It’s 8am and my hands smell of elderflower and lemon.
Why? Because it’s Midsummer, and it is both, traditional and opportune to go hunting for the short-blooming elderflowers, and capture the scent of summer.
For the uninitiated, Midsummer is a major Swedish holiday celebrated the weekend after Summer Solstice (June 22nd). It involves a lot of drinking, normally at summer houses or parks or anywhere, really, food (salmon and various seafood is traditional). It is a fertility festival, and therefore sex is also encouraged, though, of course, not obligatory. Swedes are just not dogmatic enough to make it so, you know? Other traditions of note are dancing around a flower-decorated phallic symbol while pretending to be little frogs (don’t ask, I don’t know, but seeing old men do it ought to be prescribed as anti-depressant treatment – I’m not depressed, but that much laughter has got to be good for anyone!).
Among other things, it is around Midsummer that Elderflower (aka fläder, or Sambucus nigra) flowers for about a week or two – the bloom may come earlier further South, or later in the North, but here in Stockholm, it is in full bloom right now, and the scent is simply put, amazing. How does it smell? It’s hard to describe, but citrusy, spicy and aromatic is the best I can come up with. If you are really curious, buy a bottle of elderflower cordial and sniff it – then up that by an order of magnitude and lushness, and that is what fresh elderflowers smell like. Better yet – unlike the (usually expensive) cordial, if you are lucky enough to have a bush around, they are also for free (or for the price of effort of going up to the bush with a bag and ripping the freshly-opened inflorescences off into said bag).
Where am I going with it? Well, not very far. The bush is just across the street from our house, after all! And then, to the kitchen. Where I have a few pressure-lid glass jars mildly sterilized by rinsing them out with boiling water, a lemon, and a bottle of vodka. Today, I am making elderflower infused vodka, and elderflower lemonade.
The general directions for infusing vodka with fruit are in this post, but elderflower has a few specific quirks that I feel I should address before getting to the recipe and directions.
One, elderflowers open at sunrise, and so should be harvested before noon, and preferably early in the morning, because after the heat of the day starts, the fragrance deteriorates and fades. Hence the trip out to the bush before 9am. The inflorescences snap off easily, so you do not need anything but your hands and a bag or basket to collect them into. You also do not need much – the scent is strong, and you can only pack so many of the flowers into a jar without squishing them.
…Which brings me to point two – elderflowers are as delicate as they look. The flowers and fragrance deteriorate quickly if they are heated, or left open to air, or distressed in any way. Which, by the way, is why I still haven’t figured out how to make elderflower syrup – how would I do it without heating? On the other hand, I do know how to make elderflower-infused vodka. And lemonade.
Let’s begin with the boozier option!
So, what do you need?
- A jar with a press lid (glass with a rubber band to seal hermetically), sterilized by a boiling-water rinse. I use a 500ml jar.
- A glass bottle (for putting the finished product in – I save the bottle the vodka came in)
- A coffee filter (single-use paper, or a multiple-use plastic, which is better)
- A funnel
- for 500ml jar, 350ml plain vodka. Otherwise, increase proportionally to size of jar and desired quantity of alcohol.
- 1/3 of a lemon. Obviously, more of said lemon for larger amount of alcohol/bigger jar.
- 6-9 elderflower inflorescences (enough to pack into the jar nearly to capacity without squishing) – size of those varies, so get extra (you can always use the remaining ones to make elderflower lemonade – recipe follows)
- 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
What to do?
- Make sure your jar is cooled down to room temperature (do not use hot).
- Scizzor the flowers off the larger stems into the jar – they will fall apart into 2-3cm clumps. Cut enough flowers to fill the jar to within 2cm of the top (for my low jar – it can be as much as 5-7cm if you are using a large jar, say 1L). Prod lightly with fingertips but do not pack hard, nor, little green apples forbid, squish them!
- Cut off 1/3 of a large lemon and squeeze the juice over the flowers. Slice off a thin ribbon of zest (no white pith if you can avoid it) and add to the jar.
- Pour in your vodka and make sure the flowers are all covered. You can prod them into the liquid with a finger or the back of a chopstick if they are not cooperating.
- Seal the jar and put in the back of the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks. You can take it out and shake it occasionally but do not open during that time.
- Once the 2-3 weeks are up, remove jar from fridge, filter through a coffee filter and pour into a bottle using a funnel.
- If using sugar, add that to the liquid by putting it into the funnel and rinsing down into the bottle. In case of using sugar, bottle should stand in a dark spot (fridge or pantry) until sugar is dissolved. If no sugar is used, the vodka is ready to use immediately – or as soon as you get it ice-cold in your freezer!
Elderflower Lemonade (or, a way to use up all those extra flowers
you I have picked so greedily)
(Which, as an added bonus, does not take weeks to be ready!)
- Snip remaining flowers into a pitcher or large jar.
- Slice a couple of slices off the remaining lemon and reserve.
- Squeeze the rest of the lemon into the pitcher on top of the flowers.
- Add 2-4 tablespoons of sugar per 1-1.5L, depending on how sweet you like it.
- Fill the pitcher with cold water, or (if you are using a closing jar or if your pitcher has a good lid) sparkling water.
- Drop the lemon slices on top of the flowers in the pitcher, and cover.
- Place in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours. Filter through a mesh sieve before drinking – this will be a little more cloudy than the coffee-filter filtered alcohol.
- If the day is very hot, serve over ice.