As foraging season comes into its own, the hedgerows along the canal are bursting with elderberries. Having missed the window for elderflower champagne making this year, I was determined not to miss out on making elderberry port too.
The process is simple enough – at least once you’ve discovered the secret weapon for easy elderberry removal.
Removing elderberries by hand is a guaranteed way to end up with stained fingers and a frustrated feeling to go with your squished elderberries. However, a fork removes elderberries cleanly from the stem in seconds – and feels pretty satisfying too. Be warned, elderberries stain extremely effectively so use a deep-sided bowl to ensure that none escape.
Then it’s just a case of adding the elderberries to boiling water and sugar (4 pints elderberries to 3 pints sugar, or thereabouts), simmering, straining and adding wine yeast once it’s cooled a little (‘start’ the yeast in a little room temperature orange juice and make sure the elderberry mix is cooler than 20 degrees before you add the yeast mix).
Bottle your elderberry port and ferment it for 3 weeks before straining into a demijohn (with air lock). Wait for at least 6 months before drinking, though a year is better. (If you don’t want to wait that long, you can make elderberry liqeur by adding berries to vodka or gin and steeping for about month. Add sugar to taste after steeping.)
Elder isn’t just the forager’s friend. It’s also attached to some wonderful mythology. Healing, protecting and removing bad spells are just a few of elder’s fabled powers.
Wearing a sprig of elder is thought to protect people from attack; while a branch of it can be used to protect your home from harm. It’s apparently even luckier if it self-seeds in your back garden (team it with a rowan in the front garden for maximum protection).
Known as a plant of contrast – white in summer and dark in autumn; with shallow roots but strong branches – elder is considered a good plant for restoring balance (assuming you don’t enjoy too much of it in port or champagne form).
Don’t use elder for a fire though, as it hisses and spits. It’s also widely believed to be a bad idea to sleep under an elder bush – possibly because the smell of elder leaves may have a narcotic effect.
It’s no great surprise to me that elder is linked to Venus, given its beautiful, aromatic flowers, and rich-coloured berries. The flowers can be used as a ‘beauty aid’ in the form of a facewash too – just add them to water and get washing (do not try this with berries unless you want a purple face. However, the berries can be used for a lip stain. You can use elder for making dyes too: the berries for blue and purple, the leaves for green and yellow and the bark for black.)
Elder is also considered useful for making sweet music. The wood is soft enough to create your own instrument easily and the sound is said to lure fairies and be a favourite of sprites. Get whittling and you could get to number one in fairyland by Christmas (thankfully, somewhere the X Factor et al have failed to reach).
Whether you’re looking for magical assistance, a faerie pop career, need emergency lipstick or just fancy some tasty cordial or booze, elder is a wonderful plant. Respect your elder* and you’ll reap the rewards.
* And other people’s elder, of course.
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