Caught by the River

The Wild Flower Calendar

Mathew Clayton | 5th July 2013


June – Elderflower

Illustration: Greg Stevenson
Words: Mathew Clayton

When i was in my early twenties, and new to London, i lived in a shared house on Brixton Hill with a bunch of people i didn’t really know. One summer morning i was in the kitchen making breakfast, when Patrick, a tall gay skinhead who had a bedroom on the first floor, walked in.
‘What did you do last night?’ I asked.
‘I went to Clapham Common’ he replied.
‘No way – i was also there. What were you doing?’ I naively asked.
‘I was having sex with a policeman in the bushes. What were you doing?’
‘I was picking elderflowers’ I replied.
Patrick raised an eyebrow.

I have been making elderflower cordial off and on since i was a teenager. It is very simple to do, the trickiest bit, and something never mentioned in Sunday supplement recipes, is getting hold of citric acid. You will need to buy this from a chemist, but not many places stock it – supposedly because it is used by junkies.

Finding the flowers is easier. The elder is one of those trees that you see growing at the side of parks, on the roadside or in hedges. They always looks a bit of a mess. The tiny white flowers grow in umbells (like an umbrella blown inside out) about 5-10cm across at the widest point. The easiest way to check you have got the right plant is simply to smell the flowers. You can also check the leaves – they should be growing in opposing pairs.

The trick to making decent tasting cordial is getting the right balance between the acid, the sugar and the elderflower flavour. And the best way to do this is simply by taste. Don’t be afraid of adding more sugar or acid – you are searching for a point where none of them dominates. I have never bothered sterilising bottles, i just keep it in the fridge and drink it quickly. Alternatively you can freeze it. The flavour is a lot more floral than the stuff you can buy in supermarkets.

25 flower heads
1kg of sugar
2 heaped teaspoons of citric acid
3 unwaxed lemons
1.5 litres of water

1. Warm the water and add the sugar and citric acid.
2. When fully dissolved put in a large bowl and add the flower heads.
3. Zest the lemons then chop them up and add the lot to the mixture.
4. Leave overnight, then strain into a bottle through a muslin or tea cloth.

Bingo you are done.

– don’t worry about leaving the mixture for longer. I have left it for a couple of days in the past.
– one year i couldn’t get citric acid so i just added lots more lemons.
– you might need to first wash the elderflowers in case they have bugs on them.

Artist signed prints of Elderflower, and other illustrations from Greg and Mathew’s Wild Flower Calendar, can be found in the Caught by the River Print Shop.