Whenever I become familiar with a plant I begin to see it everywhere, ubiquitous, like the name of a star who appears everywhere you look. Each year the elderberry eluded me. I never knew it like I know the wild blackberry, sure of its stages, and though we knew where to find elders from gathering elderflower in the spring, we’d return each summer to England long past berry season. This summer we were resolute. On a sunny afternoon the children and I called on the first plants we’d collected flowers from, along an old greenway near our old flat in London, where nettles grow tall and rich and blackberries line the path.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011


 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

I was warned that elderberries are a bit poisonous raw, and so we still only imagine their flavour, though we’ve since heard that’s only the unripe ones. The bucketful we’ve picked are bound for a medicinal cordial, but may not make it past us to flu season. While the berries on the sunny side of the path were glorious black, in the shade there are green ones, there’s time yet to return for more elderberrying.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

The elders grow tormentingly tall along our path, but we made a couple of friends, building at the end of a garden, who emerged with the perfect berry snips, and helped us forage a few extra umbels. Ever so kind! I spotted what I thought were plums high up, out of reach, and I’m delighted to hear they are likely damsons. My first glimpse of them. This is wild fruit I’ve only dreamt of in deep winter whilst poring over my copy of Hedgerow.

mirabelles © elisa rathje 2011

Our friends confirmed that we’d found a wild plum. Probably mirabelles, if Mark, the head gardener at River Cottage, can be trusted. He did just write their latest handbook, Fruit, which I must wrestle away from my tall girl so I can read it myself.

hawthorn berries © elisa rathje 2011

Our small girl was enchanted with the hawthorn berries and wanted to collect them. I’m hoping they will keep on the trees until we’re back in the countryside with our trugs and our preserving jars. I’ll be back soon to show you what I’m doing with all the wild food!

Before you go, subscribe to the appleturnover postcards, which will commence with this autumn’s equinox, in celebration of a year of homemade stories. I’ll be marking the anniversary with a gloriously delicious project that tells the story of how appleturnover came to be. Get the postcards to your inbox for a peek at what I’m plotting to learn to make in the coming months and to catch singular homemade projects appearing in the impending appleturnovershop.

elderflower cordial

We all went quite mad for elderflower cordial after our first time making it, putting it in jellies, cocktails, popsicles, so I was relieved to have time to put up a few bottles this year. I hope we can console ourselves with elderberry preserves later on, when the flower cordial has disappeared. I’m delighted to bring you the great elderflower cordial recipe I use, courtesy of the good folks at River Cottage, from their essential Preserves handbook, number two in the series that I find so gloriously inspiring. Preserves makes a particularly nice companion to Hedgerow, for putting up wild edibles.

© elisa rathje 2011

  • Makes about 2 litres
  • About 25 elderflower heads
  • Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150 ml in total)
  • 1 kg sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp citric acid (optional)

© elisa rathje 2011

Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects.

© elisa rathje 2011

Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the orange and lemon zest. Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.

© elisa rathje 2011

The colour is quite something. Heady scents.

© elisa rathje 2011

I measured out the sugar on my trusty scales.

© elisa rathje 2011

Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid (if using).

© elisa rathje 2011

Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

© elisa rathje 2011

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks.

Ours will keep for about four months, as we sterilised the bottles first and poured the hot syrup in, and sealed, while the bottles were still hot. A water bath process would allow storage up to a year. Of course, it’ll be gone in a wink. Pam Corbin suggests having it with champagne, or over fruit salad. A couple of days ago we spotted a recipe for an elderflower and gin cocktail. Heaven. I’ve brought the handbook with me to Canada in hopes of preserving a few other things. Exhilarating prospect. Thanks again, River Cottage!

elderflower champagne

We’ve bottled up our annual elderflower brew. It’s remarkable how much easier it is when you’ve tried it even once before.


While the girls were out gathering flowers, I got started. Elderflowers won’t keep!


I followed a slightly different recipe that I discovered last year after some anxious research.


Dissolve about a kilo and a half of sugar in eight pints of water, and let it cool.

