By Nicholas Balfe
Life in bloom
It’s funny how food conjures up memories of childhood. For some it’s jam roly poly in the school canteen, For others, it’s fish and chips after football practice. For me, my most vivid food memory is of elderflower fritters at my grandmother’s house in Devon. I can see them sizzling away in the frying pan, then being desperate to grab one as they sat draining on kitchen paper, still too hot to hold…
One of the reasons it’s stuck with me perhaps, was that the memories include not only the eating, but a ritual that came before it. I remember walking down little back roads on an early summer evening, picking the strongly scented flowers directly from the trees, with Dad lifting me up so I could reach the branches.
To this day, the heady, floral musk of elderflower is one of the most evocative smells I know. The sweet perfume infuses beautifully into syrups which can then in turn be used to flavour cocktails, sorbets, creams and jellies. Elderflower can also add interesting meadowy top notes to salad dressings when steeped in vinegar. Or ferment with sugar and water to make Champagne – could there be a more fitting way to celebrate the glorious English summer?
These days I’m on the look out for budding elder trees from the end of May. At work we call it Elder Watch – where every cycle ride, train journey or walk in the park might lead you past some early blossom. The seasons may well have been a bit wonky this year, but by now – even with only a couple of short bouts of sunshine – all the elder trees are in full bloom. There’s plenty to go around too. In fact, once you’ve spotted one, you’ll more than likely be spotting them all over the place – look out for the white umbrella-like sprays facing upwards from the trees.
Basic Elderflower Syrup (Makes approximately 1.5 litres)
The essence of summer. With a splash of white wine, this syrup makes a wonderful jelly, especially when paired with tart gooseberries or juicy strawberries. It also has an uncanny ability to make soft drinks seem grown-up whilst making cocktails feel childlike. Alternatively, use in the cake recipe below.
- 30 heads of elderflower in full bloom
- 1 litre of water
- 1.5kg caster sugar
- l lemon (zest & juice)
- 1 tsp citric acid (optional, available in the Nour Cash and Carry)
Strip the flowers off the stalks with a fork into a clean bucket or container. A few bits of stalk are fine, but too many may give a slightly ‘green’ flavour. Meanwhile, make a syrup by gently heating the water and sugar, until all the sugar has dissolved. When the syrup has reached a simmer, take off the heat, add the lemon zest and pour over the flowers. Add the lemon juice and citric acid if using, and stir a few times. Cover and leave overnight to infuse. The next day, strain out the liquid through a sieve into clean jars or bottles and discard the flowers and lemon zest. The liquid will keep for a week or more in the fridge or longer if sterilised.
Elderflower, Polenta & Almond Cake (serves 8)
A wonderfully light, moist cake that stays fresh for ages. On its own, it’s wheat and dairy free – dare I say healthy? – although it partners up well with cream fraiche, mascarpone flavoured with a little more elderflower syrup, or perhaps a scoop of ice cream. Perfect for a midsummer’s tea party.
- 120g ground almonds
- 100g polenta
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
- 170g caster sugar
- 170ml vegetable oil
- zest of 4 lemons and juice of 2
- 150ml elderflower syrup
Line a 25cm loose-bottomed circular cake tin with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 180c. Combine the almonds, polenta and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, caster sugar, vegetable oil and lemon zest. Add the dry ingredients, and beat together. The mixture will be very thick. Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into almond, sugar and vegetable oil mixture in three batches, so the two are evenly combined. Bake in the middle shelf of the oven for 35 – 40 minutes. When a skewer poked into the centre of the cake comes out clean, the cake is done.
While the cake is still warm, make holes all over the top using a skewer or fork. Mix the lemon juice and elderflower syrup together, and pour all over the top of the cake, guiding the liquid into the holes. Serve with crème fraiche, mascarpone, ice cream, or on its own.