If you’ve walked anywhere a bit damp recently (June to September) – road verges, ditches, rivers or canals or through damp meadows, you can’t have failed to spot or smell Meadowsweet. The tall (1- 2 m) cream-coloured dense clusters of flowers have an aroma described as sweet almond, hay and honey with a hint of something medical, especially when crushed. In Tudor times, it was used as a strewing herb – thrown on the floor to be walked on and mask unpleasant smells. The original name was “mead wort” as it was used to flavour mead. Numerous herbal uses include treating colds, respiratory problems, acid indigestion, peptic ulcers, arthritis and rheumatism, skin diseases, and diarrhoea. It can also be used in many culinary ways by today’s forager.
This plant contains the chemicals used to make aspirin – after the old botanical name for Meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Unlike Aspirin, it does not have the caustic side effects on the stomach lining, however, if you are allergic to Aspirin (or havealicylate or sulphite sensitivity) you should avoid consuming it.
Meadowsweet can be used in almost any recipe that uses Elderflower. With that season coming to an end we have a replacement. Pick the flowers on a sunny morning for the maximum flavour and don’t wash them. Just give each head a good shake to remove any insects. The flowers can be dried in paper bags to retain their flavour as well as pollen and natural yeasts. Some recipes use the leaves, others the flowers or either.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Elderflower Cordial and Champagne; I make gallons of them every year, they are THE taste of summer in my opinion. There are however, SO many fantastic things to make to eat and drink with Elderflowers that it is a shame just to stop with these two. Many of the below recipes use cordial, though you can equally infuse the flowers in liquid in a muslin bag. You can, of course, buy Elderflower Cordial if desperate. You won’t be alone, in 2015 we were predicted to buy 46 million litres of it in the UK. That equates to annual sales of more than £25 million, with sales doubling in the previous five years.
Below, we tell you where to look for Elderflower and talk a bit about identification – people do pick the wrong flowers! The main part of this post is about Elderflower recipes.
The Elder tree is steeped in folk lore, history and superstition, probably more so than any other plant. In the past, country people were afraid to cut down an Elder, with the Elder-Mother, a guardian spirit, living in the tree. Today most hedgelayers will ask the tree for permission to cut it down. Many people also believed that if you stood below an Elder at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the king of the fairies and his entourage.
Almost every part of the plant – roots, bark, leaves, flowers and berries has been used medicinally. Effective skin cleanser and eye lotions can still be made from it.
When to look
The Elder blossoms from late May to the around the end of June. There will, of course, be some variation depending upon the weather and how far north you live.
Where to look
The Elder is a fairly common sight; it likes disturbed fertile (nitrogen-rich) soils – often the same places as Nettles so don’t wear your shorts when going to pick it. It grows in many different habitats including roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground, hedgerows, woods and grassland.
The Elder is a tree up to about 3 metres tall with a woody stem. On young branches the bark is light grey and smooth. On older branches it is a brown-grey colour and corky and furrowed. Older branches and trunk may be covered in a yellow-lichen. Leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with five to seven leaflets (smaller leaves). The leaflets are 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm wide, with a toothed margin. Leaflets are dark green and matt on top with a paler underside. They smell unpleasant when bruised (and were used for insect repellent for people and crops).
In late spring and early summer, the trees are adorned by large groups (umbels) of ivory flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and are about 5–6 mm in diameter.
I have known people confuse the flower heads of Rowan trees with those from Elder (disappointing results!). You might also potentially muddle Elder and Wayfaring tree. Be aware that at this time of year there are quite a few tall plants (no woody stem) that have superficially similar flower heads; these are members of the Carrot family. A year or two ago, on the radio someone admitted trying to make Elderflower drinks with Cow Parsley! Again the result was disappointing. Be very aware that some other Carrot family members are deadly poisonous including Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort. Use a flower-id book if you are unsure.
Pick on a dry, sunny day for the best flavour and to retain natural yeasts needed for fermenting. Remember not to strip all of the flowers from any one Elder. You want to allow some to grow into berries both for the birds and for you, but that’s another story. Don’t wash the flowers either, just give them a gentle shake to remove any insects. A walking stick will help you pull some heads into reach. You can easily make one from a piece of Hazel. Use it upside down, with six inches of one side branch left on, Don’t bend the Elder branch too much, however, as they are not that flexible and will snap. Have a basket or carrier bag over the other arm to put the Elderflowers in to.
