Magic cure-alls – and elderberries

I’b had a code. I’b had a bad code. But becaud I’b dot a man, id wid be over soon. Seriously, this plague flu pox nasty cold comes from a nearby town and seems to affect everyone – but differently according to sex. With blokes, it’s a fortnight. With women, hee hee, oh, 48 hours… though I must admit that I’m still coughing. I have, however, had my magic solution to all colds / bugs / winter illnesses to hand, and am thanking heavens that I managed to find elderberries this autumn.

Strangely, for such a common shrub, elders are rather elusive round us. In North Yorkshire entire hedges are made of huge overgrown elders, heavy with frothy blossom in spring and bending with the weight of berries in the autumn. Near me, by contrast, nah – we guard ours. I try and spot them in the spring, marking them out closely for investigation later, and I have a few secret spots up in the hills where elders grow quite well, sheltered by abandoned farm steadings. I’m not particularly interested in making cordial, especially as each blossom removed means no berries, but they are easier to spot when they’re in flower.  And each year I also interrogate friends with elders: have they ripened? How’s the crop? Have the birds got to them? Do they want all the berries themselves, and if not pleeeeeease…..?

elderberry drinkThat’s because I need to make elderberry elixir. No, it deserves caps: Elderberry Elixir. Sneezing and sniffling, I turned up at a neighbour’s house a few years ago. She took one look at me, summoned me in, sat me down beside the stove and gave me a glass of something alcoholic, sticky and purple. It was delicious, definitely better than any cough remedy I’d encountered and, as I quickly discovered, seemed to work.

I’m not the only person to have noticed this. Elderberries have been well and properly researched and used to treat all sorts of things, not just colds. Success as an effective ‘cure-all’ might be down to the astonishingly high levels of Vitamin C they contain, as well as the fact that they are packed with antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins. It might be because of these (known or unknown) that elderberries have been seen as an effective remedy wherever they grow. They’re commonly used for all sorts of colds, coughs, bugs and bothers, and are even now being trialled in the treatment of some cancers. (In the case of my traditional recipe, I feel certain that the half litre of rum is also, er, useful.)

recipe noteI had to make my own. The recipe came to me in the form of a faded photocopy of a handwritten note. I had to fill in some gaps, but I’ve managed to make some every year since (and added my amendments – notably using less sugar – and some tweaks and extra bits and bobs). I try not to raid elders on roadsides, but if they are all I can get, they’re all I can get.

This year was not looking good; the birds had got to most of the berries before I could. And then I got a call from a friend. She’d been hacking down undergrowth and realised that there was a tall and straggly elder with plenty of berries which was now accessible. Power cables passed overhead, and that may be why the birds hadn’t gobbled up the whole crop – so I set off with a full-size shepherd’s crook (so useful for pulling down branches) and a plastic bag, prepared to deal with any I got immediately. That’s because if you pick elderberries and then leave them you soon have a bag full of grey-green fur: I know this. Off the tree, into the bag, back to the kitchen and into the pan, all within  the hour – that’s they key. Oh, and they catch quite quickly, too, when cooking – keep an eye on them.

So, as a public service, here’s the recipe – and you can use brandy or whisky instead of the rum; I’ve not tried whisky, but the brandy works a treat. My photocopy attributed this gem to Antonio Carluccio, but I’ve  not been able to track down an original. Nonetheless, let’s give him the credit. Go, Antonio!

Elderberry Elixir

2kg elderberries
200ml water
5 cardamom pods, crushed
15 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks, about 5cm long
juice and rind of a medium unwaxed lemon
750g caster sugar
500ml rum

You need a large pan – a stockpot is ideal. Strip the berries off the twiggy stems. This is easy if you run a fork down the stems and hold the bunches over the stockpot as you’re doing it; that way most of the berries go in the pot and not over the floor / walls / cat, which they will stain temporarily purple. Don’t worry about small twiggy bits. Add the water and cook the berries over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes or until the berries burst, then take the pan off the heat. Using a potato masher, squash the berries down against the base of the pan to extract the maximum amount of juice. Allow to cool a little. Suspend a jelly bag over a bowl as you would if making jelly, and carefully ladle the elderberries and all their juices into the bag. Allow it to drain overnight.

In the morning, squeeze any remaining juice into the bowl and discard the pulp; there will probably be about a litre of liquid, depending on the initial juiciness of the elderberries. Empty this into a clean pan and add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon sticks, followed by the lemon juice and rind. Cook everything together over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, then add the sugar and increase the heat a little to melt it. When the sugar has dissolved, bring the liquid up to the boil and cook it for another 5 minutes – you don’t want to reduce it as sharply as you do a jelly, but you do want to reduce it somewhat.

Let the mixture cool a little and then strain it into a bowl or large jug (it’s best to strain it through muslin rather than just relying on a sieve). Add the rum, mix it together well, and decant into sterilised bottles – I keep any good 50cl bottles during the year and use those. Seal and store; the resulting elixir keeps for a long time. In theory.

Oh yes: enjoy. And it does make colds go away. Really.

(I feel strongly about food writers who assume we all have obscure equipment lurking under our worktops but that’s probably because of editing some top chefs – ‘domesticating’ their recipes. And no, I do not have a sous-vide, surprising though that is, sunbeam, and I don’t think most domestic cooks do. OK – yet. I’ll give you that.
So here no-one
actually needs a purpose-made jelly bag. I’m still using a square of muslin tied at the corners and fixed to the legs of an upturned chair with string, though jelly bags are cheap and easy to find these days – I don’t have to behave as if I’m in a re-enactment project. But it works as well; just involves a bit more swearing.)

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4 thoughts on “Magic cure-alls – and elderberries

  1. I tried an elderberry and blackberry syrup this year, with cardamon, ginger and cinnamon, and sweetened/preserved with equal quantities of honey to berry juice. Seems to be working well.

    1. Mmm, mmm, mmm – I like the sound of that. Adding blackberries would also help me eke out inadequate elderberry supplies, and the ginger sounds fab. Glad it’s working!

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