Seeking Chicks and Finding Elderflowers

The potter Edmund de Waal, author of the memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes, describes his favourite Japanese netsuke, or miniature sculptures, as ones where you can ‘feel the wear’. They’re the ones that have ‘been changed by being handled; they’ve had a life, and a history, and been knocked around and rubbed away….’

I was just thinking that my favourite people could be described in exactly the same way when I got a message from my very clever friend. If you’ve been reading Eggs on the Roof over the months you will know that she’s my neighbour who grows endless amounts of delicious things, apparently effortlessly, in a garden that can best be described as bucolic. The brief message said 3 chicks now. Newly-hatched chickens sounded worth seeing, so I stopped thinking about people who’ve had a life and started thinking about creatures just about to embark on theirs.

Trailing through the orchard at this time of year is like inhabiting the pages of a Laurie Lee novel. The chicks were ludicrously cute and barely an hour old.

As they were tucked back underneath their mother to keep warm, my eye was drawn to a trio of frothy, floridly pink bushes in the orchard.

‘They’re elderflowers,’ said my v.c.f. ‘Would you like some?’ I had no idea that elderflowers came in bubble-gum pink and the answer was ‘of course I would’. Although I’m terrible at growing things, I love turning what she grows into something worth eating or drinking.

In Oxford later in the day I bumped into three friends in quick succession. I asked each of them if they had a favourite elderflower cordial recipe ‘because’, I boasted, ‘I have pink elderflowers’. Knowing what an incompetent gardener I am, each asked if I was quite sure that I wasn’t about to poison myself by trying to cook rhododendrons or camellias. They may have faith in my culinary skills, but not my horticultural ones.

The recipe I devised is a little bit of Alison’s, a touch of Richard’s, a smattering of Anwen’s and a sprinkling of my own. The flowers were pink… but would the cordial be?

Elderflower Cordial

  • 20 elderflower heads
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 1.7 kg sugar
  • 50g citric acid
  • 4 unwaxed lemons

Tap the flower heads before you pick them, to get rid of dust and any insects. You don’t need to wash them. Put them in a large ceramic bowl. Boil the water in a pan and add the sugar and citric acid. Take off the heat and stir until the crystals are completely dissolved. Thinly slice the lemons, add them to the bowl and tip the water and sugar solution over the top.

Stir, cover lightly and allow to steep for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve and muslin cloth and pour into sterilised bottles. I filled five 50cl plastic water bottles. One is in the fridge, four are in the freezer for another day.

The day that began with chicks ended very happily with the flashiest, showiest elderflower cordial I’ve ever seen. And yes, it’s PINK.