Elderflower Champagne and Cordial are classics but give the liqueur, wine, cider and herbal tea a go. You can also freeze Elderflowers in ice cubes to cool your favourite tipple!
Champagne (or “Fizz” if you bow to EU “protected designation of origin” rules!). The Champagne is very simple to make and only needs 4 heads of the flowers for a gallon of drink. It is a wonderfully light, sparking drink and is fantastic cool on a warm summer evening. It’s that good that I’ve made it by the case for parties! The fizz does carry a bit of a health warning though – bottles can explode if they are thin glass. I have used flip-top “Grolsh” style bottles for many years without incident. Used plastic fizzy drink bottles can also cope with pressure.
Dissolve the sugar in a little warm water, allow to cool.
Squeeze the juice from the lemon, and cut the rind in 4 pieces.
Put the juice and lemon pieces with the Elderflowers in a large jug or basin.
Add the wine vinegar and pour on the rest of the cold water.
Leave to steep for 4 days.
Strain and bottle. It should be ready in 6 – 10 days.
Cordial – This needs quite a few more heads compared to Champagne and again is the flavour of summer for me. Some recipes call for Citric Acid; others use more citrus fruit / zest. You can buy Citric Acid from homebrew shops (best) or a pharmacy. You may get a quizzical look when you ask; apparently, drug dealers also use it! Make cordial by the gallon and put it in empty (and clean) plastic milk bottles and freeze to enjoy at any time of the year. On those warm summer evenings remember that you don’t just have to dilute it with water, add to wine – especially a sparkling one, like Prosecco or Champagne! Alternatively, freeze the cordial in an ice-cube tray and add to cider or ginger beer.
Again there are dozens of recipes about; I have happily used the River Cottage one for years.
Liqueur (Vodka or gin) – Make as you would sloe vodka or gin. Here you will find 32 cocktail recipes that use Elderflower liqueur! with more here and here! I like the sound of this one – “serve with cloudy English apple juice & a sprig of mint, or mix with lemonade & freeze for some very grown-up ice lollies”!
Elderflower Cider – Follow a cider recipe but add 8 heads for every 5 litres of apple juice.
Herbal Tea – Good for treating coughs and irritable throats. Use fresh or dried on a sunny windowsill and store in dry, dark, cool place. Enjoy “neat” or add to rose petals, lemon balm, mint or nettle.
There are so many different Elderflower recipes for puddings. For great big lists of them head for the pages produced by the main cordial manufacturers – Bottle Green and Belvoir Fruit Farms. You can use cordial in most of these or infuse Elderflowers in a muslin bag while heating the liquid / cooking the fruit.
Panna cotta – While you can make a gelatine version, be a true forager and use Carrageen seaweed you have gathered and dried yourself. The seaweed version will be vegan / vegetarian friendly.
Fritters – dip flowers in batter, deep fry, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with sugar and eat while still warm! For an alcoholic version soak the flowers in a mix of Cinnamon, brandy and sweet Sherry or Madeira for an hour before dipping into the batter. Another version adds chilli!
Elderflower has a strong affinity with Gooseberry, Rhubarb, Raspberries, Strawberries or Pears and the combination works well in some of the below.
Some of our local fields are a picture at the moment with carpets of Dandelions. They are an opportunity not to miss, plentiful and nearby. In your garden you might view them as a troublesome weed. The Victorians, however, cultivated them, with the leaves eaten by the wealthy in sandwiches and salads. I once met a young girl on one of our foraging courses who was in her element grazing on the leaves, preferring them to chocolate or sweets. Foragers will make use of almost every part of the Dandelion – roots (land owner consent required to dig up ANY wild plant), leaves and flowers. In this post we look at some Dandelion flower recipes and uses. Among the uses are:
Dandelion Syrup – (recipe below)
Dandelion Drizzle Cake – (recipe below)
First Flower Champagne
Dandelion Jam / Marmalade
Dandelion (Dandy) Brandy
Search online for recipes for the other suggestions.
Clip on Dandelions from the BBC Series Flora Brittanica.
Pick on dry sunny day so the flowers are open and not wet.
People with sensitive skin may get contact dermatitis when touching the latex.
Your finger tips will go yellow, looking like you have a 40-a -day smoking habit!
Remove any stem you pick with the flowers as you go (saves time later!)
Pick a few here and a few there as they an early pollen source for bees and other insects.
