In the days when gentlemen wore hats, around here in Switzerland a chap passing an elder tree would tip his hat to it, out of respect. The trees seem to reciprocate the friendship, liking to grow snuggled up to the warm shelter of buildings.
If we wore hats, Mani and I would also doff them to the elder! (Sambucus nigra, in German, holunder, and familiarly in Swiss-German holder.)
At this time of spring, both our New Zealand and Swiss springs, we have an “automatic search” function running as we move around the countryside. The creamy white flowers make the elder trees stand out so they’re easy to spot. In New Zealand, where they’re scarcer, Mani used to write down their location, in order to visit their owners later when the trees were in berry.
So why the reverence for the tree?
It’s that wonderful combination of form and function. A thing of beauty that also strengthens your immune system, brings down fevers, swellings and inflammations, loosens up a cold … and the berries (as their dark colour advertises) are an antioxidant. Those health benefits don’t even mention the ones from getting on your bike to find and harvest the flowers and fruit! I have read that the berries, when uncooked, contain a poison – but that doesn’t stop me nibbling a few as I pick them, for that jolt of concentrated flavour.
But first the flowers. For health and a refreshing summer cooler– there’s elderflower cordial. Or even better – elderflower wine. The first of his own wines that Mani poured for me was an elderflower champagne. I was hooked – first on the wine, then the wine-maker.
This New Zealand Christmas (2011), we made another brew. It was a late picking – a happy discovery of a group of trees up on the Desert Road, where the cool summer and higher altitude had them flowering much later than their lowland counterparts. We mentally marked the spot as we travelled north, and gathered the flowers as we returned. A quiet steep in hot water to bring out the goodness, then into the barrel. Now our NZ neighbours have been introduced to the fragrant joys of elderflower wine.
In Switzerland, the flower clusters are also dipped into a light batter for a surprising dessert.
And then the berries, so purple-dark they’re almost black. First you have to pick your time to pick. Too soon, and the bunches will have too many unripe berries and you’ll feel terribly ungrateful as you throw them out. Too late, and the birds will beat you!
Then there’s the “stripping” – to separate berries from stalks. You can use a fork, or a broad-toothed comb – but for me I like the tactile pleasure of rolling them off with my fingers and watching the purple stain spread. It’s a perfect summer-afternoon-with-friends activity.
Here in Switzerland, “stripping” is the prelude to one of our community feasts – the Holdermuss party. Mani does a huge pot of elderberries, simmered long and slow, with red wine, cinnamon sticks, sugar…. Then, dished out and topped with scrambled egg! Our Holdermuss party started to please an old (90+) friend whose wife couldn’t/wouldn’t cook it for him… and now it’s a tradition.
A couple of years ago we gathered and cooked far too much. What to do? Inspiration! Strain the berries out, and add schnapps to the remaining juice. Elderberry liqueur anyone? It tasted good then – and after a few months maturing in the bottles while we were back in NZ, we knew we had a must-do-again recipe. “Over-picking” is now part of the plan!
But wait there’s more…
I’d always seen elderberry trees as bushes – big ones, yes, but that basic bushy structure. Then some years ago we saw orchards of them in Hungary– grown for syrup-making and dye-stuffs. They were pruned to be standard trees and so handsome that way, with sturdy rough-barked trunks and a shady canopy.
Our tiny garden could have those! Mani and Roman planted two stalks from the forest – not much more than thumb-thick. Last year – could it have been ten years later? – we had to take one out to let in more light – but what a garden-blessing they are: shady canopy, a dusty-warm fragrance to perfume the garden, and the fruit for the feast.
So… is it any wonder that you’d pay your respects to such a fine tree?