With a wide natural range, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, this UK native plant features heavily in folklore and tales vary from region to region. Some myths say that the elder tree can ward off evil spirits or provide protection from witches. Conversely, some suggest that witches often amass under the trees, especially when they are full of fruit (which is right about now actually)! Burning elder could cause you to see the devil but growing elder near your home may keep the devil away… It certainly has a colourful and interesting history, but elder also has a long history in food and drink. Many of you will have tried elderflower cordials, perhaps wines and even well-known liqueurs like St Germain, but it times gone by even humble, hollow elder twigs have been inserted into bladders to fashion make-shift bellows to start cooking fires and used as spiles for tapping maple trees to harvest sap. However, should you try either of those, be sure to chant a rhyme to the Elder Mother as legend has it that elder can only be safely cut when doing so, otherwise the Elder Mother may well take her revenge upon you!
At Slake, we harvest the elderberries in mid to late August to infuse into our Hedgerow Gin. They contain a range of volatile organic compounds and provide a complex aroma that imparts an earthy, green and dark fruit flavour to the Gin. However, care must be taken when using elder in food and drink. Indeed, all foods that are new to you, whether foraged or not, are worth testing first in small quantities as everyone reacts differently and can tolerate greater or lesser amounts. When elder fruits ripen they darken to red and then almost black, even the stems start to turn red. This ripening also indicates increasing levels of flavonoids that includes cyanidin glycosides and derivatives. Of note are sambunigrin, a cyanide producing compound and sambucine, a poisonous alkaloid, but before you get unduly concerned, these components can be broken down safely by cooking and heating.
Besides their culinary uses, elder berries have been used medicinally too, often as a syrup for coughs and colds. In fact, in more recent times elderberry extracts have been shown to have powerful anti-viral properties. Elder is a fascinating plant with a rich history and many uses, but above all for me it perfectly demonstrates the continuum between poisonous, edible and medicinal. The shades of grey that so many plants and foods we consume exist within because of incredibly complex plant chemistry. Many plants have adapted to become finely-tuned and efficient chemical factories, producing clever compounds often as defense mechanisms against predators or even as a means of communication. Yet to us, provide nutrition, flavour and even medicine, but of course, can also cause us harm. A great example of how the black and white marketing slogans we often see batted around the media ‘X is good for you, Y is bad for you’ simply cannot capture the depth, complexity and context of even one plant and all it’s uses. So, I would like to invite you on an adventure, that will broaden horizons and illuminate the ‘grey areas’ as we explore booze and botany together. Thirsty for knowledge we’ll continue to chart our own course pursuing the boundaries of flavour with your feedback as our compass. Share our journey as we attempt to slake an insatiable curiosity together.