The below recipe is taken from John Wright’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 7 – Hedgerow. You can buy at a great price this here. Pick about a litre of flowers
Dandelion Drizzle Cake
A wild twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake combining the lovely flavour of dandelions with orange. Adapted from the lemon drizzle cake recipe in Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 8 – Cakes.
Preparation and cooking time – c. 1 hour
For the cake
175 g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
175g caster sugar
175g unsalted butter cut into small pieces and softened
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
Petals from approx. 12 dandelions (remove all of the green parts).
For the drizzle
18cm round or 15 cm square tin, greased and lined with baking parchment, or a 1 litre loaf tin, approx. 20 x 10cm, greased, base and long sides lined with parchment.
Cake cooling rack
Preheat the oven to 180oC/Gas mark 4.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.
Add all the other cake ingredients and beat for about 1½ minutes, until you have a smooth think batter.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, levelling out the surface with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Leave in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out and placing on a wire rack.
Prick the surface of the cake all over with a skewer and carefully drizzle the Dandelion Syrup over the surface, a spoonful at a time, ensuring each addition has soaked in before spooning over the next.
The cake can be cooled fully or is delicious when still slightly warm. Serve with a little Dandelion Syrup infused natural yoghurt on the side.
Yesterday was St David’s Day and was, meteorologically speaking, the start of Spring. For those of us that prefer the ancient ways of doing things, Spring doesn’t start until the 20th March with the equinox, which like solstices, is related to the orbit of the earth around the sun. Regardless of the date and whether you think it is Spring yet or not, a walk in the countryside will show that nature is definitely heading towards Spring. Green leaves are appearing on some of the hedgerow shrubs and bushes such as Hawthorn, Elder and Wild Gooseberry. The nettles are several inches high and ready for picking. I was delighted to find lots of Wild Garlic with leaves over 6 inches long and the air heavy with it’s pungent aroma and was inspired to write about it. Wild garlic is not only great to eat but also has many of the health benefits of the cultivated garlic, it is effective in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Where to find it
Wild Garlic or Ramsons is found across most of the country. The map below from the National Biodiversity Network shows there is barely a 10 kilometre square in the country without it unless you are in the Highlands or Ireland. It is found in damp, Ancient deciduous woodlands, shady lanes and some hedgerows. Like Bluebells, it prefers slightly acidic soils so if you know a good Bluebell wood it might have Wild Garlic too. Given suitable conditions it can be prolific carpeting significant areas, almost turning the woodland floor white.
The leaves of Wild Garlic can be picked in most years from March to June. They are at their best and most flavoursome when bright green before the flowers open. As they age and start to turn yellow, the flavour is less strong. The star-shaped flowers are usually seen in May and June.
There are a few other plants that it is possible to confuse with Wild Garlic. The usual sources of confusion are young Lords and Ladies leaves, Lily of the Valley and Autumn Crocus. These are all poisonous so take care! Mistaking the latter for Wild Garlic has lead to a death in the UK – you have been warned! The best test is to crush a leaf and use your nose, if it smells of garlic it is garlic (though beware the smell of garlic can stay on your hands!).
Wild Garlic – cluster of star-like, white flowers at the end of an upright stem.
Lily-of-the-Valley – drooping bell-shaped flowers along the stem.
Wild Garlic – leaves have a single main vein and come singly from the base of the plant on individual green-coloured stems.
Lily of the Valley – two or three leaves come from a single purple stem.
Lords and Ladies – leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins.
Do not dig up Wild Garlic bulbs. Unless you have landowner’s consent it is illegal and the bulbs are disappointingly small. Harvest leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods using scissors. Look out for bird droppings! Pick a little here and there rather than too much in one place and watch where you are putting your feet. As you pick, it is easy to bruise the leaves so put them gently into a basket or bag without packing them in. Like many wild leaves, they will wilt after picking so use quickly or refrigerate (in a sealed bag!).
Give any flowers a shake to remove any insects, wash in cold water. If required, pat dry with a kitchen towel or a tea towel to remove moisture.
You can use Wild Garlic anywhere where you would use regular garlic, the flavour is however milder.
Wild Garlic leaves are the mildest part of the plant. They can be harvested as early as the middle of January in a mild winter. They can be used raw sparingly in salads, in sandwiches, dressings and finely chopped as a garnish. A popular use is in pesto in the place of basil. I am a great fan of garlic butter made by mixing finely chopped leaves into salted butter. Use for garlic bread, Chicken Kiev or frying; it freezes well too.
