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Summer Solstice Elderflowers (in Cape Town)

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Summer Solstice Elderflowers (in Cape Town)

January 9, 2023

Cape Town’s summer days are blazing and long. They are also dry and often windy. The rain comes in winter (at least, in normal years). A hike through the fragrant fynbos on Table Mountain—the Hoerikwaggo, which means “mountain in the sea”—is essential for anyone who loves plants. But another ritual for me, when I visit, is an elderflower hunt. In New York I search for their lacy blooms in early June. But in the greenbelts of Constantia, the Cape Town suburb where my mother lives, the flowers can be found for months, from November through February. Towards late summer they offer what the Sambucus species in the Northeast never have: flowers and fruit at the same time. For someone enchanted by elder’s potential in the kitchen, it’s like Christmas (and the calendar would agree).

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Elderflowers in bloom in December.

Four Cape Town summers ago, at home for three months with my mother after my father passed away, I discovered that a favorite elder shrub I used to visit, growing high on the Alphen Trail, a verdant greenbelt following a tiny but steady stream called the Diep River, bordering my parents’ house, had been cut down. In need of a therapeutic project I begged local friends to send me intel about other elderflower locations, and promised, in return, a bottle of the fermented elderflower cordial that I make with the tiny white flowers. A hot tip delivered via WhatsApp (the South African messaging platform of choice) sent me to an unfamiliar trail bisecting a summer-dry wetland, and landed me in the middle of an elderflower motherlode. I picked and picked and picked.

Above: Just-picked elderflowers.
Above: January 1, 2019: the last great batch, with an early taste, at its feet.

Soon, a large glass jar of elderflower cordial was in progress. The jar had housed cookies when I was little, in another house, in another province, and in another century. Now, it was  filled with an alchemy of flowers, stirred daily on the kitchen table in the cool light of the gauze-curtained sash windows. The liquid hissed quietly to itself as the fermentation process, fueled by wild yeasts, gained momentum.

Above: A very active fermentation. When the fizzing calms down, it is strained and bottled.

Soon, it was ready, bottled and dispensed, as promised, with just enough left over to sip through that summer.

Above: Three useful parts of the elder shrub, all at once.

A month later I returned to find the same shrubs loaded—like a gift for sorrowing foragers—with flowers, as well as with fruit, green, and fatly purple and ripe. The fruit is toxic, raw, but compelling when cooked or fermented. The unripe elderberries are lacto-fermented and become elderberry capers. Syrups, sauces, and vinegar issue from the ripe fruit.

Above: Still-fermenting cordial, cut with cold seltzer and ice.
Above: So close, and yet so far. Unreachable elder shrubs.

Then came a cordial pause of three years: The pandemic, followed by a visit where foraging could not be a priority. But recently I found myself back in Constantia under a hot blue sky, driving the backroads bordering the maze of public-access greenbelts, searching for the sweetspot of years before, sure I could nose my way there again without help. There were promising starts, dead ends, fruitless sorties down baked, sandy paths. I was hot, I was getting grumpy. One collection of shrubs was out of reach in a swathe of six-foot grasses and behind an invisible, deep, wet ditch. Thoughts of snakes. (But at least no Northeastern ticks and their cornucopia of diseases.) But then I remembered WhatsApp, and started scrolling back through years of messages. At last, slightly cross-eyed, I found it: the GPS pin.

Above: The elderflowers of Soetvlei.

The next day was the longest of the year. The summer solstice, sweltering and windless. In a greenbelt called Soetvlei (Afrikaans for sweet wetland, or sweet water) beyond a sweep of tall African cattails, flanked by willow trees, and sheltered by statuesque stands of phragmites, I found the elder bushes at last, festooned with flowers. Swallows dipped and swooped above the reeds and a coucal—also called a rainbird—gurgled its quintessentially African call from the dense thicket. Shielded by a wide-brimmed hat, I began to collect elderflowers under the sun.

Above: Elderflowers being separated from their green stalks, prior to mixing with sugar and water.
Above: Honeysuckle adds its perfumed note.

I made the cordial that afternoon, adding to it some perfumed honeysuckle blossoms just beginning to open in my mother’s garden, as well as the zest of rough-skinned Cape lemons.

Above: Six days after being mixed, the elderflower cordial is looking, smelling, and sounding (fizzzz) promising.
Above: Eight days after starting, the summer solstice cordial is bottled (pictured with verjus and orange jessamine).

I vary my fermented elderflower cordial almost every time I make it. Sometimes I add lemon zest, sometimes lemon slices.  But I do always use a lot of sugar. The drink is concentrated, and is drunk diluted. Sugar is also a fine preservative. Because it is an active ferment even after bottling, it must be kept in the fridge.

While mixing it into drinks is an obvious way to enjoy it, elderflower cordial’s use is almost limitless. Even the pomace (the solids left behind after straining the cordial) is useful, and makes an exceptional marmalade (the recipe is in my book Forage, Harvest, Feast – A Wild-Inspired Cuisine).

Above: Perfect strawberries macerating in fizzy elderflower cordial.
Above: Roast elderflower and herb chickens; the cordial bastes the birds in their last half-hour of cooking.
Above: A vegetable and tamarind coconut curry sweetened with a quarter cup of elderflower cordial.
Above: Bluefish pan-seared, then soused in elderflower vinegar.

Fermented Elderflower Cordial

Makes about 8 cups

The addition of lemon juice helps to slow fermentation down (many recipes call for citric acid) and keeps the effervescent brew more stable. You can add other aromatic edible flowers, like rose petals or honeysuckle.

  • 6 ounces elderflower umbels (approximately 30 – 35 umbels, depending on size)
  • 1 pound sugar
  • 8 cups water
  • Zest of 4 washed lemons, peeled in strips, or zested (or just use thin slices)
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Do not wash the flowers or you will lose the pollen and the wild yeasts. Instead, leave them outside for a few hours to allow egress for small insects. Strip the tiny white flowers from the green stems. In any plant the stems add a tannic note, but with elderflowers the green is considered toxic.

Pack the flowers into a large, clean jar or jars. Dump the sugar on top of them. Add the water, lemon zest or slices, and juice. Stir very well or screw a lid on and shake to dissolve the sugar. Loosen the lid, if using, or cover the jar’s mouth with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band or string. At this stage the ferment needs air, which the cloth or loose lid allows. Never keep a lid firmly screwed on, as fermentation will release gas that needs to escape. If it can’t, the jar can explode.

Leave the jar at room temperature (out of the sun), stirring once a day.

From around Day 3 to 6 (this depends very much on temperatures and yeast), you will notice bubbles rising, and more when you stir. After another day or two, the elderflowers will push up out of the jar; that’s serious carbonation happening. Push them back down gently. Allow the jars of cordial to ferment another day or two, until the bubbles are less enthusiastic. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and again through doubled cheesecloth or linen. You can save the pomace (the leftover flowers and lemon peel) to make an infused elderflower vinegar or marmalade (see Forage, Harvest, Feast for recipes). Bottle the strained cordial in clean bottles. For peace of mind keep the bottles in the fridge. Left out, they can explode if fermentation continues. I find they last indefinitely, if kept cold.

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