Summer sees the hedgerow come alive with the elderflower and all its promise. Elspeth Biltoft reveals her favourite recipes for this very Yorkshire produce.

In the early 1970s a friend, who was an accomplished artist, accepted a commission to paint a house near Barnard Castle in County Durham.

Through all the years since then I have an abiding memory of that painting and for one reason in particular – in the foreground, framing the country home, was an elderflower bush.

That was the moment the beauty of elderflower was first revealed to me. The tightly closed yellow buds and frothy cream flowers on their green umbels –there can scarcely be a lovelier flowering wild shrub when in full bloom.

And elderflower blossoms in great abundance almost everywhere in Great Britain – in hedgerows, woodlands, by derelict buildings and on wasteland in June and early July.

The Elder (Sambuscus nigra) is native to the British Isles and the name itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’. From earliest times Elders were believed to be sacred to an ancient goddess of vegetation.

People believed they were inhabited by a tree dryad which represented the soul of the tree, or was seen as an aspect of the goddess herself.

Elders were often planted by houses and farms in the belief that if the dryad was treated well, and honoured, it would protect the home and its occupants against evil spirits.

Although there was a widespread taboo against cutting Elder down, or burning any of its wood, by at least the 17th century almost every part of the tree was considered medicinally effective in treating ailments from toothache to the plague!

Today only the flowers are used in contemporary herbal medicine. They have a long standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system.

Cordials, wines and syrups have been made from elderflower and berries for centuries and are still widely used especially in country areas in Europe.

‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple’ by Hannah Glasse, first published in England in 1747, contains a recipe for elderflower wine – ‘very like Frontiniac’.

Frontignan is a commune in the Hérault department of Southern France, famous for sweet wine made solely from the Muscat grape, which today holds controlled designation of origin status.

Certainly the scent of elderflower at their freshest is that of Muscat – wonderfully sweet, rich and heady. It makes the most sublime cordial, ‘champagne’, infused vinegar and jam when teamed with sharp gooseberries.

This last combination of flavours is a relatively new innovation; attributed to Jane Grigson- cook and food writer who pioneered the inspired pairing in the early 1970s.

Gooseberry and elderflower jam

Gooseberry & elderflower is perhaps the most special of our jams and has won more awards for us, over the years, than any other product.

The ingredient list is deceptively simple – sharp gooseberries, just enough unrefined sugar and generous quantities of freshly picked elderflowers. The soft natural set retains a sweet/sharp fruity flavour, replete with the heady scent of Muscat.

Every year we check local hedges for abundant quantities of fresh creamy white flowers. They must be picked when the day is warm, dry and sunny – more a pleasure than a chore as illustrated by this extract from my 2013 diary.

‘June is such a beautiful month in England – rain or shine. Burgeoning hedgerows (if they haven’t succumbed to the hedge-cutters blade) are threaded through with Honeysuckle, Bindweed and Black Bryony.’

Rosebud Preserves (3rd July 2015)

‘The elderflower is as its absolute best –plates of ivory flowers spotted with yellow/green pollen.’

‘A lark calls very high up in a perfect sky over corn fields near the village of Well.
Armed with huge colanders we snip kilos of flower heads when the dew has gone and before any threat of rain.’

‘It’s a great treat to leave the confines of a kitchen and work as a team cutting elderflowers on such an afternoon.’

‘We spread out along the length of a hedge massed with flowers. There is a real comradery, the buzz of good humoured conversation and cursing when someone gets stung by nettles!’

‘Returning to Rosebud Preserves, it is great to see our recent recruits intrigued by converting elderflowers into the Muscat flavoured liquor we add to gooseberry jam.’

Elderflower cordial

Try making this absolutely delicious aromatic cordial. Serve diluted with ice-cold sparkling water, you will not be disappointed!

Some recipes suggest adding citric acid to preserve and lengthen the life of this cordial, but I prefer to freeze (up to one year) it in sterilised plastic bottles, then de-frost gently as required in your fridge.


30 large, freshly picked elderflower heads
Finely grated zest of 3 lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice
1kg golden granulated sugar
Sterilised plastic bottles

Place the flower heads, lemon and orange zest into a large bowl.

Pour 1.5ltrs of boiling water over the flowers and zest, cover and leave overnight for the flavours to infuse.

Strain the mixture through a scalded jelly bag, square of muslin, or even a cotton pillowcase into a saucepan.

Add the lemon and orange juices and sugar then stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar.

Simmer the liquid for two minutes.

Allow to cool, pour into sterilised plastic bottles and freeze ready for use.

NB: Please pick from the wild in moderation, leaving enough pollen, nectar, berries, mushrooms, fungi etc for birds, animals and insects to enjoy.

About The Author

Award-winning Rosebud Preserves has been making its jams, marmalades, chutneys and jellies at Masham, North Yorkshire, since 1989. The company was started by Elspeth Biltoft and her founding principles, to source local produce whenever possible; to cook traditional recipes; and practice time honoured techniques, without the use of additives, preservatives or pectin; remain the same today.

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