When cooked the leaves can be used in many ways. The simplest use is as a vegetable as you would prepare and serve spinach. It can also be used blanched and pureed as a sauce for white fish, in soup (“neat” or mixed with nettle tips), stews, pasta sauce, risottos, quiche, frittata, cheese scones, focaccia, dumplings, and lots more – see recipe links at the end of this post.
The leaves can be preserved in honey, oil, as pesto, in pickles, chutneys and vinegars. A puree mixed with oil (rapeseed or oil) can be put in jars (Kilner preferable to tin-lidded) and covered with a little oil or frozen in ice cube trays. The leaves can be dried with a dehydrator or in a very low oven. When dry (brittle) store in jars in a dry, cool, dark place.
Fermenting is very much in vogue. You can create a pickle by pounding chopped leaves and salt and putting it in jars to ferment for 6 months at a minimum! (Alternative method in Mark Hix article 1 in recipe section).
Stalks / Flower Buds
The stems and unopened flowers can be added to salads and other dishes such as stir fries. They can be pickled or preserved by salting.
The opened flowers can also be eaten. The flavour is stronger than that of the leaves. In small quantities the flowers make a decorative and tasty addition to salads and can be used as a garnish. They can also be made into great savoury fritters.
Fruits (seed pods)
Another little used “crop” from the Wild Garlic at the end of the season as the flowers go over is the seed pods or fruit that form in their place. The flavour gets stronger as the seeds ripen. The seed pods can be stripped from the stalks with a fork over a bowl. You can make Garlic butter by pounding them with a pestle and mortar and mixing with butter. They can also be pickled (try elderflower or pine needle vinegar) and eaten with cheese or put in a dressing.
Articles / Pages with collections of Wild Garlic recipes
This video shows some of the things the group on this year’s summer foraging course got up to. It includes underwater footage from the crabbing session and an Eel coming to the drop net. The Eel got put back as they are a protected species.
This course runs every summer (July) in West Dorset – it includes crabbing and plants of seashore, hedgerow and river. We gather ingredients for a three course wild-food based meal.
When most people think of foraging for wild food it is mainly the autumn – fruit, nuts and fungi. There are of course wild foods to be found all year and the summer is no exception with soft fruit, flowers, herbs, nuts and some fungi offering great summer foraging. A few of the autumn species are showing themselves too but are not quite ripe yet.
In both the garden and the wild it is soft fruit season. The wild parents of garden species are generally smaller than the garden versions but still flavoursome and worth the effort in finding and picking. Gooseberries, Strawberries, Red Currants, Cherries, Raspberries, Bilberries and Mirabelles (Cherry Plums) are awaiting you to turn them into delights such as puddings, drinks (cordial, wine and sloe-gin equivalents), vinegars, jams and chutney. Venture a bit further afield (for me to a nearby bypass!) and you will find Sea Buckthorn berries – an amazing flavour. The first blackberries are ripening. It is always the one at the end of the cluster – the “king” berry that ripens first. They are hinting at autumn along with ripening Japanese Rosehips, Rowans, Haws and Damsons.
Elderflower time is a distant memory, though the cupboard or freezer should be stocked with cordial, which can go into puddings, cakes, breads and more. Roses, Meadowsweet, Himalayan Balsam and Clover flowers can be picked with drinks, puddings and more in mind.
While not as bountiful as the wealth of greens of Spring, Summer foraging finds Chickweed in the fields for a lettuce role and Watercress abounds in the chalk stream though must be cooked (soup or a veg) to avid the risk of liver fluke. Fat Hen is plentiful though the woodier stems should be avoided. Soup, curry, quiche or a simple green veg being the main uses. Pine Needles make a refreshing, fruit cordial, delicious on a warm day.
Summer is a good time for foraging for herbs. Many such as Marjoram, Fennel and Water Mint can be dried. The dried herbs can be used in the autumn with crab apples for herb jellies. Sorrel is ongoing in the meadows with a multitude of uses – from a sauce for oily fish, to a salad or quiche ingredient or bruised with buttered new potatoes.
Hazelnuts are visible in the hedgerows and on the grass where the squirrels have thrown his leftovers. The flesh of green Hazelnuts have the crisp crunch of overgrown peas, and a sweet vegetable-like taste that quickly becomes rather addictive! Do use nutcrackers and not your teeth though. Green Walnuts are still about but we have missed the traditional time for pickling them – late June. They have been a delicacy in England since at least the early 19th-century enjoyed with cheese and biscuits. Charles Dickens mentions them in The Pickwick Papers,
A good thunderstorm or two in August usually gets the fungi season kick-started. Online foraging and fungi forums are full of pictures of people’s latest finds. I’ve seen Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Fairy Ring Champignons, Field Mushrooms and Red Cracking Bolete.
