It’s a sad fact that the luscious colour and plumpness of autumn’s elderberries do not deliver the fragrance or flavour of the elder flowers that have preceded them. They are also considered dangerous to eat raw or undercooked, so avoid the common advice to strew them into muffins or apple pies as they might not cook enough to be safe. However, their flavour reduces when cooked, in much the same way as blueberries. All in all, the trouble to collect and cook them is rarely repaid in the same way as with sloes, damsons or bullaces.
But when it comes to colour, elderberries have few parallels. So, adding them to chutney, pickles, ketchups, sauces or jams that will be long-cooked is highly recommended. Be warned, however – too many can add bitterness.
Elderberries are in season and ready for picking from around August to October.
Choose the best
As with all foraged products, pick only those that are plump, well-coloured and have no evidence of bird or other damage. It’s worth taking secateurs, rubber gloves and sealable containers/ plastic bags, because the juice stains badly. Remove all trace of green stalks.
Elderberries are best used very quickly but if they do need to be stored, refrigeration is recommended. Wrap well to avoid any trickles of staining juice.
You must cook elderberries before eating them. Their bitterness is improved by the addition fo sweet spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg. The best use of elderberries is to make a spiced red wine – with aging, it can taste like a very good Rhone or Burgundy red.
Marinating raw elderberries in gin or vodka is not recommended. However, you could cook them with very little water or cider, gently strain off the liquid, sweeten that and then bottle the syrup with gin and vodka and let the mixture improve in a cool, dark place for a few months. You could also try adding a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, black peppercorns, a small piece of fresh chilli and cardamom pods to each bottle. The colour will be great but the flavour nowhere near that of macerated spirits made with other foraged berries.
Read our guide on how to pick and cook elderberries.