by Keith Davis – Director of F&B (aka Forager Extraordinaire)
There appears to be something mystical about Elderberries. Many people have heard of them, but when you really start to ask them what Elderberries are and what they look like, you get a kind of stare. And when you ask them if they have ever EATEN Elderberries, few people have. Well, you are missing something delicious if you have never tried Elderberries. So what are they and where can you find them?
In spring, the Elderberries bloom and the flowers turn to green unripe fruit.
Elderberry, or Sambucus, is a shrub in the honeysuckle family. They can grow as tall as 10 feet and are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the winter. They grow near wetlands, along damp roadsides, and easily can be located in the spring when flowering, which is what I do. The flowers look like one big flower head, but upon closer observation, you will find they really are a cluster of tiny white flowers. By the way, these flowers are edible and can be used to make a jelly, but I have not done so. These flowers are also used to make the liquor St. Germain. The flowers turn to little green and round seed pods which eventually ripen around the end of August and early September. They are ripe when the green pods turn from green to a deep black/purple, and the upward facing bunch of berries droops over toward the ground. Once you know what they are, they can easily be identified. To learn more:
As I have said in previous posts, when I was a young boy, my grandfather used to take me out to pick berries. We picked blackberries, black raspberries, wild cherries, and yes, Elderberries. He was the first person to teach me that the little bunches of round berries could be just wonderful as jam. But I also remember my mother toiling over getting the juice out of the berries, which can really be a chore.
When I go out to forage for Elderberries, I review my notes where earlier in the season I saw the white flowers blooming. I check each spot periodically, but find the areas in full sun will ripen first, though the whole bush doesn’t ripen at one time. I carefully pick only the deep dark purple clusters with my shearers, and place them in a 5 gallon bucket.
Elderberries in my kitchen that my youngest son and I foraged. Ready to be plucked and then cooked down.
Foraging is actually the easy step. Processing Elderberries takes a lot of time and effort. Once you pick the clusters, you then need to pull them from the clusters, and separate out the unripened fruit. You also need to wear gloves when handling the berries or it will look like you lost a battle with your ink pen. Next, they need washed and cooked. Then, and this is the hardest step, you have to extract the juice from the cooked fruit to remove the seeds and skins. When I say this is a chore, I mean it’s not an easy feat. Generally you have to put the pulp in cheese or cotton cloth, and squeeze the juice until it starts to fill the bowl underneath. Black Gold! Now it is ready for processing. I usually add lemon juice, sugar, and put back on the stove to bring to a boil and make syrup. If it will be jam, I add pectin.
See the following for greater details:
Elderberries for many are harvested for medicinal purposes. They are full of vitamins A and C, Calcium, Potassium and Iron. Some books say mention they contain anti-viral compounds that may be useful in treating influenza, or that the syrup helps to boost the immune system. This may be true, but for me, it’s all about that wonderful distinctive taste.