© elisa rathje 2011

Slice a couple of lemons, choose seven or eight of your freshest elderflowers and clear off any insects (have a good shake outside!), measure a couple of tablespoons of white wine vinegar, and throw it all in the cooled sugar solution.

© elisa rathje 2011

I covered the brew with a few layers of cheesecloth, and left it for 24 hours. Some folks say to keep it longer, til it bubbles, and others say it won’t bubble til it is bottled. Oh dear. We’re trying the 24 hour version.

It does smell gorgeous, there should be a perfume. I sterilised my bottles in the dishwasher. You want very strong flip-top bottles intended for bottling under pressure, or you may have an explosion!

© elisa rathje 2011

After scalding a ladle, funnel, and mesh bag, I filled the bottles.



p>They are a pleasure to look at, aren’t they? I’ve stored them on a shelf with another strong shelf above, so if I do get an explosion, it will be contained. I know, how terrifying! Truly these bottles are made to hold tremendous pressure – not all flip-tops are. This elderflower champagne should be ready in a couple of weeks, but I’ll uncork it for my reunion with my sweetheart, on our return to the old country cottage.

jelly mould

The jelly seems singularly English to me. I didn’t eat them for years, being a vegetarian, but having turned to eating animal foods from organic, sustainable sources, and in becoming interested in using the whole creature, gelatin is something we’re eating now. I was so pleased to find organic gelatin powder, so we’ve been making our own jellies.

jelly mould

When I was at Liberty for the lovely book launch for Decorate I came upon a beautiful glass jelly mould in a traditional shape, and fell hopelessly in love. We saw a few at the antiques fair but their material was questionable, so we kept looking. Found! I am rather fond of a bubbly elderflower presse as a jelly. I’d like to try floating edible flowers in a jelly, perhaps made right in a champagne flute (with champagne!) as we saw on the achingly inspiring Treats from the Edwardian Country House. I will be so happy when we can use our own fruit to make jellies, I’ve planted out the strawberries today, though we may miss them entirely this year. Perhaps they’ll establish a beautiful patch for next. Have a lovely weekend! I’ll be twittering and pottering in my studio tomorrow, though the garden is beckoning with increasing urgency.

elderflower liqueur

After traveling so much the last couple of weeks, we finally had a day at home to take care of details. I see a thousand things demanding my attention, but once I’d restored the house a little I turned to the elderflower still infusing, neglected, golden in vodka.
Before elderflower season came to an end, we picked just a few more flowerheads. In a kilner jar we drowned them in vodka. There they stayed, infusing for the summer. These many months later, I strained out the flowers and added sugar to sterile bottles.
Then the children helped me to ladle in the infusion. I’ll give it a gentle shake now and then, to help the sugar dissolve. My sweetheart and I will taste the elderflower liqueur before winter.
Hopefully next year we’ll catch the elderberries as well.

making elderflower champagne

The elderflower cordial and elderflower honey we made gave us a little more confidence, so on a dry morning little girls and I gathered lots of elderflower and set about making elderflower champagne. Our first brew. I was awfully nervous and checked many resources, before and after. We didn’t work from the following recipe, but I wish we had.

  • 1 gallon hot water
  • 1 1/2lbs white sugar
  • 7 heads of elderflowers
  • 2 lemons, sliced thinly
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar

“Dissolve sugar in water, and leave to get cold; add lemons, flowers and vinegar. Cover loosely with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours. Strain and bottle, try after a fortnight.”

elderflower brew

Sterile, swing-top brewing bottles are best for all the bubbling pressure. After a few weeks my sweetheart and I tried the little bottles, hmmm, nice enough, but I suspect messing about with a recipe that said it would get fizzy before bottling may have made it a little less nice. Elderflower has wild yeasts on the blossoms, so you needn’t add yeast. Oops. When we break open the large bottle we’ll see if it is any better, but next year I shall trust in this recipe! Did you grow up with home brews? What kind? I would love to make ginger beer, and dandelion & burdock. Soon! Someday!

elderflower champagne