You can buy nettle tops, sorrel and even dandelion leaves at the farmers’ markets here (if you can brave the internal telling off from your grandmother, that is), but it is tricky to find patches of real wilderness in London. Coming from Dublin, where gorse grows in Blackrock, blackberries prosper in Phibsborough and fennel thrives at Sandymount, this is one of the aspects of big city living that I find harder to adjust to. There are wonderful flowers all over the city – cherry blossom, wisteria, lilacs, jasmine & roses fill the streets in quick succession from April through to May – but there aren’t many things that you can take a handful of as you’re passing, so I mentally make note of the locations of mature fig trees overhanging public laneways; errant young grape vines tumbling over trellises, and thick clumps of borage lurking down alleyways; storing them away for future reference & surreptitious return visits.
We did find lots of lovely hedgerows out in Richmond a couple of weekends ago, and I suspect big green areas like Hampstead Heath might well hold hidden bounty at the right times of the year too. But getting to all of those places & finding the good spots requires a fair bit of planning & footwork (both literal & figurative, London is huge), so I was delighted to stumble across an elderflower tree in its full mid-May glory down a side street on Holland Park Road, near where we live. Elderflower is at its best right about now, and it has a fairly short window for picking, so it’s worth seeking it out this weekend or next if you’re planning to use it.
I found lots of new ideas for using the blossoms online (elderflower flavoured sugar & elderflower fritters sounded pretty great and may still happen) but I couldn’t get away from the idea of making my own batch of elderflower cordial, which I first made with my mum about a decade ago with the blossoms from the old elderflower tree in our side garden. A decade previous to that me and my brothers made a massive den in its shade; back when we were small enough to think it huge and there was still a lawn that could be used as a carpet in that part of the garden.
So with cordial in mind I braved a sea of funny looks, picked my bagful of blossoms & bought citric acid in the chemist on the way home (fair warning, you will probably have to explain to the pharmacist why you’re buying citric acid and they will definitely be visibly skeptical). There isn’t any getting away from it so I should say it now: elderflower cordial requires an obscene amount of sugar to make, but you never have more than a thimbleful or so in one go, and it is a true summer treat. Whether diluted in cold sparkling water as a deliciously refreshing cordial, infused in syrup for lemon drizzle cake or used as the basis of a fabulous fizzy summer cocktail, it is the essence of early summer captured. You will be so glad you’ve made a batch by the time the next Bank Holiday weekend rolls around, when you have a party to host and a sudden heatwave on your hands. Well… we can dream.
Serve diluted in sparkling water with ice; add neat to cocktails & bubbles, or freeze in ice cube trays for adding to G&Ts & punch.
Makes enough for an entire garden party (around a litre of concentrate)
1 kilo of caster sugar (yes)
20 large, bright white, open elderflower flower heads (don’t pick any yellowed or unopened heads as these won’t have a nice flavour)
1.5 large unwaxed lemons
1.2 litres of water
50g citric acid (available in most chemists)
Pour the sugar and water into the largest saucepan you have. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar without bringing it to the boil, stirring occasionally. When the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture to the boil. Once at boiling point, take it off the heat. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel from the lemons then cut them into thick slices and add both to the syrup.
Wash the flowers in a sink of cold water, removing any little bugs or closed flower heads by hand. Drain in a colander and shake off any excess water. Add the blossom to the sugar syrup along with the citric acid. Stir well, cover with a lid & leave to infuse overnight.
The next day, line a sieve with a clean towel and ladle in the cordial with all the flowers & citrus fruit. Give the tea towel a gentle squeeze at the end to get the remaining liquid out [Note: the pieces of syrupy citrus peel would be a nice addition to cocktails; they should keep for at least a few days in the fridge] & discard. Ladle the syrup into a jug then pour into sterilised jars [sterilise them by running through a hot dishwasher or wash well with soapy water then leave to dry in a low oven] then seal & keep in the fridge for up to a month or so, or freeze in ice cube trays and/or plastic boxes for future immediate use or defrosting.