If you go down to the woods today you might spot the small white flowers of Sweet Woodruff. The plant will remind you of Cleavers or Goosegrass that children stick on your back. The resemblance is for good reason, they are both in the same family – “Galium”. Sweet Woodruff is a darker green and the leaves are smooth and more pointed. The four-petalled flowers of Sweet Woodruff are also bigger than those of Cleavers.
The second part of the Latin name is “odoratum” meaning fragrant or perfumed. The scent of the drying plant has been likened to that of freshly-mown hay or vanilla. Two hours drying will make a picked bunch super fragrant. The fragrance has been put to use as a strewing herb, put on the floor to walk over – an old-fashioned “air freshener, as well as in pot-pourri and perfumes. The plant also has medicinal uses as a wound healer and was used to treat digestive and liver problems. It should be consumed in moderation as high doses can cause headaches and other effects. It can be used in:
While technically it’s not summer yet, one of my summer favourites is ready to gather. Its flavour is one of the things that make a summer and its arrival means time to put it to good use. The Elder is a fairly common sight. It likes disturbed fertile soils – often the same places as nettles so don’t wear your shorts!– and grows in a many different habitats including roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground, hedgerows, woods and grassland. It is technically a tree though never substantial, and a bit bigger than a bush. As always with foraging be 100% confident with your identification using a plant ID book if you are unsure. There are other shrubs and plants with white flowers at this time of year. Recently, on the radio someone admitted trying to make Elderflower drinks with Cow Parsley! Don’t wash the flowers as the natural yeasts in them are needed for some of the uses, just give a gentle shake to remove any insects.
The most well known uses for Elderflowers will be for Champagne (fizz if you bow to EU “protected designation of origin” rules!) and Cordial. I’ve got my first batch of this year’s champagne on the go already. It is very simple to make and only needs 4 heads of the flowers for a gallon of drink. It is a wonderfully light, sparking drink and is fantastic cool on a warm summer evening. It’s that good that I’ve made it by the case for parties! The fizz does carry a bit of a health warning though – bottles can explode if they are thin glass. I have used flip-top “Grolsh” style bottles for many years without incident.
The cordial needs quite a few more heads and again is the flavour of summer for me. Some recipes call for citric acid. You can get this from homebrew shops (best) or a chemist. You may get a quizzical look when you ask. Apparently, drug dealers also use it! Make cordial by the gallon and put it in empty (and clean) plastic milk bottles and freeze to enjoy at any time of the year. On those warm summer evenings remember that you don’t just have to dilute it with water – friends enjoy it with white wine! The cordial can also be used for ice-lollies for the kids and a sorbet or granita for the grown-ups.
Dried for tea
Fool (optionally with (wild) Gooseberrries)
Fritters (dip flowers in batter, deep fry, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with sugar and eat while still warm!)
Panna cotta (made with seaweed of course!)
In jams e.g. Strawberry or Gooseberry
Gooseberry & Elderflower chutney
Remember not to strip all of the flowers from any one Elder. You want to allow some to grow into berries both for the birds and for you, but that’s another story.
I have hazy distant memories of a night out in Slovenia where we went vodka tasting. These were not just ordinary vodkas but a remarkable variety of locally-made infused or flavoured vodkas. Locally foraged ingredients such as wild strawberries, pine needles and even certain grasses had been steeped in vodka with sugar in the same manner as we make Sloe Gin. The results were amazing, all sorts of unusual, wonderful flavours, and less predictably, a rather sore head the next morning!
Back here I have made a few with Vodka, Gin, Whisky, Brandy and Rum. I currently have (separately!) Blackberry, Elderflower, Japanese Knotweed and Sloe on the go, with quite a few more on the “try” list.
These wild drinks can be drunk neat, but are better mixed such as with apple juice, soda water or tonic. There are also quite a few wild cocktail recipes that can be found on-line too. Making infused or flavoured vodkas is very straightforward though the processes do differ a little and the amount of time for the flavour to infuse also varies. Look on-line for a wild drinks recipe for the foraged ingredient that you happen to have and to see which spirit goes best with it. I also highly recommend two books which wild drinks / infusions form a part of: