During the Neolithic period (5415–2240 BCE) in the region of Poland, farmers grew and harvested elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) shrubs as part of their primitive economies. In addition to its fragrant flowers and edible berries, the elderberry shrub was utilized in folk remedies for fever, respiratory illnesses, headaches, and even warts. Throughout the ages, Sambucus nigra L. was endowed with the sort of metaphysical properties that have often been associated with witchcraft. Shamans in the Lucania region of Southern Italy believed that burning the wood of it would produce headaches. Therefore, the ritual for the treatment of headaches was performed at a shrine crafted at the base of the bush. In Anglo-Saxon culture, a maternal spirit believed to reside within the tree provided protection from evil spirits, and in 17th- and 18th-century England, some believed that placing an elderberry twig in the ear of a sick pig would absorb its illness – once the twig fell out, the pig would be cured.
While folk references to Sambucus nigra L. range from Christianity and witchcraft to Harry Potter, for me the fragrance of its blossoms have always held the most allure. Similar to jasmine, but without the heady perfume top notes, elderflower cordial can enchant cocktails, fruit salads, custards and even yoghurt with a touch of sweet elegance. Blend the cordial with sparkling water and lemon wedges for the perfect summer drink. Elderberry blossoms from around June, so be prepared to harvest some flower-heads for this delightful cordial, but don’t pick too many or you’ll miss out on the berries that fruit from the flowers later in the year.
20-30 elderflower heads (trimmed and cleaned)
Zest of 3 lemons, plus juice
1.5 litres water
1. Peel zest from the lemons with a potato peeler (try to avoid cutting into the white pith as it’s rather bitter).
2. Bring water and sugar to a simmer and cook until all sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat.
3. Add lemon zest and juice to the sugar syrup.
4. Ensure that all flower heads are free of bugs (lay them out on a table for a little while to allow resident bugs to vacate their homes). Remove all leaves and as much stalk as is possible, then add flower heads to the syrup.
5. Transfer everything to a glass or plastic container, cover and allow to stand in a dark, cool place overnight.
6. Strain the elderflower heads and lemon from the syrup and return to heat, bringing the syrup to a simmer for a few minutes before pouring directly into sterile bottles. Wipe the bottle openings before sealing with airtight lids.