Hedgerows are gleaming with the creamy, lacy flowers of the Elder

Picking elderflower.
Picking elderflower.

The best things in life are free and the countryside is ripe for the pillaging at the moment.

Hedgerows gleam with the creamy, lacy flowers of the Elder.

Seamus Heaney in his poem “Glanmore Sonnets” refers to the elder as the boortree bush: “It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank and snapping memory as I get older. I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal.”

I was in the Lazio region in the south of Italy a couple of weeks ago and their landscape is similarly littered with the floral bushes. There the bush is known as Sambuca. When I worked in MacDuff’s restaurant in Aghadowey in the early eighties, drinking Sambuca was the big thing. A shot glass was filled, three coffee beans added to represent health, wealth and happiness and the top was set alight. The lights would have been turned off temporarily to show off the violet flames and heighten the drama. Nowadays a risk assessment and health and safety measures would put paid to this theatricality! Sambuca is made from the dark as night elderberries that appear around the end of September but the focus now should be on preserving the flowers. Elderflower cordial is probably one of the most common methods of using the flowers but last year I pickled the flowers to great effect. Pick the flowers, remove excess stalks and place in a scrupulously clean kilner jar. Top with a good quality cider vinegar and store in the fridge. I had a jar from last year that perfectly captures the essence of these summer flowers. Use the vinegar in sauces or dressings. It works particularly well with oily fish.

If you want to push the boat out a bit, my first recipe this week is for an Elderflower Champagne. All you need is a clean bucket, a demijohn, some bottles and sugar and you’ll end up with a slightly alcoholic, deliciously refreshing drink.

Serendipitously local rhubarb, strawberries and elderflowers are all in season now. Nothing says summer like a big trifle. My recipe uses all these ingredients – a light sponge soaked in Prosecco and lemon syrup, topped with a quivery strawberry jelly, elderflower poached rhubarb and a Prosecco custard cream. Garnish with strawberries and elderflowers – much more natural than hundreds and thousands!

The flat wild garlic leaves that scented the air beside rivers and sheughs are gone now and their delicate white flowers have given way to green buds. These buds can be washed, pulled off the stem with a fork, pickled in vinegar and stored in sterilized jars for the winter months. Three or four buds will flavour a dish with a deep, zingy garlic aroma and they cost nothing... Add them to roast chicken, grilled steaks, pork or vegetables for a luscious garlic hit. Alternatively you can make them into a butter now and freeze. The mixture will retain it’s pungency for a couple of months in the freezer but after that, use the pickled variety. Boil 200ml white wine with a chopped onion until all the liquid has disappeared and then whizz with a tablespoon of wild garlic buds, a handful of parsley and 250g soft butter.

Food for free – what could be better?