In early summer elderflower umbels explode from their dark-green foliage like fragrant fireworks. Within a month the blossoms will give way to shiny black berries. Don’t eat them raw. They contain cyanogenic glucosides – precursors to hydrogen cyanide – which can cause nausea and stomach-ache, or, if you gorge yourself, a whole lot worse.
Not that you’ll be tempted. Uncooked elderberries have an odd, urine-like fragrance and are brutally sour. Like rhubarb, gooseberries and cranberries, they need cooking with sugar to bring out their charm. Pick when they’re as close to black as purple gets and have softened to the touch. Snap off the spray where it joins the branch, wash, then strip the berries from the stems.
In winter they can be turned into wonderful jams, chutneys and sauces. But cordial is perhaps the best known use for elderberries. Pour over ice cream or Panna Cotta, or mix it with elderflower syrup to make a sorbet that’s almost tropical in its headiness. Some believe that undiluted elderberry cordial taken daily will shorten or subdue a cold or flu. There is encouraging scientific backing for this, but more research is needed.
The flavour of cooked elderberry lies somewhere between ripe red plum and prune. Noticing how seamlessly these flavours blended with wine, unscrupulous port producers once used elderberry as an adulterant. When Britain placed an embargo on French wines during the wars of the 18th century, British demand for port surged – along with elderberry adulteration. The practice was soon rumbled, and British port sales declined. In response, the Portuguese passed laws to regulate port production, elderberry plants were ripped up and cultivation forbidden.•