Wild elders: a forager's feast
1st May, 2008
From its flowers and berries to the fungi littering its branches, the elder is a one-tree feast, says Fergus Drennan
Respect your elders. Amid the kaleidoscopic plethora of often contradictory mottos to inspire and safely guide us purposefully through life, few have the capacity to ground us so deeply in a shared past that determines our collective future, while simultaneously threatening such deleterious consequences if ignored.
Scratch only gently below the surface of this phrase and Mother Earth, the supreme Elder, accumulates beneath the nails. We realise, locked into a symbiotic dance with her myriad offspring, the whole web of life, that we are kith and kin to the core. Respecting our ancestors, our full biological inheritance, is to learn from them the secret dance of symbiosis, reciprocity and natural balance. Foraging is my dance, and Lady Ellhorn, Hylde-moes, Old Gal, Lady Elder, Sambucus nigra the best dance partner I know.
I want to celebrate the elder tree and the accompanying veil of springtime warmth and light by sharing a recipe with you. And yet, in trying to select just one elderflower based recipe, I have been racking my brains until the little white flowers danced before my eyes – not for want of recipes but, on the contrary, because there are almost countless possibilities.
Elder gives so generously of its flowers, berries and withered, branch-laden fungi that the scope for creativity in the kitchen is enormous. Speaking of the flowers alone, used fresh, raw, cooked, whole, dried or powdered these fragrantly clustered sunny miracles can be used for wine, champagne, cordials, salads, fritters, sorbet, ice-cream, cakes, biscuits, milk puddings, jellies, jams, sweets, tea, vinegar, sweet and sour meat dishes or simply placed in the hair as you dance naked around the Beltane fire!
Then, remembering once having made delicious shortbread biscuits using entirely conventional ingredients except for 30 per cent powdered elderflowers for the flour mix, I wondered how one might make such a common food item if all conventional food supplies could no longer be taken for granted, while at the same time endeavouring to create as little negative environmental impact as possible. Here is the result – a taste of the kind of things I’ll be up to throughout my 100 per cent wild food year and a dedicated exercise in learning not to take food for granted.
Wild Thing's Elderflower Biscuits – for a Mad Hatter’s tea party
Makes 10-20 biscuits, depending on their size
50g pollen-laden elderflowers, dried and ground
150g wild flour (40 per cent powdered rhizome of reed mace, 40 per cent calcium oxalate-leached powdered Lords and Ladies tubers, 20 per cent tannin-leached powdered acorns)
50g escaped hand-winnowed ‘wild’ oats, rolled
150g solar-evaporated, 5x concentrated, low-acidity wild apple juice
60g (after shell-removal) of fresh, strandline cuttlefish egg (NB washed and powdered strandline shells can be used as a calcium supplement or as an addition to flour)
30g air- or sun-dried wild apple (not brittle-dry), finely chopped
100g pure anti-culture of waste roadkill badger fat (NB use the intestines and meat for sausages, the skin to make boots or for your mad hat, and the bones to make... Well, I wasn’t sure, but my friend Kris has asked me for them so he can make knife handles)
A pinch solar-evaporated sea salt
First get on your bicycle and find your ingredients. Gather the lesser or greater reed mace rhizomes from clean rivers between November and March. This is also the best time for finding badgers laden with winter fat (a friend just called me this second as I was writing; I answered the phone to a greeting of ‘Hello, this is your local badger patrol’). Remove the fat from the back area (about 1kg from a large one), chop and grind to a pulp with boiled water; strain through a pillowcase to remove fat cell membranes and return to a large pan of boiling water, whisking in the melted fat. Cover and leave outside to set on a frosty night. Remove solidified fat that forms on the water’s surface and repeat process from whisking onwards (to remove unwanted flavours).
Collect the acorns in October. Shell, crush, place in a double-layered pillowcase (i.e. one inside the other), tie and leave in a clean, flowing river for six weeks. Dry and finely grind. Collect the elderflowers from late April to June (usually May – last year was the first time I’ve ever made elderflower cordial in April). Remove flowers from the stem, lay spread out on newspaper and dry in an airing cupboard. This can occasionally be done in the sun. They may turn brownish but don’t worry.
Dig for the Lords and Ladies tubers in July, once the berry spikes are red. Scatter these to ensure future crops. Scrub tubers, very finely grate or liquidise and place in a container of water (at least 10x the volume of the gratings); allow all solids to settle, leave for two hours and carefully strain off the water. Repeat this process 10 times. Taste-test a tiny piece – there should be no sensation on the tongue; if there is then repeat the soaking procedure until it is totally eliminated. Finally, take the wet, solid residue and squeeze out as much liquid as possible using a piece of silk; dry and grind.
Juice apples and collect seawater on a very hot day in August. A few litres at a time can be evaporated in large shallow black trays over a couple of days (cover with black muslin to prevent dust and flies getting in). Oats can be gathered around field edges in July and the cuttlefish eggs gathered in the same month. Wash the fist-sized clusters of black eggs, stab a knife into each individual egg and collectively squeeze out the content (up to 100g per cluster). For the apples, core and thinly slice (no need to peel), string them up and hang them outside for a day or two (bring in before sunset if they haven’t dried sufficiently on the first day).
On a low heat, melt the fat and mix in the apple syrup. Off the heat, thoroughly mix in the flour, oats, apple pieces and elderflower blossom flour then beat in the egg. Roll out the mixture to approxiamately a 5mm thickness and cut to required size and shape. Place on a greased baking tray (I found a nice one dumped on a bit of so-called wasteland) and bake at 200oC for 10 mins. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight tin. Easy.
Okay, perhaps not so, but great fun nevertheless, and yes – I really did make these! The biscuits were actually very tasty; they had a strong taste of elderflower and not the slightest whiff of fishy egg or badger.
For more on the elder, see www.elderberries.com
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This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008
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