Food: Looking up to our elderflowers

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The Independent Culture
What other country could

hold a small, furry fruit and

the blossom of a wild shrub

so close to its heart? In the

second in our series on the

quintessentials of British

cuisine, Michael Bateman

reveals how to get the best

from the gooseberry and

the mysterious elderflower

IS THERE ANYTHING quite so British as our eccentric affection for elderflower in the kitchen? Or gooseberries even?

This week we conclude our look at essential British ingredients, featured in Sybil Kapoor's new book, Simply British. Rumours that British cooking is dead have been greatly exaggerated, she says, and she is continuing her campaign to champion the British cause.

Living in a confusion of Fusion cooking, it would be easy to imagine British cooking had passed away. Not at all, says Mrs Kapoor (she's from a old Kent family, it's her husband who is Indian - a neurologist). The British have always integrated foods from abroad, taming them, civilising them, sophisticating them. And just as we know Italian food by its ingredients, olive oil, tomatoes, Parma ham, so we can identify a British style of cooking by its raw materials.

She lists among 32 essentially, uniquely British foods, including beef, lamb, venison, pheasant, bacon, smoked haddock, kippers, trout; barley and oats; a selection of wonderful summer ingredients - gooseberries, greengages, straw-berries, raspberries, blackberries, beetroot, peas, watercress and cucumber; and those essential flavourings, honey and treacle, lemon, mint and mace, not forgetting lavender and elderflower.

Sybil could have added violets, crystallised violets being part of a folk tradition. And cowslips; is there any other culture in the world making cowslip wine? Lime flowers are more universal, loved by the French as a tisane. But elderflower leaves people in other countries mystified.

It is actually very difficult to explain to a European what an elderflower cordial might be. Even if you go to the trouble to find the word to describe the elder tree they scratch their heads with puzzlement; holunder in German, sureau in French, sauca in Spanish, sambuco in Italian (not to be confused with sambuca which is an anisette liqueur, often served with flames on top).

Having said that, it was an Italian, Mauro Bregoli, who introduced me to the wonderful summer drink, elderflower cordial. Mauro runs The Old Manor House on the edge of the New Forest in Romsey, Hampshire.

Diluted with soda, I mistook it for "Elderflower Champagne" then a newly- marketed, successful product from over the border in Sussex. (Since then, the litigious Champagne industry has brought its force to bear and Champagne is no longer used in the title.)

Significantly, Mauro's version cost pennies rather than pounds, for the simple reason he had made it himself from a recipe culled by his Scottish wife, Esther.

How can you describe its perfume? When wine writers seek to praise the evanescence of certain wines they say it has a smell of spring flowers. They surely mean the all-pervading scent of elderflower. And elderflower in its turn has the wine-like character of the muscat grape.

But, magically, its scent can be trapped very easily in syrup. And sharpened with lemon it makes a cordial to enjoy summer and winter alike. How do you stop it fermenting, I asked Senor Bregoli? Memories of corks popping from home-made wines and cordials stored in the woodshed spring to mind. "Freeze it," he says, leading me to his walk-in refrigerated larder, where the cordial is stored in two-litre cartons.

So, duly, I started collecting empty one-litre milk cartons. By the following May, I was ready to go for it. I bought a box freezer and, armed with Esther Bregoli's recipe, I stormed the country hedgerows, filling a black plastic binliner with the fragrant blooms.

The blossoms have more fragrance early in the day - ideally, you should pick them at the beginning of their season in sunny weather. On no account should you take them from busy roadsides, you really smell the poison from the traffic on the flowers.

Equipped with a five-gallon Boots plastic brewing bin, I tipped in the blooms, and drenched them in a thick sugar syrup, flavoured with fresh lemon juice and peel. Citric acid is added to the mixture, this is not so much for flavour, but a preservative for the cordial when transferred from freezer to fridge.

The lid went on the bin, which was then left to stand in the bath for 48 hours, to be stirred from time to time. The aroma was as heady as any I have ever smelled.

Straining the liquid through sieves and wet cloths and funnelling it into 30 cartons was a chore. But at the end, lodged in my freezer, I had a whole year's supply. Not only does it save on the purchase of commercial, inferior cordials, orange drinks and the like, but it is also preferred by my children and is a revelation to friends sampling it for the first time.

It not only serves as a cordial, it can also enhance a cocktail, or a long summer gin-based drink. You can make deliciously scented elderflower sorbet any time of the year. Or add it to a spiced syrup to serve on fruit salads with a shot of real vanilla. Sublime, it can also be used as an alternative to sugar to sweeten cooked fruit, such as stewed rhubarb. Elderflower cordial goes particularly well with gooseberries whose season it overlaps.

Over to Sybil Kapoor to take up the gooseberry story, another quirkily, quintessential British taste. While they are not native to these shores, she says, we developed the gooseberry, in the 19th century, to the point where we led the world in its horticulture.

In her book Sybil writes: "... the first record of a British gooseberry bush appears in 1275, when Edward I imported some direct from France (at 3d a bush) for his garden at the Tower of London ... As the climate cooled, gooseberries began to replace grapes in the commercial production of wine..."

