hot August afternoon. Reasoning that Marks and Spencer never stock anything that doesn’t taste good, I bought it, placed it carefully in my backpack, then jumped on my bike.

Few things in life are as carefree as summer holidays when you’re young: two infinite-seeming months that stretch into the orange sunset, where the days last until 11pm (in Scotland at least) and the sound of sprinklers unleashed on front lawns ran into the late evening, with the squeals of delight carried on the smell of cut grass permeated the warm air that drifted in through the open windows. Between that yellow-orange glow and smell of hot grass, in the filing cabinet of my memories, on the other side of wild berries swollen, heavy, pregnant with purple juice, is the KCHHHHH sound of opening a bottle of elder fizz on a grassy knoll, with my bike, and an Agatha Christie book.

Elder flowers are fairy flowers. They dance on the edges of fields and woods and on the edges of worlds. Even their smell is somewhat lovely and somewhat pongy, at the edge of what’s normally considered ‘nice’. Glance through the shadows cast by those dancing umbels and, if you’re not really paying attention you can hear laughter and singing. True story. A day spent gathering elderflowers will cast you out of time somewhat. I like to think of this as a good thing. Not only that, but the tree in itself is a veritable pharmacy- the leaves and twigs make great blood moving salves, the flowers and berries are edible, and the berries are pretty much the best thing ever for flu season. So gather a ton of flowers (making sure you leave enough to turn into berries too!), and bring them home in a paper bag. Set aside some especially pretty umbels to dry for a flu-season tea, and then turn the rest into cordial. Because anything you need to do with elderflowers (except fritters) can be done with a cordial. Custards, drizzles, cocktails, meat glazes, and fizzes all stem from this little workhorse. Then make yourself some fizz, kick your feet up, watch the light change, and let yourself be transported back to the edge of a dream, where you found the flowers in the first place.

Elderflower cordial

2 cups elderflowers, removed from stems (roughly, don’t drive yourself crazy, just try and get most of them off) and de-bugged

6 cups sugar

5 cups water

Juice of 3 lemons

 

Bring the water and sugar to a boil and then remove from heat. Add the elderflowers and leave to cool. Heat up once more, adding the lemon juice, and allow to cool overnight, then strain out the flowers, squeezing to make sure you get all the syrup out. Pour into bottles and refrigerate. It’ll last months in the fridge.

 

Elderflower fizz

serves 2 gluttons, and 4 normal people

1/4 cup elderflower cordial

juice of 1 lemon

1 large bottle of sparkling water

 

Put all the ingredients in a decanter or big jar of some sort, add some ice, stir gently, and serve.

 

I’m submitting this post to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst for wild flower month!