I don’t exactly remember when I first tasted elderflower cordial. Romantic though it would be to imagine, it didn’t feature in my childhood, when summer drinks ran the gamut from orange squash to lemon barley water to Coca Cola and back again. However, I have an inkling that it may have been at the country house of Stephen Keynes (a great-grandson of Darwin and nephew of John Maynard Keynes) who was my London landlord for a while when I was in my early ‘20’s. Stephen was a polymath; a banker, an intellectual, an historian, an appreciator of the arts, a raconteur, a patron, a naturalist, a naturist. Yet the thing I remember him best for was his love of good food and the ability to make it without fuss or fanfare.
Stephen cooked in a way which has become quite fashionable in recent years. Very basic, simple food – some might call it nursery food – redolent of a time of housekeepers, nannies and cooks, waste not, want not, rationing and grow your own. For breakfast he might serve an egg coddled with the top of the milk and a slice of good white, heavily buttered toast, lunch could be a poached kipper with floury boiled potatoes or a bacon and egg pie with his own greenhouse tomatoes, for dinner a pork chop with creamed spinach from the garden. Pudding would usually be a seasonal fruit tart or pie, with his own pastry and served with cream or custard. At Christmas he made the best mince pies I have ever eaten. He was also an expert preserver in the old tradition and so the pantry was always full of his home made jams, jellies, chutneys, pickles and syrups made from garden and hedgerow.
At his house near Newmarket (which at weekends was filled with the chatter and laughter of bright, young things) Stephen had a proper vegetable garden and greenhouse, as well as fruit cages and fruit trees, including the first medlar I had set eyes on. Every year he religiously made pounds of medlar jelly, and it is this memory of him standing (naked) at the Aga over a hot preserving pan which makes me think that it was probably he who was taking the time to make elderflower cordial for those long summer days we spent lounging around on the lawn by his oh-so-decadent swimming pool.
Despite the conspicuous lack of a pool here, I still enjoy a lounge on the grass on a hot summer’s day, and no summer is now complete without the ritual of making elderflower cordial. This isn’t always possible though, since elder flowers from the end of May until the end of June, a notoriously unsettled time weatherwise, so for several years I have been stymied in my desire to go elder picking by cold, heavy June drizzle. The past few weeks have been no different and so I seized the opportunity last weekend when the sun finally shone on Sunday morning.
Elder flowers should be picked early on a dry morning. Select the newest umbels that have not yet fully opened and pick the whole flowerhead, but not the coarse stalk. Gently shake them to dislodge any small insects and lay carefully in a trug. I used to cram carrier bags with the flowers, but since it is largely the pollen that flavours the cordial you lose too much of it collecting them this way. It is better to go gently, which makes the whole process more enjoyable.
As Dan wrote last week I was inspired to make this cordial after seeing a dog rose growing through one of our largest elders a couple of weeks ago. However, our wild roses aren’t highly scented enough to bring much flavour, so I used the blooms of the most highly scented of our David Austin roses in the cutting garden, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ and the dark, velvety ‘Munstead Wood’. Any highly scented rose will do, but the darker the rose the pinker the cordial will be. Of course, they must be absolutely free of pesticides, fungicides or other sprays. Pick flowers that are just opening, again early on a dry morning.
Over the years I have tried a number of different elderflower cordial recipes, many of which use whole lemons, pith and all, but I find these too bitter, so now only use the zest and juice. In others the proportion of sugar produces a syrup that is too sweet and deadens the floral flavour. The citric acid allows the cordial to be kept for 3-4 months in the refrigerator. If you leave it out it will keep for 3-4 weeks.
25 large heads of elderflower
5 large heavily scented roses
Grated zest and juice of 4 unwaxed lemons
1.5 litres water
1 kg sugar
1 heaped teaspoon citric acid
Remove all of the petals from the roses and put into a large ceramic or glass container with the elderflowers, lemon zest and juice.
Bring the water to the boil and add the sugar. Take off the heat and stir until dissolved. Leave to cool a little then, while still hot, pour the syrup over the flowers. Cover the container well so that no insects can get in and leave in a cool dark place – an outhouse is ideal – for 2-3 days.
Strain the syrup through a fine muslin. Transfer to a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 3 minutes, then add the citric acid to dissolve.
Pour the hot cordial into sterilised bottles, seal immediately and allow to cool before storing.
Dilute to taste – a proportion of 1 part cordial to 5 parts water gives a good flavour without excessive sweetness. Sparkling water makes the rose flavour more pronounced.
Makes approximately 2 litres.
Recipe & Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 23 June 2019