Stephen Harris: how to make the most of elderflower's brief blossoming

Make cordial to preserve the taste of elderflower
Make cordial to preserve the taste of elderflower  Credit: ANDREW TWORT & ANNIE HUDSON FOR THE TELEGRAPH

How often should a restaurant change its menu? Some customers complain if the food stays the same – but certain regulars fail to hide their disappointment when a favourite dish disappears.

Some of the busiest restaurants hardly change at all: think of McDonald’s, Pizza Express or the Fat Duck. Perhaps these successful businesses don’t feel the need to meddle with a winning formula.

Then there are restaurants that see it as a badge of honour to constantly update their menus. In these places, the chef’s creativity is paramount. I prefer to let a higher power decide: nature. We wait for the ingredients around us to come into season and then build the menu around them.

Elderflowers only blossom briefly, so make the most of the fresh blooms while you can Credit: ANDREW TWORT & ANNIE HUDSON FOR THE TELEGRAPH

We tend to think of the four seasons as a set thing. I think it’s more complicated than that – elderflower is a great example of an ingredient that fails to stick to a three-month menu slot. They fill a particular few weeks when there is optimism in the air about the impending summer and, rather like asparagus, I like to binge on them while they are here. Where I live, they exist as a fragrance in the air, especially if there is some cleansing rain after a sunny spell.

They seem to arrive in the West first then spread across the South and arrive last in the North. This means that a chef can follow them around the country if he buys from the market, and the season will last for almost two months. Mine come from a few trees on the grounds of The Sportsman, so we have just three weeks to enjoy them.

With such a brief window, the obvious thing to do is to preserve them, which is why we make elderflower cordial. Today’s recipe includes a couple of ways to use the cordial, such as ice cream, but note that elderflowers also make a great posset – just add a couple of heads at the first stage, when boiling the cream and sugar.  The fritter needs to be light, so make sure the batter is quite thin. The finished item is the closest you will come to eating a doughnut without eating dough.

Elderflower ice cream: the perfect early summer dessert Credit: ANDREW TWORT AND ANNIE HUDSON FOR THE TELEGRAPH

The technique for making the cordial is also very important. I use a lot of flowers – they are abundant and free, after all – and steep them for just 30 minutes. This produces a very fragrant cordial without too much bitterness from the stems.  It is the same with a pot of tea and my favourite red burgundies – I like a short extraction time that cuts down on the amount of tannin in the finished product. If you like strong tea and big reds then you may want to extend the soaking time. 

Acidity comes from lemon and vitamin C powder. I like mine to be quite bracing to balance the sweetness but you should adjust the amounts to your taste.

Don’t despair if you forget to make anything from the flowers in June as the surviving blooms will turn into berries by late August. We have competition from a fat pigeon who pecks at the berries throughout August but those that remain make a great sauce for game. I’d recommend the cordial, though – to me, it captures the optimism of early summer in a long, cool glass.