WE HAVE braced ourselves for cold and flu season by making a small but effective batch of elderberry syrup that is already being put to good use in our household.
Classrooms and offices are like incubators for bugs at this time of the year but we’re hoping to give ourselves a fighting chance by using the berry of the elder tree, which is found growing wild in many hedgerows, waste ground and established back gardens.
Elderberry syrup – nature’s tamiflu
We’ve previously used elderflowers to make a cordial and Cork chef Darina Allen’s delicious elderflower fizz. Our family like both so much that this summer we had to make two batches of fizz because Ava (11) and Becca (8) guzzled it so fast!
The first year I made elderflower cordial the girls were not fans, but I guess taste buds change and develop as they grow and Ava discovered that the cordial is delicious when mixed with some of our blackcurrant cordial and sparkling water. We’re now out of both elderflower concoctions and already looking forward to making more in 2017.
Despite being surrounded by elders where we live, and using elderflowers, this is the first year I’ve used the tree’s berries. And rather than making a jelly or jam, my focus was on this tiny berry’s health benefits – I’ve seen it described as nature’s tamiflu, so why not use it when the berries are so readily available?
It’s impossible to get the girls to take an undisguised lemon and honey drink when they’re under the weather. We have a massive supply of blackcurrant cordial at the moment, thanks to the freezer and my forgetfulness, so I mix one third cordial with the juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of local honey and warm water for a cold-buster that’s really tasty.
However, I wanted something even more potent so I turned my attention to elderberries.
“[Elderberries] are traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory to soothe coughs, sore throats and bronchial infections and to make catarrh and sinus conditions looser and more productive. Elderberry has powerful antiviral properties that combat various flu strains and which have been shown to shorten the duration of flu attacks, so it is extremely useful for children and the elderly during the winter months,” says UK ethnobotanist James Wong, author of Grow Your Own Drugs.
Elderberries’ short season
The elderberry season is pretty short – September – so I hit the hedgerows in a bit of a panic this week after a night of heavy rain and strong winds left me worried that I’d be too late (recent humid weather means the once-abundant blackberries are already disintegrating and becoming hard to find).
I picked the fruit from three trees in our garden, one planted, two growing wild, as well as a couple of trees in the surrounding fields and a final batch on a quiet roadside (no heavy traffic).
A big rule when foraging or gathering berries etc from the wild is that you only take some, leave plenty for the birds, and never break off branches or damage the tree in any other way.
For the syrup, I used a simple recipe by pastry chef David Lebovitz that I found online. Preparing the fruit is very time-consuming so I’d suggest doing it when you’re free to get lost in your own thoughts, rather than when you’re compiling mental lists of jobs to do!
You should also be prepared for the fact that everything the juice touches will end up with a deep wine-coloured stain, including wooden spoons, chopping boards and clothes (so wear an apron!).
Elderberry syrup Recipe
You will need:
1kg elderberries (remove all twiggy bits)
500g sugar (but you can also use honey)
Lemon juice (I used the juice of an entire lemon as I’d put it in everything if I could!)
Using a stainless steel pot (I used my jam-making pot because it has a handy bucket-like handle and a lip for pouring) boil the berries in water for 15-20 minutes. After a while, you’ll probably notice that the fruit smells quite like blackcurrants.
Once boiled, break up the berries using a food mill (I don’t have one, so I used a hand blender, but you could also use a masher). Strain well to remove the fruit before returning the liquid to the pot – make sure the pot has been washed to remove any stray seeds and skin.
Add the sugar and allow to gently melt, stirring frequently, before simmering for 15 minutes until the mix becomes syrupy. Add your lemon juice, give a good stir and then bottle it. It’s at times like this that you’ll be glad that you invested in a funnel, plastic works well when handling hot liquids.
Now, I’ve become very diligent regarding sterilising jars and bottles etc so that whatever we make lasts as long as possible – it’s simply done by washing the containers in warm soapy water, rinsing well and then placing in a cold oven which you heat up to between 120 and 140 degrees. Leave them there for at least half an hour.
However, David Lebovitz advises that if you do see some mould appearing over time, remove it and reboil the syrup – it should last in the fridge up to 12 months.
Since I’ve made the syrup I have mixed it with honey, lemon juice and warm water for my husband and the girls, who are all at different stages of the same head cold, but I’ve also been doling out syrup by the teaspoonful – the taste is pleasantly mild.
I hope that you’ll try making your own syrup and that you benefit from its bug-beating properties.
Get in touch with your recipes/tips/advice etc
I would really love to hear from anyone who has any other elderberry recipes that they think we should try, or indeed any recipes regarding berries and fruits foraged from hedgerows, banks etc! We are always willing and prepared to get picking and cooking.
Please take a look at my blog to see what else my family has been up to regarding foraging, cooking and learning about the natural world around us. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe for free to get regular updates.