Vienna, 13 July 2022
I’m sitting in a doctor’s reception room, nervously waiting to see the good doctor. It’s a routine annual check-up, but at my age you never know what might emerge!
To while away the time and keep my mind on other things, I’ve decided to start a new post. The topic for this one is the elder tree. I was inspired to write it by the sighting I had on a recent hike with my wife in the woods around Vienna. It was of a branch of an elder tree hanging over the path, rich with berries – still green, but full of promise for the autumn.
The elder family is actually quite large, containing many different species. So just to be clear, I’m talking about Sambucus nigra, the European elder. It has a wide range, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
If I’m to be honest, it’s not a particularly pretty tree. It doesn’t grow very high, its leaves are nothing much to look at, and it evinces a rather fetid smell. But for reasons which are not really clear to me, it caught the imagination of the ancient peoples of Europe. A couple of thousand years ago or more, they invested the tree with magic powers. Then Christianity came along, and then the Enlightenment, and then the Scientific Revolution, and all these “pagan” beliefs became quaint folklore. Here’s one such tale about the elder tree, which was still quite prevalent in rural areas of Britain and Scandinavia in the early parts of the last century:
It was said that a spirit known as the Elder Mother (Hyldemoer in Danish) lived in elder trees.
If you were foolish enough to cut down an elder tree, or even cut a branch off it, you would release the Elder Mother. She would follow the wood – her property, after all – and bring bad luck on the owners of whatever was made from it. You could safely cut the tree only after chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother:
“Elder Mother, Elder Mother,
Give me some of your wood,
And I will give you some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
Silence after you made the request meant that she had given permission.
As I said, quaint.
J.K. Rowling picked up on the elder’s supposed magical properties when she had a wand made of elder wood play a pivotal role in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Let me immediately say that, contrary to what seems to be 90% of the human race, I have never read a single Harry Potter book, so I have no idea what pivotal role the wand played. One of these days, I’ll ask my daughter, who I believe has read all the Harry Potter books; I certainly remember her lying on her bed devouring the first couple of volumes. What follows was gleaned from various Harry Potter fan sites I browsed. Elder was the rarest wand wood of all, and reputed to be deeply unlucky (which fits with my previous quaint story – the Elder Woman surely wouldn’t appreciate her wood being turned into a wand). As a result, elder wands were trickier for witches and wizards to master than any other. Harry’s Elder Wand (please note the capital letters) was said to have been the most powerful wand ever to have ever existed, able to perform feats of magic that would normally have been impossible even for the most skilled witches and wizards. Only a highly unusual person would find their perfect match in an elder wand, and on the rare occasion when such a pairing occurred, it might be taken as certain that the witch or wizard in question was marked out for a special destiny. Which means Harry, of course. As a final touch, the Elder Wand’s core contained the tail hair of a Thestral. This animal was a breed of winged horse with a skeletal body, face with reptilian features, and wide, leathery wings that resemble a bat’s (it makes me think of Chinese dragons).
If I bring up this last point, it’s because it allows me to segue smoothly back into the real world. Placing a Thestral’s tail hair in the core of the wand would have required hollowing out the elder branch being used to make the wand. It just so happens that young elder branches are easy to hollow out; their pith is soft and tender, and can be easily pushed out or burned out. People discovered this characteristic of the elder a long, long time ago, and took advantage of it to make all sorts of products which needed hollow tubes. For instance, shepherds in many parts of Europe used young elder branches to make simple flutes, to while away the hours looking after their sheep. In fact, the Latin name for the elder, sambucus, seems to be derived from the Ancient Greek word σαμβύκη (sambúkē) for flute. The shepherd playing a flute has certainly been a recurring theme in art over the ages.
Another use of hollowed elder branches was as bellows to blow air into fires, and it is this habit which seems to be at the source of the tree’s English name. It has nothing to do with old-age pensioners like myself and all to do with the Anglo-Saxon word æld for fire.
Of course, as one can easily imagine with a tree so laden with magic, various bits of it have been used over the centuries for folk remedies. Which is intriguing, because every part of the tree except the flowers and the ripe berries – so unripe berries, leaves, twigs, branches, seeds (even in ripe berries), roots – are mildly poisonous. Ingest enough and you will suffer from nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and generally feel horribly weak. That didn’t stop our ancestors, though, in using various elder-based concoctions to try to cure a wide array of diseases. And elder-based remedies – updated with smart packaging and slick advertising – continue to be offered. Here is one such offering for coughs.
