What are they?
They are the lacy, umbrella-like sprays of flowers that bloom on a medium-sized shrub from spring to autumn. These aromatic flowers have been used in kitchens since Roman times and have had a culinary renaissance with the rise of ferment culture. The botanic name for the genus is Sambucus, and when you know that the two common botanical flavourings in Sambuca liqueur are anise and elderberries, you will never forget the genus name for the shrub again. Most of the species found in Australia were garden species that naturalised, becoming roadside weeds. There are indigenous species that grow on the edge of rainforests in NSW and the Otway Ranges in Victoria and are important bush foods.
Why do we love them?
The aromatic flowers are ephemeral and a sign that spring has arrived. They grow on the sides of country lanes and on the edge of native forest. Elderflowers have a subtle aroma that can be infused very easily into water, sugar syrups, batters, and other liquids. It has a mild perfume that builds slowly with lots of mid notes – like a floral cello quartet. Rich in bioflavonoids, elderflowers are considered natural anti-inflammatories and are used in traditional medicine as a topical antibiotic.
Who uses them?
Annie Smithers of Du Fermier restaurant, in the central Victorian town of Trentham, not only harvests elderflowers from the laneways around her farm, Babbington Park, but she has planted black elder, Sambucus Nigra, whose flowers are pink and impart a dusky pink hue to cordials and drinks. "I use elderflower in my sorbets, jellies, gelati and cordials," says the chef and farmer. "The flowers also add an aromatic decoration to lightly cured kingfish." A few years ago Jordan Toft, executive chef at Bert's in Sydney's Newport, made a splash with a delicate pavlova decorated with thyme leaves and elderflower petals. Distiller Archie Rose uses elderflower as one of the botanicals alongside NSW pears and rose petals in its Distiller's Strength Gin. And Fika Kitchen in Manly serves a mango and elderflower chia pudding with nut and seed granola, berries and freeze-dried raspberries.
Katrina Meynink's lemon and elderflower slice. Photo: Katrina Meynink
How do you use it?
Elderflowers (and the berries that ripen in autumn) are mildly toxic but heat destroys the toxins. Elderflowers make delicious cordial that is exceptionally good with gin, ice and soda on a warm afternoon. The more adventurous may want to make elderflower champagne, a naturally bubbly, lightly alcoholic drink made in a similar way to ginger beer. Elderflower kombucha is a refreshing drink and easy to ferment at home. The Bavarians love making a light yeasted batter into which the heads of elderflowers are dipped and then deep-fried. Served with strawberries and soured milk and a glass of wheat beer, they are quite delicious. For Melbourne Cup Day, make a Long Odds champagne cocktail using St Germaine elderflower liqueur, a pavlova with elderflower cordial-flavoured creme fraiche or try a lemon and elderflower slice for dessert.
Where do you get it?
The buds have burst in warmer regions, with flowers expected to bloom in cooler climes later this month. If you're foraging, grab a basket and secateurs and get an early start before insects have harvested the pollen. Look for bright cream-coloured blooms in hedges and forest edges. Otherwise, check the farmers' markets and Harris Farms in a few weeks' time. You can buy dried flowers from herbcottage.com.au or inquire at petiteingredient.com.au, based in the Yarra Valley, where the season should start soon.