Saucers of frothy cream blossoms which could have been spun by fairies, the elderflowers now making a debut in our hedgerows mark the arrival of summer as surely as the aromatic British strawberry. And they taste like summer, too – floral and fragrant, subtle yet heady, not sweet in themselves but heaven in a glass when infused in a light sugar syrup or set into jelly.
Chefs riding the crest of the nostalgia wave are loving them: "I pick them in the park when cycling to work... they have such a distinctive flavour, and look so pretty on the plate," says Anthony Demetre, of Mayfair's Michelin-starred Wild Honey. Yet many of us simply enjoy the visual feast without ever thinking to pluck a blossom to puff into a fritter or infuse to make a fragrant spritzer, let alone pickle the green berries, which are fast becoming the de facto English caper.
But we're missing a trick, for our pockets as well as our palates. Although, like many of the best things in life, elderflowers are free to pick, eat, infuse and enjoy, this wild food growing in abundance is packing out the wallets of enterprising country-dwellers, at least while the season lasts.
"We're paying £2 a kilo for fresh blossoms, and some pickers take home £200 a day," says Pev Manners, of Belvoir Fruit Farms, which has seen the business started by his parents at their kitchen table 20 years ago top £10m this year – if it can just get in enough flowers to satisfy demand. "The harvest is so late this year and will be so short, we've put out an urgent call for pickers, as our bottlers get through 50 tons.
"They don't have to come to Lincolnshire to pick our own field – though we've planted more and more acres over the years. We'll take them from all over Britain's hedgerows, provided we can get them the same day they're picked, and harvesters descend on us from as far away as Doncaster."
Manners's feverish need for blossoms emanates from the need to keep both Waitrose and Sainsbury's in stock with elderflower cordial and ready-to-drink "pressé", and Belvoir is not even the market leader. Waitrose alone has seen an annual 23 per cent increase in elderflower drinks: "A whopping one in 10 of our drinks has an elderflower element in it, which is huge," says spokeswoman Amanda French.
At Marks & Spencer, which gets its elderflower drinks from another source, the figures are even more dramatic. "Elderflower pressé is now our top-selling soft drink – we've sold half a million bottles over the past year," says head of trading for M&S Drinks Andrew Bird, who reports a 30 per cent increase, with five different elderflower drinks on the shelves.
As ever, although elderflower cordial has been a staple of the British kitchen for at least 400 years, it's inventive chefs who are propagating its revival and finding new ways to use both the blossoms and the berries that follow: "We make little tempura fritters from the flowers, and an elderflower mousse to serve with roasted red gooseberries," says David Everitt-Matthias, of the two-star Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. "We infuse them in a light dashi to create a perfumed stock for turbot, and make elderflower sorbet to accompany a rhubarb and hibiscus dish."
As the season goes on, Everitt-Matthias makes the most of the berries, not only pickling them when green but making an elderberry sorbet and curd to fill a vacherin. "And the ripe berries are just in time for the game season."
Urban chefs are finding and using their own stash of elderflowers, such as James Knappet, of Fitzrovia's Kitchen Table, who makes a mousse from his own cordial to serve with granitas of apple and wild sorrel and meringue.
He will serve venison with fresh elderberries as well as roast chicken with pickled ones, and is teasing palates with a Common Blossom cocktail, in which an elderflower garnish pays visual homage to the cordial within.
Elderflower cocktails are the rage of the capital's bars this season, thanks as much to the arrival of St Germain elderflower liqueur as the non-alcoholic cordial. The Floating Goddess, based on elderflowers, blueberries and pink grapefruit, is a bestseller at Hakkasan, while Quaglino's fields an Elderflower Fizz combining cordial with vodka, lemon juice and soda water. And expect G&T's with a difference now Fevertree has introduced a brand-new elderflower tonic.
You don't need to be in London to get a great elderflower drink: Fifteen in Watergate Bay makes an elderflower pressé with home-made cordial and lemon peel, while down the road at Bedruthan in Cornwall, Adam Clark adds a dash of vodka and gooseberry purée to the heady mix of bubbly and homemade elderflower cordial.
The marriage of elderflower and gooseberries is one made in heaven, chefs agree: Clark fries some of his blossoms into a crispy, fragrant garnish for his gooseberry desserts. Hakkasan pairs an elderflower jelly with strawberries, and Martin Caws, development chef for Waitrose, makes a sabayon of elderflower cordial, egg yolks and whipped cream to spoon over berries and gratinate under a hot grill. In Soho, Gelupo is offering a kiwi, gin and elderflower gelato, while in Camberwell the Michelin-starred Crooked Well is serving an elderflower pannacotta with pine-needle jelly. The blossom finds its way into savoury dishes, too – Demetre finds elderflower a perfect complement to seafood, particularly crab.
He immerses the flowers in a crab shell stock with rosewater and a little sugar, sets it into a jelly and serves with white crab meat, fresh peas, marjoram, pickled radish and crab crackers. The crab/elderflower combo resurfaces 400 miles north at The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, where Andy Mitchell makes an elderflower yogurt to accompany crab salad and candied walnuts as a garnish for Islay scallops.
It takes much less effort to make an elderflower syllabub – like the one Sophie Conran creates from cordial, sherry, lemon zest and caster sugar whisked with double cream – and even less to pick the flowers, infuse them for a fragrant drink or dip into tempura batter to make the British answer to Italy's fried zucchini blossoms. But they are so beautiful to look at, let's hope just a few of them are allowed to linger in the hedgerows to remind us that winter is past and summer has burst into bloom.
In ancient England the elder was regarded as sacred, and superstitious folk, many of whom grew a tree outside their door to keep out evil spirits, refused to cut or burn the wood for fear of upsetting the Elder Mother, who lived in the trunk to protect the plant.
Standing under an elder tree on Midsummer Eve is said to guarantee a sighting of fairies, and another myth says it's a safe shelter from lightning because Christ's cross was made from elder wood.
Washing your face in dew from freshly gathered elderflowers was believed to enhance and preserve youthful beauty, and more practically, the leaves can be hung in doorways and windows to repel flies.
Fresh flavours: Products to try
Quinoa and sugarsnap pea salad with elderflower dressing at Waitrose, which also sells St Germain elderflower liqueur.
Cawston Press apple & elderflower juice, cawstonpress.com
Hawkshead Relish Hedgerow Jelly made with foraged blackberries and elderberries as an accompaniment to terrines, patés and game, hawksheadrelish.com