I don’t propose to argue the merits of these folk remedies or their lack of them, I will merely cite a phrase I came across in my readings on the elder: “there is no high-quality clinical evidence that such practices provide any benefit”. My readers can come to their own conclusions about the medical efficacy of these modern versions of age-old nostrums.
Whether it was through their searches for remedies to the ills that afflicted them, or simply because of plain old hunger, or both, our ancestors also discovered that the elder could give them some nourishment. Archaeological digs in Switzerland at lakeside Neolithic pile-dwellings have unearthed elder seeds, seeming to show that these early Swiss lakeside dwellers were cultivating the elder 4000 years ago. We have here an artist’s representation of these lakeside dwellings.
If that is indeed true, we can imagine that hunter gatherers were collecting and eating wild elderberries considerably earlier than this.
In my opinion, based on my one experience of eating elderberries, you’d have to be pretty damned hungry to eat them. I tried the berries once when I was 13 years old and had just started high school. Elder trees lined one of the roads near the school, and the berries were ripe when the new school year started in early September (in fact, ripened elderberries were once considered an indicator that autumn – which officially starts on 1st September in the northern hemisphere – had begun). Frankly, the berries were pretty tasteless, which is not surprising since they have very low sugar levels. I must have also swallowed the seeds which I now know are poisonous, although I have no memories of throwing up or getting the runs. I guess I didn’t eat all that many – not surprising given their tastelessness.
This hasn’t stopped Europeans of centuries past from using elderberries as well as elderflowers in foods and drinks, and I want to celebrate the culinary inventiveness of our ancestors in the rest of this post. I suppose I also want to celebrate localism, the making do with what is available to you locally.
Elderberries and elderflowers can give a rather pleasant taste to things they are added to, and I suspect it is for this taste rather than any calories they impart that they have been used. Since I mentioned the berries first, let me quickly zip through some of the more interesting drinks and foods which people have created that involve them.
There’s elderberry wine, of course.
This is the only type of wine I have ever tried to make, a year after my attempt at eating the berries. It was a total disaster. I have recounted the whole sorry episode in an earlier post, so I won’t say anymore about it. For any readers who, come September, will have a whole lot of elderberries available, I annex at the very end of this post one of the many recipes to be found online for making elderberry wine.
In my youth in the UK, elderberry wine was associated with parsons’ daughters and genteel old maids.
This gentility is given a sinister twist in the hilarious film Arsenic and Old Lace of 1944 starring Cary Grant. SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! Cary Grant’s character, Mortimer Brewster, discovers that his two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha, who are really lovely old dears, have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide.
Somewhere between food and drink lie sweet soups. These are popular in Scandinavia, and indeed the Swedes use elderberry in one of their sweet soups. I must say, I’m rather intrigued by this concept of sweet soups, I really must try one one day. Is it a dessert or a starter? (Note to IKEA: time to add one of these soups to your menu, I’m getting tired of your Swedish meatballs). As one might expect of a berry that is commonly found in northern Europe, the northern Germans also make an elderberry-based soup. They call it Fliederbeersuppe (or lilac berry soup; not sure why “lilac”).
Interestingly enough, the Austrians make the same soup under the name Hollersuppe. In all the years my wife and I have lived in Austria, we have never, ever come across this dish. We clearly do not travel in the right circles. But now that I have been alerted to this dish I will keep a weather eye out for it. If readers with a stash of berries available to them in September want to try their hand at this soup, they will find a recipe at the end of the post.
Elderberries are of course used for making jams and jellies, but that is pretty run-of-the-mill, so I’ll skip them. They are also used to make a chutney, which is intriguing.
However, it is not quite intriguing enough to write anymore about it. Nevertheless, anyone wanting to try and make this chutney will find a recipe at the end.
And then there’s Pontack sauce.
Makers of it claim that it can give Lea & Perrins sauce a run for its money, which intrigues me because I am sufficiently into L&P sauce to have written a post about it. Anything that can stand up to L&P is worth looking into. The sauce also has a fun back story, which goes like so. Since the 1550s, the French family de Pontac owned vineyards in the Bordeaux region, exporting their wine to England. In 1666, taking advantage of the recent Great Fire in London, Arnaud III de Pontac sent his son François-Auguste to the city with instructions to buy one of the many now-vacant lots there. His idea was to build a tavern which would not only sell the Pontacs’ Bordeaux wine but also serve French food. François-Auguste completed his instructions to the letter, opening a tavern he called À l’Enseigne de Pontac. On the sign over the tavern’s door, François-Auguste depicted his father.
