September 2009 – Elderberries are a frequent ‘by-catch’ for the autumn mushroom forayer…
Even the most confirmed urbanite will instantly recognise the heavy dense clusters of black berries hanging from hedgerows in early autumn. Elder is one of the commonest shrubby trees along canals, railway cuttings and on waste ground. Most people will also probably have tried eating a handful of the berries, only to find them a little bland and sour compared with the fruit on the brambles beneath.
This is a reasonable assessment of their raw qualities, but when cooked they become much more interesting, not least because they have proven medicinal qualities. One reason is they are rich in viburnic acid which mild sweating. This, coupled with the vitamin C means it used to be valued in the early treatment of colds and bronchitis.
Our ancestors used to store this by boiling berries with a few cloves in just enough water to cover for 30 minutes, straining the juice, mixing 50/50 with sugar and bottling. The resulting cordial can then be taken by the teaspoon as a tonic, used like cassis to flavour wine or mixed with honey and whisky as the base for a hot drink.
Or, of course, you can turn them into a heavy hedgerow wine. Indeed, for centuries elderberry wine was used to adulterate (or even improve) cheap port, so much so that elder orchards were once cultivated in Kent and planting was banned in Portugal!