Then, with the introduction of cheap sugar, gooseberry became a popular jam. Gooseberries are ideal for jam-making, having a high pectin content which means they need very little cooking before they reach setting stage.

And a sharp, acidic gooseberry sauce became the natural companion to rich dishes of roast pork, goose, duck and even oily fish such as mackerel.

In the north, workmen formed gooseberry clubs to grow ever bigger and tastier specimens. Gooseberry growing became a national obsession, and by 1826 the Horticultural Society was listing no fewer than 185 strains in its catalogue.

The gooseberry fell out of fashion to some extent in the latter half of this century. But even if the townies have been deprived, the gooseberry has never left the table of country folk. Is there a more sensational seasonal delight as the first gooseberry pie or tart?

Supermarkets, who used to sell only the sweet, ripe red and yellow dessert varieties are now starting to sell green ones for cooking - and far better for sauces, ices, sorbets, curds, fools, tarts, pies, pickles, jams.

Here, then, are Sybil Kapoor's favourite gooseberry and elderflower recipes, together with Mauro Bregoli's recipe for elderflower cordial.


There are few dishes so delightful as a fool. Opinion differs as to whether custard should be folded in with the cream, but I prefer the pure taste of rhubarb and cream.

Serves 6

455g/1lb (prepared weight) rhubarb

3 elderflower heads

granulated sugar, to taste

285ml/12 pint double cream

Trim the rhubarb, discarding the tops and bottoms. Wash and cut into medium chunks. Place in a non-corrosive pan with the elderflowers, four tablespoons of sugar and two tablespoons of water. Cook gently over a low heat until the rhubarb is tender but not completely disintegrated. Add about 85g (3oz) of granulated sugar to taste and leave to cool.

Once the rhubarb is cold, whisk the cream into very soft peaks. Remove the elderflowers from the fruit and gradually fold the rhubarb with its juice into the cream. Spoon the mixture into delicate glasses and serve with sponge fingers or macaroons. The uninhibited can dip these into the creamy fool.


There are few gooseberry recipes that have not been partnered with elderflowers at some time. The effect is magical and is guaranteed to convert most gooseberry haters into ardent lovers.

Serves 4

2 elderflower heads

455g/1lb green gooseberries, topped and tailed

140ml/14 pint water

170g/6oz caster sugar

Wash the elderflower heads by gently dipping them in a bowl of cool water. Any wildlife should drop off when you do this. Put the gooseberries, water and flowers into a non-corrosive saucepan, cover and place over a moderate heat. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for five to 10 minutes or until the gooseberries have dissolved into a fragrant mush.

Remove mixture from the heat and stir in the sugar, adjusting the sweetness to your taste. Allow to cool before removing the elderflowers. Puree in a food processor then pass through a fine sieve. If you are feeling energetic you can simply sieve them immediately. Cover and chill.

Measure out the mixture and add, if necessary, enough cold water to bring it up to a total of 565ml (1pint). If you have an ice-cream-maker churn the mixture in the normal manner. Alternatively pour it into a shallow plastic container, cover and place in the fast freeze compartment of your freezer, and, every 30 to 40 minutes, mash up the ice crystals with a fork until the mixture has set into a sorbet. Once it is the correct consistency, leave the sorbet to firm up in the freezer for up to an hour. If you make this in advance, you will need to allow it to soften a little in the fridge for 30 to 60 minutes.


Given the British predilection for pickles, it is hardly surprising that gooseberries have also been preserved in this form. This is a very quick pickle to make but it improves with age. Use small tart green berries and remember that they will shrink as they mature

If you wish, you can use ready-sliced gravadlax available from most supermarkets. To make at home, ask the fishmonger to fillet a small salmon. This should yield 905g (2lb) of salmon fillet. Rub its flesh with one tablespoon brandy, then liberally coat with 35g (114oz) of coarse sea salt mixed with the same amount of granulated sugar and three tablespoons of finely chopped dill. Wrap the two fillets, flesh sides together, in clingfilm in a shallow dish and cover with weights. Leave in the fridge for 24 hours, turning once. Thinly slice in the same way as for smoked salmon.

Serves 6

For the gooseberry pickle:

310g/11oz small green or red gooseberries

225ml/8fl oz white wine or cider vinegar

225g/8oz granulated sugar

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed

1 red or green chilli

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

For the fennel salad:

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 bulbs Florence fennel

18-24 slices gravadlax

Begin by sterilising a suitable jar, making sure that the top is plastic and therefore vinegar proof (the gooseberry pickle will fill a 455g/1lb Kilner jar). Wash, top and tail the gooseberries, drain thoroughly and pack tightly into the jar.

Put the vinegar, sugar, spices, chilli and garlic in a non-corrosive saucepan and stir gently over a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for five minutes. Pour over the gooseberries and cool before sealing the jar. Store in a cool, dark place. The longer you leave it, the better it will taste. It will keep for at least a year.

To serve the salad, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and seasoning. Trim the fennel, cut in half and wash. Cut into thin, fan-like slices and place in a bowl with a handful of drained gooseberries. Dress with the lemon vinaigrette and divide between six appetiser plates. Weave the slices of gravadlax between the fennel and serve with thinly sliced buttered brown bread.


