Backyard Pharmacy - Elderflower Champagne
Yah, you heard me.
We making champagne! Poppin' bottles.
This is one of my absolute favourite recipes, and I started making it before I knew (or cared???) about all the fabulous medicinal qualities of Elderflowers.
This recipe is care of my dear friend Emma's late mum, who had the best green thumb of anyone that I've ever met. Emma is decidedly, the best person to know come the apocalypse, largely due to the skills that she has learned from her beautiful mama. Aside from being able to make Elderflower champagne, Emma can grow pretty much anything and can also spin yarn from wool! But I digress.
Come late spring to early summer, Elder trees can be seen blooming all over the world. In the Okanagan, where I currently reside, we are blooming like crazy in mid-late June. In New Zealand, where I first learned to make this delightful drink, October to early December is when you are harvesting.
The bonus of the Southern Hemisphere timing is that you can have Elderflower Champagne just in time for Christmas! There is nothing like popping a bottle of this on a hot Christmas morning.
Brewing this has all the elements of making me feel like an alchemist, or Claire from Outlander. Now all I need is a strapping young ginger man and I'm set! There is the finding and the picking of the flowers. Mixing it all together. Relying on wild yeast (hello microbiome! This is, after all, a natural health business). And then? The bubbles.
This recipe is simple and fun. And if you muck it up you can just try again next week, as the season of blossoms is pretty long. Let's get into it!
1. Find a tree.
In the Kelowna area, this is pretty easy. We have a few different varieties around, including the standard Sambucus nigra (Black elderberry, the most commonly used medicinal variety) and Sambucus cerulea, which is a more drought-tolerant species that is native to the area.
I have seen Elders in many parks and at the sides of roads. In the city and in the suburbs. There are heaps out by the Kelowna airport!
Make sure you have permission if you are picking from private property or reservation land. If you are picking from a public area, it is good to find out if they are using sprays around. Ideally you want spray-free Elderflowers. You don't want any chemicals piggy-backing on your medicine!
2. Make sure that tree is Elderflower
This is what Elder looks like up close.
The flowers are tiny and white and grow in little bunches like umbrellas. The leaves come out right across from each other, with one final leaf sticking out the end. They will grow in odd numbers (because of the end leaf), usually 5 or 7. The edges of the leaves are slightly serrated, like a bread knife.
The leaves are important because there are a few trees that have similar looking flowers.
PROPERLY IDENTIFYING a plant is the MOST IMPORTANT part of any plant-medicine-making venture. (See all the capitals I used there? This is my "I mean business" paragraph).
If you are not 153% sure that you have the right plant, just don't do it. At best, your champagne will suck. At worst, you will poison yourself and your friends when you serve it at a BBQ.
I have misidentified this plant myself, most embarrassingly at a workshop I was running on Backyard Medicine! But I was new to the area, and lots of plants look similar. Luckily, there was a local, experienced gardener about who very gently corrected me (thanks Gwen!).
So don't pull an Emily, get your plants straight!
3. Pick flowers
For this recipe, which makes about 4L of sparkly deliciousness, you will need about 10 heads of Elderflowers.
You don't want to strip any tree of all its flowers, you want to leave some to become berries in the fall (see post from last year about Elderberry Syrup!) and you want to leave some for other people, the bees, and the birds.
Wildcrafting (harvesting from the wild) is super fun and rewarding, but needs to be done responsibly. (Serious Emily paragraph #2)
4. Make Champagne!
I am now going to abandon this numbered list and just give you the recipe.
Note that this isn't something that you make in one day. From picking to drinking this is more like a minimum 2 week situation. Just a heads up.
10 heads elderflowers
3 lemons, juice and rind (ideally organic)
450g sugar (sorry but white works best)
4.5 L water
1tbsp cream of tartar or white vinegar
1 large soup pot
2 x plastic 2L bottles, clean!
Shake the bugs out of your elderflowers. There will be many. Do this outside. Or don't worry too much. I have drank many, many bugs in my elderflower over the years :)
In a large soup pot, add 1L of boiling water
Add sugar to the pot and stir until dissolved
Add the other 3.5L of cold water
Add your cream of tartar or vinegar
Add the elderflowers
Chop the lemons and squeeze the juice into your pot. Add in the rinds too for extra flavour and all the bioflavonoids!
Cover the pot with a lid or a clean tea towel and let sit out for 24-48 hours. It doesn't need to be a tight lid, just something to keep the bugs out
After 24-48 hours, strain out the liquid and bottle into 2L bottles
Screw the lids on tight and let them sit where you can keep an eye on them for 1-6 (or more!) weeks. The longer you leave it, the more the yeast will eat up the sugar, and the dryer and more alcoholic of a drink you will have. In saying that, I've left some for 8 weeks and never get more than a very mild buzz out of it.
If leaving for more than a week, it is a good idea to open the bottles a smidge to let the pressure out occasionally.
Depending on the wild yeasts in your area, this drink only ever becomes very mildly alcoholic. I have definitely served it to kids after a couple weeks of fermenting. I think of it more like a (non-alcoholic) ginger beer.
In saying that, I bet it would make a fabulous wine spritzer!
And if you want more where this came from and to be first in the know for when I get my sh*t together and start running workshops to make fun things like this, then sign up for my email newsletter.
I did the lemons first. It doesn't really matter.
Straining is always the messiest part. Note my super specialized equipment, including a sieve, a soup ladle, my blender, and a roasting dish to contain the stickiness.
If I had a funnel my life would be easier, but that's the life of a low-tech. Instead I poured it into a measuring jug and carefully poured that in to the bottle.
And now, we wait.
Special thanks to Erwin (who is not a strapping Scottish ginger, but a dark and handsome kiwi. He'll do.) for drawing me some pretty labels with very minimal art supplies, aka 2 pens.
A big thank you to woodlandtrust.org.uk for the help with how to explain Elder leaves!
And to my dear friend Emma and her lovely mum for first sharing this recipe with me. Love ya!