September and we are nudging towards autumn … the season of mist and mellow fruitful ness.
Having picked elderflowers to make elderflower cordial earlier this year, it made sense to revisit the same shrubs this time to pick the elderberries.
Elderberries have been eaten for thousands of years – and rightly so.
They are an excellent source of vitamin C, as well as vitamins A & B.
Elderberry is used for its antioxidant activity, to lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health and for coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections and tonsilitis.
Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell.
Apparently, elderberry juice was used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in 1995!
It’s really important only to pick ripe (purple-black) elderberries. You can tell they’re ripe because the fruits will be hanging downwards and will be plump, rather than being above the branch and hard.
Avoid green and green-purple berries as these are unripe and contain traces of cyanide, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea. In some sensitive people, even ripe fruit will do this. However, cooking removes this problem.
In fact, I did eat a couple of raw berries just to be sure … and dear reader, I am pleased to say I lived to tell the tale.
Pick the berries on their twig: you’ll need a pair of small, sharp scissors. Nail scissors are perfect! Leave the job of taking the berries off the stalks until you are home.
Stripping the berries from the stalks is easily done by raking a fork through the berries or you can just use your fingers. Stains are washed off without any problems.
Another reason for cooking the elderberries, in addition to destroying the traces of cyanide, is that the raw fruit is tart and really must be cooked to come into its own.
Is it worth it?
Compared with elderflowers and blackberries, picking elderberries is perhaps less rewarding. The berries seem less prolific than the flowers (why is that – did the birds get their before me or is there another explanation?), and the fruit is small and seedy.
265g of berries (about half a small carrier bag) on their stalks yielded 190g of berries and once cooked down with a little sugar all that was left was a tiny bowl of cooked fruit in quite a lot of liquid.
So you can imagine to you’d need to pick a lot of berries to make up a couple of jars of jam or jelly. Then again, elderberries are probably best used as an “extra”, to complement other ingredients and flavours rather than as the main ingredient.
On balance, I believe that the drawback of less easy picking and more fiddly preparation than for example blackberries, is outweighed by the elderberry’s distinctive taste which is quite difficult to describe.
The cooked berries remind me of the cordial you make from the flowerheads, but more haunting and less fresh – if that makes sense. Very autumnal I guess.
I experimented with apple + elderberry “strudel” using feuilles de brick (paper thin Mediterranean pastry sheets) but this wasn’t a success because the filling was too wet. Hence no recipe or picture!
Later this week, I’ll have another go and think this time I’ll leave the berries whole instead and fold them at the last minute through the apple filling.
Another idea is to use the berries in a savoury sauce to serve with game: on my “to try” list are venison steaks with elderberry sauce and a celeriac gratin.
Have you cooked with elderberries? Worth it?
I’d love to hear about it and read your recipes.