So Londoners nicknamed the tavern Pontack’s Head. This proto-French restaurant was a hit with all the Great and the Good, and it thrived. As part of the offerings, clients were served a sauce with their food. It came to be known as Pontack sauce, although whether François-Auguste invented the sauce or simply popularized it is unclear. The core of this sauce is elderberry juice and cider vinegar, to which are added various spices. Apparently, it marries very well with game. If there is any reader out there who wants to try making it, you know by now where to find the recipe!
And so we come to the flowers. Many drinks are made which involve elder flowers, primarily as a way to impart a distinct “elder” taste to them. The simplest is a concentrated sugar syrup in which elderflowers have been steeped for a while. Lemon juice or some other source of citric acid is add to give tartness. To drink it, a good deal of water is added to dilute the syrup to a drinkable concentration. I recently had one of these drinks at the local Anker café where we often go to have a coffee. It’s really very refreshing.
Recipe for the syrup at the end.
An interesting variation on this basic theme is where the drink is allowed to ferment – just enough to give it fizz but not enough to make it alcoholic. It is best known under its Romanian name, Socată.
However, all the Balkan countries make the same drink under a variety of different names, while Germany has a similar drink, this one mildly alcoholic and known as elderflower champagne. The non-alcoholic version of the drink has proved popular enough for commercial soft drinks manufacturers to market vulgar copies – I won’t deign to give them publicity by citing their names.
As one might imagine, this elderflower syrup is also used in various alcoholic drinks but I won’t bother with those. More interesting are a couple of ways to eat elderflowers. The first way is to dip the flowers in batter and fry them – rather like zucchini flowers, I suppose.
One finds this dish in the German-speaking lands, under the names Hollerküchel in Germany and Hollerstrauben in Austria. Once again, I have to confess to never having seen this dish during all my years in Austria. I could argue that this is because it is a seasonal dish, made when the elder trees flower in May, a time when we are almost never here, but I’m afraid I think it shows once again that we do not travel in the right circles. Recipe, as usual, at the end.
As readers will no doubt have noticed, pride of place in the creation of elder-based food and drinks has to be given to Northern Europe. However, my final entry comes from way down in southern Europe, from Calabria in Italy to be precise. There, they make a bread using olive oil in which elderflowers have been steeped. It’s known as pane col sambuco “elder bread” in Italian and pane è maju “May bread” in the local dialect, reflecting the month the trees flower.
Well, I finished my appointment with the doctor a long time ago; everything is in a satisfactory state of repair for a man my age, which is some comfort. There’s lots more to write about on the elder, but I will leave that to elder buffs to do; I think you could write a book about the elder. I saw an acronym for something or other a few days ago, which I think perfectly sums up this post: KKK. Not those hooded crazies from the US, but “Kunst, Kultur, Kulinarik”, Art, Culture, Cuisine. And now I leave my readers to the Cuisine part.
To make 1 l elderberry wine, you will need:
1 litre water
1/2 tsp Acid Blend
1/4 tsp Yeast Nutrient
1/8 tsp Pectic Enzyme
1/4 Campden tablet
1/4 sachet of yeast
- Once you get the elderberries back home after picking, remove the berries from the slightly toxic stems. Using a fork, gently comb the berries away from the stems a few at a time into a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. The ripe and mature berries will sink to the bottom. Any green, damaged berries will float, as will any leaves and bugs. Remove the bad berries and debris with a sieve and drain the well-cleaned elderberries.
- Heat the water, add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Bring to the boil for a minute and then turn off the heat.
- Take the prepared elderberries and place them in a straining bag inside a bucket. Use a potato masher to thoroughly crush the berries.
- Pour the boiling water over the crushed elderberries and give them a good stir. Allow to cool for a few hours and then add the yeast nutrient, acid blend and the crushed Campden tablet. Mix thoroughly, cover and fit the airlock and wait for at least 12 hours.
- After 12 hours add the pectic enzyme, mix thoroughly and wait for a further 24 hours.
- After 24 hours add the yeast onto the surface of the must, there is no need to stir. Cover and fit the airlock and wait for fermentation to begin.
- Stir the wine daily for the first week of fermentation, after 2 weeks lift out the straining bag and allow the wine to drain from the berries. Avoid squeezing the bag.
- Leave the wine to settle for a day and then syphon the wine into a demijohn.
