The shrub grows well in the Northwest, and its flowers make a tasty cordial that can be used in drinks and desserts.
BACK IN THE 1990s, Matt Dillon, Jeremy Faber and the late Christina Choi cooked together at The Herbfarm, and the three of them used to go foraging for fun. Faber and Choi went on to start Foraged & Found Edibles, and Dillon opened a slew of restaurants that showcase local ingredients, including Sitka & Spruce and The London Plane. Some of Dillon’s inspirations to use ingredients like elderflowers came from reading old English cookbooks in which the cooks used whatever grew wild and close by.
Wherever Sambucus nigra (Elder, Elderberry) and its subspecies grow, its flowers, leaves, bark and roots have been used for medicinal purposes, and its flowers and berries for food. Drinks made from elderflowers have been popular since Roman times, particularly in the United Kingdom and across Central and Western Europe.
Elder grows well in the Pacific Northwest and can be found in backyard gardens and growing wild. If you plan to forage and want to see examples, ask a guide at Washington Park Arboretum to show you one, or take a look in the woods near the north parking lot at Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island.
The tiny, creamy-white, five-petal flowers grow in masses of flat heads, as large as 8 inches across, called umbels. They should be picked when all or most of the flowers on a head are open, and early on a dry day, when their fragrance is strongest. Depending on the subspecies, altitude and location, we see the blossoms around here as early as May (especially in the city) and as late as August. The plant is described as a shrub but sometimes looks more like a tree.
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The flowers have a pungent aroma, and their complex flavor is brought out and improved by the addition of sugar and acid, which is why elderflower cordials (syrups) and “Champagne” (a low-alcohol fizzy drink) are so popular. You can find the cordials at local liquor stores, and Ikea sells its own from Sweden, but you can make it easily, too, if you can find the flowers.
Elderflowers (and elderberries) are among the foraged products offered by Foraged & Found Edibles. Faber collects them from our native subspecies, Sambucus cerulea, in July and August. He sells most of them to restaurants (especially the ones owned by Dillon), but also to interested customers who contact him through his website or at Seattle farmers markets.
Dillon’s kitchens use the elderflowers to make the cordial for sodas and cocktails and to add to sparkling wine. He also suggests serving freshly shucked oysters with elderflower vinegar, or using elderflowers with honey and salt to cure fish, or in a brine for halibut.
In addition to making drinks, you can use Dillon’s cordial to flavor ice cream and sorbet, panna cotta, buttercream, trifle, fool or pavlova. The flavor pairs well with dairy, citrus, rhubarb, berries and other summer fruit. Once you’ve got the cordial on hand, you won’t run out of ways to use it.
Matt Dillon’s Elderflower Cordial
2 pounds, 4 ounces cane sugar
6 cups boiling water
4 lemons, washed, zested and sliced
2 ounces (55 grams) citric acid
30 large elderflower heads (shake to remove insects and dirt)
1. Put the sugar in a large saucepan or glass bowl. Pour the boiling water over, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside to cool.
2. Add the lemon zest and slices to the cooled sugar water. Stir in the citric acid, and then add the flower heads and stir again.
3. Cover the mixture with a clean cloth, and leave to steep for 48 hours before straining through a clean fine muslin cloth into a clean bowl.
4. Use a funnel to fill sterilized bottles. Either can them for longer storage, or use bottles with clasps and store in the refrigerator.