Here’s a handy guide to the hottest floral flavour on the food scene.
If you’d never heard of elderflower before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced it would be a key component of their wedding, you’re not alone. Elderflower was already a relatively popular flavour in England and a symbol of spring (as elder trees begin to bloom in May). It’s a fitting flavour, then, for the royal wedding cake, which the couple wanted to reflect “the bright flavours of spring” and will be decorated with fresh flowers.
Elderflower isn’t as common in Canada, though we do have our own species of elder tree called the Black Elder (or sambucus nigra), which grows across the country. Before you get your hands on this powerful ingredient, here is everything you need to know:
What is elderflower?
Elderflowers are the blossoms that come from elder trees. The petals are cream-coloured and grow in small clusters called corymbs. Elderflower has a powerful, distinctive smell that has grassy and citrus notes, with a muskiness reminiscent of ripe grapes. Later in the season, the blooms will give way to dark, glossy clusters of elderberries, which are often made into jam (or sometimes into wine, as in the famous insult scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
What does elderflower taste like?
Certain edible flowers that we use in cooking (such as lavender or rose) have floral attributes that add a kind of delicate perfume to the dishes they’re in and can easily become overpoweringly soapy or dusty if used in excess.
Elderflower is floral in a different way. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that its tastes, honestly, like a distillation of the idea of spring. The flavour is floral and sweet, but has a sharp grassiness to it too, often compared to lychee, muscat grapes, peaches, or grapefruit. There’s a surprising sharpness to elderflower as well, preventing its floral notes from being overwhelming.
Where can I find elderflower?
If you have access to elder trees in the wild and would like to harvest your own blossoms in the summer, go right ahead! The flowers are so delicate that you won’t be able to wash them without damaging them, so it’s important to pick from elder trees that are far away from traffic or pollution and haven’t been treated with pesticides. It’s best to pick the flowers on a warm, sunny day. Try to get as little of the stem as possible; you only want the flowers. And make sure to pick responsibly, leaving many blooms behind to ensure the health and longevity of the tree.
If you live in the city or aren’t particularly keen on foraging, don't fret: You can buy elderflower in the form of syrups, cordials, sparkling sodas and even as a liqueur. The Canadian foraging brand Forbes Wild Foods makes an elderflower syrup, and, strange though it may be, you can often find elderflower syrup at your local Ikea store.
Cooking with elderflower
There are several common ways to cook with elderflower, but before you do, please note that there is evidence that consuming raw elderflower or elderberries can be toxic, so ensure that you cook them well before consuming.
- Syrup: The most common way of preserving elderflower involves boiling the blossoms in a syrup of sugar and water, then adding a preserving agent like lemon juice or citric acid. By far, this is the fastest, easiest way of preserving elderflowers, and if you don’t have access to fresh flowers, you can purchase the syrup.
- Jams, jellies, and pie fillings: Elderflower makes a great pairing for rhubarb, plums, peaches, nectarines, berries, and, by extension, any of the preserves you might make with these flavours. You can add the blossoms directly while cooking, or use a pre-made syrup.
- Infused cream, ice cream, panna cotta: You can add elderflower blossoms to heavy cream before scalding it, then allow the flavours to infuse (ideally overnight) and strain before using. This makes excellent ice cream, as well as panna cotta, or even flavoured whipped cream.
Cocktails and mocktails: elderflower syrup and elderflower liqueur (St. Germain being the most popular and widely available) pair very well with citrus and fresh herb flavours, making them great additions to cocktails. If you haven’t tried an Elderflower Fizz yet, you’re missing out, and this Garden Martini tastes like springtime in a glass.