The essence of summer

This morning as I set off along the single-track road from my house to walk to the village post office, I was hit by a range of smells. Scents which instantly said “summer” to me.

One of the plants responsible for one of my favourite scents is the Elder tree (Sambucus nigra).growing here on the verge and there is one in the garden too

Elders are common found in hedgerows, woods and waste ground.

The word Elder is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire, an association given to the Elder because of its use. The soft pith of an Elder branch pushes out easily and as it burns wells can be used a tinder. The tubes formed can then be used to as pipes for blowing the fire. The pith is very lights and floats well and the the pith from bigger branches was sliced and used as floats for fishing. In medicine, the pith it was used to hold small objects for microscopic sectioning in pathology laboratories.

You can see the pith in the cut section of this dead elder branch.

There is much folklore and superstition linked to the Elder tree. In common with other trees with white blossom, such as hawthorn and rowan, the elder had strong associations with Faery- and Goddess-centred mythology. There is often contradictory ideas. If you burned the wood, you were supposed to see the devil, however, planted beside the house, it was supposed to keep the devil away.

As well as keeping evil away, it is supposed to keep away flies. Elder was often planted near dairies or even tied to the harnesses of working horses for this purpose.

The most popular use for elder flowers and berries is for food and drink. One popular food is elderflower fritters, made simply by dipping the freshly opened umbels in batter and frying for a few minutes. The flowers can also be made into a elderflower cordial or elderflower champagne – one of the simplest and nicest country wines in my opinion.

One company which makes Elderflower ‘champagne’ commercially was ordered to stop using the term Champagne in an case brought by the French Champagne association. They felt that to the use of the term for a country wine would ‘cheapen and debase’ the reputation of true champagne.

However, I still call my home-made drink elderflower champagne! Today I made about 3 litres, following Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s recipe. I made a half quantity as I could only reach about 8 flowers. To get more would have meant climbing the neighbouring beech tree (which I think I’d manage), but then stretching round the rather large sycamore tree that is now in the way of the elder – this could have been very tricky!

The very essence of summer


2 litres hot water
350g sugar
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoons white wine vinegar
About 8 elderflower heads, in full bloom
A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)

How to make elderflower champagne

1. Put the hot water and sugar into a large container (a spotlessly clean bucket is good) and stir until the sugar dissolves, then top up with cold water so you have 3 litres of liquid in total.

2. Add the lemon juice and zest, the vinegar and the flower heads and stir gently.

3. Cover with clean muslin and leave to ferment in a cool, airy place for a couple of days. Take a look at the brew at this point, and if it’s not becoming a little foamy and obviously beginning to ferment, add a pinch of yeast.

4. Leave the mixture to ferment, again covered with muslin, for a further four days. Strain the liquid through a sieve lined with muslin and decant into sterilised strong glass bottles with champagne stoppers (available from home-brewing suppliers) or Grolsch-style stoppers, or sterilized screw-top plastic bottles (a good deal of pressure can build up inside as the fermenting brew produces carbon dioxide, so strong bottles and seals are essential).

5. Seal and leave to ferment in the bottles for at least a week before serving, chilled. The champagne should keep in the bottles for several months. Store in a cool, dry place.

When I’ve made this previously, I’ve not needed to add any yeast. The flowers contain naturally-occurring yeast (don’t wash them!) and this has always started fermenting away nicely on it’s own.


I’ll leave this to ferment for a week, then bottle it.

7 comments on “The essence of summer

  1. Funnily enough I just finished a bottle this weekend from a batch I made last year. My god it was strong!

  2. The start of the recipe is pretty much identical to elderflower cordial, the only difference being adding a couple of lemons and some acetic acid. This is ready to drink in 3 or 4 days. To drink dilute 1 part cordial to 5 of cold water The challenge with this is to not get it to ferment. This summer out of 3 batches only one was really lively but it made me a bit wary about it being in glass bottles in case I got an explosion.

  3. Every year I think that I’ll try this. And every year I never get round to it. Next year (no really – I will). I remember, when I were a lad, a neighbour who always made elderberry wine. Is that in your repetoire too?

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