Elder (Sambucus nigra)

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6th March 2020
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Daphne Lambert of Greencuisine Trust and supporting partner of the BDGC reveals why the common elder tree is so special, and how to make the best use of its fragrant white flowers in the kitchen with her stunning collection of summer recipes. Happy cooking!

Since ancient times the elder tree’s ability to recover when damaged has made it a symbol of regeneration.  It supports the body in healing sadness, grief and depression and helps release our hold on the past preparing us for change. It’s truly a tree for our times.

The elder is more of a bush than a tree. In early Summer it is awash with thousands of tiny white flowers, followed in Autumn by drooping bunches of purple-black berries. It grows in abundance all over the British countryside. More than any other tree the elder has always been considered sacred and magic. Legend has it that the elder tree is the home of the elder mother and embodied in the tree is a powerful female energy of great wisdom.

For thousands of years all parts of the tree have been used medicinally, the benefits are so varied and valuable that the elder has been called ‘the medicine chest’ tree.

A soothing and protective ointment is made from the green inner bark of the elder branches and is useful for skin conditions such as eczema. A homoeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of the younger branches which acts especially on the respiratory system. Warm green leaves laid on the temples can be used to relieve nervous headaches and they are a useful first aid for cuts, bruises, sprains and swollen joints.

A hot infusion of elder flowers is a wonderful remedy to take at the first sign of colds and flu.

Elderflowers stimulate the circulation and cause sweating, helping to bring down fevers and cleanse the system.  This soothing drink is a useful remedy for hay-fever, sinusitis and catarrh. Elderflower water is a traditional remedy for skin blemishes and sunburn. 

Gathering armfuls of fragrant flowers is part of the magic of early Summer. Pick the creamy blossom heads on a sunny day. Dry some by spreading thinly in an airy room until dry and crumbly. Rub and shake to separate the flowers from the stalks, then store the petals in an airtight dark jar and use to make infusions. Turn the rest into delicious drinks and puddings.

When you harvest the blossoms, don’t pick them all or there will not be any berries in the Autumn. Elder berries are rich in anti oxidant vitamins A & C, iron and potassium and make a potent syrup for coughs. They make rich pickles, preserves, cordials and wine and of course, they are important food for birds.

This is an adaptation of a recipe found in The Forme of Cury a manuscript compiled by the master chefs of King Richard II around 1390.

40g butter
175g hazelnuts
6 eggs, separated
150g sugar
700g cream cheese
3 heads of elderflowers in full bloom

Oven 150°C
10″ spring release tin without the base
12″ oven -proof plate
Serves 8

Lightly oil the plate and set the lightly oiled spring release tin on top.

Pulse the hazelnuts in a food processor until they are the texture of biscuit crumbs. Melt the butter and add the hazelnuts, stir well to make sure they are all coated with butter. Tip into the tin and press down well to make a base for the cheesecake.  Beat the egg yolks, cream cheese and sugar together.  Carefully strip the white blossoms from the green stalks of the elder blossom heads and fold into the cheese mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until firm, gently fold into the mixture, then pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35 minutes or until set.  Cool to room temperature before running a palette knife around the edge of the mould and removing. 

Variation: substitute the hazelnuts with sweet biscuit crumbs

Elderflower and strawberry pancakes
275 ml milk
2 eggs
110g wholemeal flour
16 strawberries
4 tablespoons of elderflower syrup
8 elderflower heads
1 lemon

Serves 4

Mix the flour, eggs and milk together to make a batter, pour into a jug and leave to stand for 1 hour.

Slice the strawberries, place in a bowl and pour over the elderflower syrup.

Carefully remove the white petals from the elderflower heads and add to the pancake mixture.  Make 4 pancakes in a very lightly oiled frying pan. Put each pancake on a warm plate, spoon a pile of strawberries onto each, fold up each pancake, squeeze a little lemon over the top of each and serve.

Elderflower syrup
1kg sugar
1 litre water
20 heads of elderflowers
Juice and zest of 2 organic lemons

Put the sugar and water in a pan and dissolve over a gentle heat, bring to the boil and simmer for 2 minutes.
Put the elderflower heads into a bowl with the lemon juice and zest.Pour over the boiling syrup, cover and leave to infuse for 24 hours.

Strain and bottle. The syrup will keep in the fridge for 3 months. Mixed with water it makes a delicious refreshing summer drink.

Gooseberry and elderflower fool
450g gooseberries
75g sugar
5 tablespoons elderflower syrup
200ml double cream

Serves 4

Top & tail the gooseberries, put in a pan with the sugar and elderflower syrup and cook gently until they begin to burst. Leave to cool then crush with a fork. Whip the cream into soft peaks, and then gently fold in the gooseberries.  Pile into 4 glasses and chill for an hour before serving with elderflower shortbread

Elderflower shortbread
100g caster sugar
200g plain white flour
100g rice flour
200g soft butter
2 elderflower heads, petals removed

Oven 160 C, gas 3

1 lightly buttered shallow baking tray approx. 7″ x 10″

Put the sugar, flours and petals into a bowl, gently rub in the butter until the mixture coheres and forms a softball.

Put the dough into the baking tray and with the palm of your hand flatten the mixture until it fills the tin, alternatively you could roll the mixture flat with a small jar. Neaten the edges then run a sharp knife through the dough cutting into 14 biscuits.

Bake for 15 -20 minutes until golden brown. Cool before removing from the tin.

Note: when using elder flower heads, remember to shake them gently first to remove any small insects.