If you walk along hedgerows and the borders of fields this time of year you’re bound to come across Elderberries. These juicy black berries grow right across the northern hemisphere and have been used for generations as both food and medicine. They have a beautiful earthy taste that reminds me of tart raspberries and blackberries along with a little something else that I just can’t put my finger on. Trees are laden with fruit right now and though they’re an important food for wildlife there’s usually plenty for people to take some too.
Though the Elder tree (Sambucus) comes in various sub-species, the variety we have growing on the Isle of Man is the European Elder, also known as Sambucus nigra. Ripe berries from this tree can be used both cooked and fresh but if you’ve foraged berries from another variety then make sure to only use them in cooked preparations since they could be mildly toxic when raw.
Other parts of the world will no doubt be different but it’s been an amazing season for the Elder tree on the island. The warm sunshine we’ve had this year resulted in masses of flowers in June and those flowers have transformed into juicy berries over the summer. You can’t really find fresh elderberries in shops so this delicious wild food is a perfect excuse to slip on some wellies and plan a foraging expedition.
French Vanilla Ice Cream with Elderberry Syrup…a delicious and healing treat
With just a few hundred grams of berries you can make small batches of jam, wine, infused alcohol, and fruity desserts. However, the most versatile product you can make with your berries is Elderberry Syrup. Used in the kitchen it can be a gorgeous and unique topping for pancakes, ice cream, cakes and puddings. Elderberry has a second and perhaps even more important use since the sweet and rich liquid can also be used as a medicine. Preliminary studies have shown that ‘Sambucol’, a natural extract taken from Elderberries, appears to “short-circuit flu symptoms” by inactivating the flu virus. This just serves to validate what people have known for years since Elderberries feature heavily in folk medicine in both North America and Europe.
Most Elderberry Syrup ‘Medicine’ recipes you might find will instruct you to mix raw honey into the syrup in the cooling stage and to refrigerate the syrup until needed. Honey is another amazing natural medicine that is used in winter remedies to help soothe sore throats and fight infection. However the issue with making this all-in-one syrup is that it requires you to provide space in your fridge for the syrup and also greatly shortens the shelf-life of the product. It makes more sense to instead create a juicy syrup that can be preserved and stored in the pantry until required. Mix it with raw honey when needed and you have a syrup that can be used for medicine, for culinary uses, and (in its unopened state) has a shelf life of at least a year.
1. Pluck your berries from the stems using your fingers or a fork. Make sure to discard any green or unripe berries since they’ll taste bitter and may be slightly toxic – the same goes for the stems and leaves. Weigh your berries and adjust the recipe based on what you have. Optional: It’s said that you can intensify the flavour of your syrup by freezing the berries overnight.
2. Place your berries (fresh or frozen) into a pan with a cup of water and bring it to a simmer. Hold it there for around ten minutes and use a potato masher to press the berries to get as much juice out as possible.
3. Pour your berry mixture into a jelly bag and allow the liquid to drain into a bowl for at least a few hours but preferably overnight. If you don’t have a jelly bag then it’s easy to rig one up by placing a piece of muslin in a strainer/collander. After this time has passed, compost the berry mass left in the jelly bag and measure how much liquid you have. You’ll need two cups of juice so if it’s needed, add water to make up the difference.
4. Heat your oven to low and place your sterlised jars inside. You need to warm your jars before pouring the hot syrup inside or else the glass will crack. If you’d like to sterilise your jars at the same time as warming, put your oven to 130C / 265F and let the jars sit inside for thirty minutes. Lids can be sterilised by placing them in a heat proof container and pouring boiling water over them. Leave them in the water and dip them out when they’re needed.
5. Bring your two cups of juice up to a simmer and then add your sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved then bring the syrup up to a rolling boil. Boil for five to ten minutes or until the liquid starts to feel a bit tacky when dribbled on a cold plate and allowed to cool. You’re not looking for a set like you would in making jam so if you bottle the liquid too soon you’ll just have a more liquidy syrup than if you boiled it a bit longer. Either way you’ll have delicious syrup.
6. Take your jars out of the oven and, using a funnel, pour the hot liquid inside leaving only a centimeter (half an inch) of space at the top. Any more air than that and your syrup may spoil. Fix your lids on tightly and set the jars on the counter to cool and seal. You’ll know they’ve done so when you hear them pop and when the lid doesn’t give/release when you press on the top. No further processing is necessary and your syrup will have a shelf-life of up to one year.