- Allow the wine to condition in the demijohn for at least 3-4 months, racking when any sediment builds up. After the conditioning, sample the wine. You may want to back sweeten the wine if you prefer a sweeter taste. If not, rack straight to bottles.
Elderberry wine ages very well and will continually evolve so try and hold onto a few bottles for a year or more. You will be pleasantly surprised at how good an elderberry wine can get.
Boil fresh elderberries with sugar and sieve the result. Thicken the remaining juice with corn starch, and cook with lemon zest (or lemon juice if necessary), peeled pieces of apple and pear and semolina dumplings (if flour dumplings are used instead of semolina dumplings, thickening is usually unnecessary). Cinnamon and clove are occasionally added as spices. In Carinthia, the soup is cooked with wild marjoram and possibly with honey instead of sugar. In Upper Austria, pitted stewed plums are also added, while in Vorarlberg the elderberries are cooked with some red wine.
You will need:
1 large onion,
1 pint vinegar,
1 tsp. salt,
1 tsp. ground ginger,
2 Tbsp. sugar,
a spoonful of cayenne, mustard seeds and any other spices you wish to add.
1) Put the elderberries into a pan and mash them with a spoon, chop the onion and add all the ingredients along with vinegar into the pan.
2) Bring the mix to a boil and simmer until thick, making sure to stir well to prevent burning.
3) Put into jars.
To make two small bottles of the sauce, you will need:
500ml cider vinegar
250g finely chopped or grated shallots
Small piece of ginger, grated
4 allspice berries
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp nutmeg (or mace)
1 tsp salt
- Wash the elderberries and de-stalk them with a fork – see above.
- Heat the oven to 120°C. Put the berries in a casserole and cover with the vinegar, put on the lid, and cook for 4-6 hours.
- When cool, strain the juices through a sieve, pressing firmly. Discard the skin and seeds of the berries.
- Put the remainder into a pan with the shallots and other ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer, with the lid on, for about 10 minutes.
- Turn off, let cool and strain again and bottle.
- This will give you a thinnish liquid. You can reduce it to make it thicker or ‘blitz’ with some onion in a processor, which will give you something resembling a brown sauce.
Elderflower syrup (or cordial)
- Collect the flower heads fresh and new when the tiny buds have just opened and come to bloom before the fragrance is tainted with bitterness.
- Steep the elderflower heads in a concentrated sugar solution so that their aroma infuses the syrup.
- Add a source of citric acid and lemon juice to help preserve the syrup and to add tartness.
- Cover the mixture and then leave it for a few days so that the aromas of the flowers infuses into the syrup.
- Strain to release as much juice as possible.
For drinking, the cordial is typically diluted with either water or sparkling water.
- Steep the elder flowers in a lemon and sugar (traditionally honey) solution for a day.
- Add the other ingredients. These can be raisins, mint, lemon or orange zest, basil leaves, ginger.
- Leave for 2-4 days for primary fermentation to take place, in a covered but not airtight recipient.
- Filter the drink, and consume within 1-2 days.
- Make a thin batter made from flour, eggs, beer or Prosecco and other ingredients, for example wine or beer batter.
- Dip the blossoms, still on their stalks in the batter, and fry in a pan.
- Before serving, dust the flowers with powdered cinnamon sugar, and serve with jam.
- Use the thicker parts of the stalks to hold the food. Be careful not to eat the stalks when you eat the flowers.
Pane col sambuco
You will need:
300 g durum wheat flour
300 g flour 0
350 ml of water
1/2 Tbsp. salt
7 g fresh brewer’s yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 jar of elderberry flowers in oil (this is made by steeping elderflowers in virgin olive oil and salt)
- Sift the two flours together and prepare the dough. Dissolve the brewer’s yeast in half a glass of lukewarm water.
- Make a hollow in the center of the flour and start pouring a part of this lukewarm water, mix, add the dissolved yeast and sugar. Slowly pour more water. Put the salt on the edges so that it does not come into direct contact with the yeast.
- Add the elderflowers under oil, knead them in until you have a nice smooth dough.
- Oil a bowl and put the dough in it, cover it with plastic wrap and a cloth to keep it warm until it is well risen, which will take an hour or even two depending on the temperature at which you keep it.
- When the dough is ready, make the shapes you like best. Put the shapes on a floured baking sheet and wait for them to rise for the second time, usually half an hour is enough.
- Cook in a preheated oven at 240°C for the first 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 200°C for another 25/35 minutes.