Culinary Calendar: June

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The thing about June is, it’s all too easy to get carried away by the prospect of glorious summery foods to come. Strawberries, peaches, cucumbers … the list could go on and they all seem just so darn tasty and refreshing and yum. And yet – whilst shops and restaurants may succeed in getting these (and others) onto shelves and menus this month, it is later in the summer that the strawberries will be at their most headily sweet; the peaches at their juiciest; the cucumbers with such depth of flavour and smell they seem to give the lie to being 90% water.  We can afford to bide our time for those, but June is last-chance saloon for making the most of one particular British crop – the elderflower.

Or at least, June is our last chance for picking elderflower. Before the warmth and the wind reduce these elegantly prim, lacey heads to a carpet of, well, white fluff. This need not be our last chance for enjoying elderflower. Get cordial-making now and a very pleasing summer stretches ahead with all kinds of elderflower-enhanced deliciousness.

Elderflower cordial

Elderflower is best picked on a dry, not too hot, day when its flavour will be at the max. Rainy days are no good at all for elderflowering. The trees/bushes are plentifully all over the place and – with a pic as your guide if at all uncertain – you should be able to spot them easily enough. Their distinctive smell is a give-away too. If you are not sure what you are looking at really is elderflower, don’t take the risk. Buy some cordial instead. There are increasingly some very good ones on the market. The elderflower cordial from Belvoir Fruit Farms is widely available, excellent, and has an ingredient list not too different from this:

Elderflower Cordial (makes approx 1 litre)

15 elderflower heads
2 lemons
500g caster sugar
30g citric acid – available from chemists
850ml boiling water

1. Shake the elderflower heads to encourage any little creepy-crawlies to crawl away. Set aside.

2. Prepare the lemons by slicing into quarters and running your thumb between the pith and the fruit to release the flesh. Cut the lemon chunks in half and add to a big pot with the sugar and citric acid. Pour the water over and stir. Immerse the elderflowers fully in the water.

3. Cover and steep for 24 hours before straining out through a fine sieve or muslin. Pour into two sterilised 500ml bottles.

The cordial will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks or can be frozen for a couple of months (don’t fill the bottles right up if you’re freezing it).

So now -cordial stash taken care of – what are you going to do with it? Here are just a few ideas.

Elderflower illustrationDrinks first. Elderflower cordial built over ice with sparkling water and sprigs of lavender, mint or lemon thyme will be a heck of refresher on hot days.  Martinis can be given a light, summery twist with the addition of half a teaspoon or so of elderflower cordial into the cocktail tin. Maybe try a little added to your G&T or a glass of champagne.

I am a long-term madeleine-lover and seem to be more so than ever at the moment. There’s something very pleasing indeed about making the mixture ahead of time and then quickly baking these sponge-like beauties right before you want to eat them. (Fresh out of the oven with barely time for a dusting of icing sugar is when they are absolutely at their very best.) With summer’s arrival I know elderflower madeleines are going to be my most-made by simply adding 2tsps of cordial to the basic dozen madeleine recipe.

Elderflower cordial makes terrific ice-cream. I don’t like its flavour to be too overwhelming – 80ml of cordial is enough for a basic 3-egg vanilla ice-cream recipe, poured in at the point when the cream and the custard get mixed together pre-churning. That ice-cream goes well with summer tarts, or spooned over baked summer fruits with fingers of lavender shortbread alongside. Gooseberries gently poached in sugar are crying out for a scoop of it.

Elderflower and gooseberry is one of cooking’s most successful and enduring flavour marriages even though their seasons don’t overlap for very long. Any June menu which features frittered elderflower heads served with poached gooseberries is pretty much guaranteed my order. As summer progresses and the gooseberries sweeten, it is the cordial you will need for adding elderflower’s Muscat-like magic to gooseberry tarts, crumbles and fools.

Amongst all this talk of cordial it seems only right to give due credit to that other very fine way to get your summer elderflower hit – St Germain elderflower liqueur. Fab for cocktails or into a creamy, boozy sabayon to serve with poached pears or griddled apricots. Cordial is very well and all, but sometimes you want just a little something extra.

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