From at least the 17th century the arrival of the first mackerel at the end of May was often accompanied by the first of the season's gooseberries. Over the centuries a wide variety of sauces have been used, ranging from a simple dish of stewed gooseberries, as was enjoyed by Parson Woodforde in 1796, to cooked gooseberries thickened with a little bechamel or cream as suggested by Jane Grigson in English Food in 1974. As modern tastes are returning to spicier food, here is a new interpretation of that classic combination.

Serves 4

For the gooseberry relish:

85g/3oz granulated sugar or to taste

1 small red or green chilli, seeded and finely diced

2.5cm/1in cinnamon stick

3 black peppercorns

1 pinch of mace

2 strips lemon peel

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

115ml/4fl oz water

340g/12oz gooseberries, topped and tailed

For the mackerel:

4 medium-sized mackerel, filleted

12 tablespoon olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon, cut into wedges for garnish

Place the sugar, chilli, spices, lemon peel, vinegar and water in a non-corrosive pan and dissolve the sugar over a low heat. Simmer gently for three minutes before adding the gooseberries. Coat them in the spicy mixture, then cover and simmer gently for six to eight minutes or until they are soft but still holding their shape. Using a slotted spoon, remove the gooseberries to a clean bowl, leaving the spices in the syrup. Boil this liquid until it is thick and syrupy, then mix into the gooseberries. Serve warm or cold according to your mood but remember to remove the whole spices just before serving.

To prepare the mackerel preheat the grill to its highest setting and line the grill pan with foil. If you are using a ribbed cast-iron oven- top grill pan, preheat over a moderate heat.

Place the mackerel fillets flesh side down on a board and lightly make three evenly spaced diagonal slashes across the skin of each fillet. This should stop them curling up as they cook. Brush each fillet with a little olive oil and season. Once the grill is searingly hot, grill the mackerel fillets skin side up if they are under a grill and skin side down if they are on a ribbed cast-iron oven-top grill pan. As soon as their skins begins to blister and turn golden, turn and grill for a further five minutes. Serve with the lemon wedges and gooseberry relish.


Gooseberry tart was once as much a national dish as roast beef. As early as 1629 John Parkinson cites green gooseberries being used in tarts, and certainly both Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook in 1685 and Hannah Glasse in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy in 1747 give recipes. Hannah Glasse's recipe is for red gooseberry tarts. However, the term "tart" can cause confusion, as it still refers to a covered pie in Scotland and Ireland, whereas in England it is usually interpreted as an open top pastry.

Makes 6 tarts

225g/8oz shortcrust pastry

285ml/12 pint water

340g/12oz granulated sugar

455g/1lb green gooseberries, topped and tailed

1 tablespoon apple jelly (optional)

Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface and line six 9cm (312in) greased tart tins. Prick their bottoms with a fork then line with scrunched- up foil and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6 and bake the tartlets blind for 10 to 15 minutes, until the pastry begins to colour. Remove the foil and return to the oven to dry out for a further five minutes.

In the meantime, place the water and sugar in a non-corrosive saucepan and dissolve over a moderate heat. Stir in a single layer of gooseberries and simmer gently for three to four minutes or until they begin to soften but have not burst their skins. Remove from the syrup with a slotted spoon and spread in a single layer on a large plate. Repeat with the remaining gooseberries until they are all lightly poached. Vigorously boil the remaining syrup until very thick and syrupy. Do not let it caramelise. If you are using the apple jelly, gently dissolve it in the gooseberry syrup.

Arrange the half-cooked berries in an attractive manner in the pastry cases and spoon over some of the thickened syrup. Return to the oven and bake for a further eight minutes. Serve warm or cold for pudding or tea but preferably with lots of thick double cream.

As this recipe makes more gooseberry syrup than you need, you can store the remainder in a clean covered container in the fridge for two days or freeze until needed. It can be added to any gooseberry pudding.


25 flower heads of elderflower

1.5kg/3lb 8oz sugar

1.5 litres/212 pints water

5g/2oz citric acid

2 lemons, finely sliced

Pick the flower heads early on a sunny morning if you can, from fields away from pulluted roads. The blooms should not be full blown. Choose those most sweetly perfumed. Briefly dip them into a sink of cold water to dislodge any insect life. Shake water off.

Make a sugar syrup by boiling water and sugar in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve. Off the heat, stir in the citric acid and leave to cool.

Place the washed blooms is a suitable-sized non-metallic container. Cover with the sugar syrup, adding the lemons.

Cover and leave for 48 hours, stirring from time to time. Strain the liquid through muslin or washed, new J-cloths. For a less sweet result, squeeze as much juice out of lemons as you can.

Finally bottle the cordial in sterilised plastic containers (plunged into boiling water, and then cooled under cold tap).

Store in deep-freeze. Unfreeze as require, transferring to the fridge. Dilute for use in drinks.

`Simply British' by Sybil Kapoor is published by Michael Joseph, priced pounds 15.99. The Old Manor House, Palmerston Street, Romsey, 01794 5173 5321