Elderberries, Branching Out

Until now, what I have known about elderberries would fit into two or three of the BB-sized fruits, with nothing left over.

 Note the beautiful visitor, just right of center, in the London Ferrill elderberry bushes as the season winds down. Black swallowtail, perhaps? UPDATE: NO! It's a "red spotted purple," Limenitis (=Basilarchia) arthemis astyanax (Fabricius) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Limenitidinae)!!! Thank you, BH, for the ID, and CC for the info share.

The two eccentric sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace charitably laced elderberry wine with poison to help lonely gentlemen into the next world, where presumably they would regain happiness. I know this because I played the utterly forgettable Elaine in a high school production of the play, which my mother directed. Right there's a whole story that could fill a volume or two, but I'll spare you, dear readers, because it has to do with young love and family drama, but it does not have to do with food. Although the play's central characters, Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby, did make their own elderberry wine from local bushes, as I recall.

Three years later, one of my funny uncles offered homemade elderberry wine to my teetotaling parents one summer evening as we visited his farm in western Kentucky. I remember his teasing them about their refusal to try it, with all being in excellent spirits in spite of the lack of alcohol. I had to believe that had Mother been inclined toward a glass of wine, the memory of Arsenic might have led her toward a fruit other than the elderberry. The next day we gathered in a room of the big farmhouse to watch a static-y television screen as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. At nearly 20, I was adult enough to recognize that all of us in the room found the information on the screen as strange as any alcohol-induced hallucination. But that's not a story that includes food, either.

Perhaps 15 years ago a good friend told me about Sambucol, a sweetened elderberry syrup said to help ward off or lessen the effects of respiratory infections. (Thank you, AC.) I tried it, and have succeeded more than once—but certainly not all the time—in stopping an emerging cold or flu before it gets going. Sambucol is drinkably delicious (and not just because of the elderberry—it's syrupy sweet.) I keep Sambucol on hand and take it at the first hint of illness.

About five years ago, it was difficult to find a story about cocktails that failed to mention St. Germain, the French alpine artisanal liqueur made from elderflowers—the blossoms of the elder bush—harvested before they get a chance to turn into little berries. The wikipedia entry on St. Germain is short enough to quote entirely:

St. Germain is a sweet liqueur crafted in the artisanal French style from elderberry flowers.[1] The unusual flavor has been reckoned as containing elements of peach, orange, grapefruit, and pear. The liqueur has a heady lychee aroma, with grapefruit and other citrus undertones. [2] The liqueur is commonly mixed with sparkling white wine.[3]

St. Germain is made in Paris, by a company dating back to 1884. The liqueur was awarded a Double Gold Medal at the 2007 San Francisco Spirits Competition.[4]


This week I finally bumped into the information that one can chew elderberries, not just slurp them down in a syrup. Bob Voll grew up picking, cleaning, and eating them in pies, as he described in yesterday's guest post.  It turns out that the flowers and berries are both edible, and both widely eaten (and drunk) around the world—though the berries contain a kind of poison if eaten raw, and stems and leaves of the elder bush are toxic.

Missouri farmers grow elderberries for food, drink, and medicinal purposes. Marcia Vanderlip reported in a recently updated article for the Columbia Daily Tribune that production in Missouri had reached 50 acres in 2011. Growers there formed a coop, and an impressive group of state and national agriculture and forestry interests hosted the First International Symposium on Elderberry (Sambucus) in Missouri earlier this summer.

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service published a short introduction to elderberry production in 2012, including estimates that growers could realize $400 profit per 1/5 acre planted to elderberries, if the berries sold at $3/pound.  An acre, then, if that's a feasible amount for a small farmer to manage, could net $2000 per acre.

Edward Schneider of the New York Times offered an approach to making elderflower pancakes for dessert. It's not exactly a recipe, but close.

The wikipedia entry on Sambucus contains considerable information, including this about elderberry and elderflower as food:

The flowers of Sambucus nigra are used to produce elderflower cordial. The French, Austrians and Central Europeans produce elderflower syrup, commonly made from an extract of elderflower blossoms, which is added to Palatschinken filling instead of blueberries. People throughout much of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe use a similar method to make a syrup which is diluted with water and used as a drink. Based on this syrup, Fanta markets a soft drink variety called "Shokata"[5] which is sold in 15 countries worldwide. In the United States, this French elderflower syrup is used to make elderflower marshmallows.[citation needed] St. Germain, a French liqueur, is made from elderflowers. Hallands Fläder, a Swedish akvavit, is flavoured with elderflowers.
The Italian liqueur Sambuca is flavoured with oil obtained from the elderflower.
In Germany, yoghurt desserts are made with both the berries and the flowers.[6]
Wines, cordials and marmalade have been produced from the berries or flowers. Fruit pies and relishes are produced with berries. In Italy (especially in Piedmont) and Germany, the umbels of the elderberry are batter coated, fried and then served as a dessert or a sweet lunch with a sugar and cinnamon topping. In Germany, the dish is known as "Hollerküchel".

The International Herb Association named elder its 2013 herb of the year. Clearly, these elders deserve respect. (Nope, not original.) I thank Bob Voll again for introducing this fine topic by harvesting elderberries at the London Ferrill Community Orchard, making a pie and jam, and then documenting his efforts.

Two notes: Savoring Kentucky has no connection to any of the products described in this post. And don't eat raw elderberries. Cook them first. 

Rona RobertsComment