High summer is nearly upon us in the UK, from where I am writing, and nothing heralds its arrival quite like the flowers of the elder tree.
Delicate, pretty and fragrant, the tiny flowers grow together in large, flat clumps which can be as wide as dinner plates. Elder trees grow prolifically in temperate regions all over the world. When their flowers are fully open, their fresh, light and summery scent is unmistakeable.
The arrival of high summer also means returning from training gasping with thirst! When your mouth is parched dry and you can’t get hold of an icy-cold drink fast enough, elderflower cordial is the answer.
I am always trying to include seasonal and local foods in my cooking, and making cordial with freshly foraged flowers ticks both these boxes. The only downside of this cordial is that it includes a large amount of the dreaded white stuff: sugar. However, you only need a tiny amount of cordial diluted with lots of water to make a refreshing drink, and I reckon it’s better than drinking processed, shop-bought drinks which may include all sorts of artificial ingredients as well as sugar.
Athletes aside, this drink is perfect for fans, spectators and officials of our sport when they’re spending a long day at the track on a hot day.
The most common elderflowers are creamy yellow, and make a cordial with a similar colour. But their darker cousin, the ‘Black Lace’ elder, makes gorgeous peachy-pink cordial. These tend not to grow wild, so I have ‘borrowed’ some flowers from my neighbours, Peter and Val Lowman. Peter was a mentor for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, and helped me when I retired from elite competition to forge a new life after sport. Both Peter and Val spend their retirement racing Ironman triathlon – amazing!
The elderflower season is just getting going in the northern hemisphere, so if you fancy making this cordial, the next few weeks are the perfect opportunity to give it a try. If you’re even more adventurous, elderflowers can also be made into delicious tempura and the flower buds into pickles.
10 large elderflower heads (pick when just open and full of pollen)
900g granulated sugar
40g citric acid (a preservative, can be found in pharmacies or health food shops)
• Trim the stalks and leaves from the flower heads and carefully remove any insects or debris. Do not wash them as this washes off all the pollen. Place in a large bowl.
• Slowly heat the sugar and water in a large saucepan until the sugar dissolves. As it reaches the boil, turn off the heat and stir in the citric acid. Allow the mixture to cool slightly and pour over the flower heads.
• Grate the zest off the lemon and cut the lemon into small pieces, then add to the flower mixture. Stir gently and leave covered in a cool, dark place for 24 hours.
• Strain the mixture through a piece of muslin over a sieve, and pour into sterilised bottles. It keeps well in the fridge for a few weeks.
• Dilute a small amount with cold water to serve, adding ice and mint leaves as optional extras.
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics