Food and Drink: It pays to treat your elders with respect: The tree's blossoms add a heady scent to cordials, ice-cream, fruit salads and fools

THEY'VE cut down my elder tree] OK, it wasn't exactly mine, but it was only 10 minutes' walk away, and as well tucked away from traffic fumes as you can get in urban London. I'd gone to check on its progress, having noticed odd traces of white on other trees, but there was no white, no green, just a big gap where it had once flourished. It's not the end of the world - there's no shortage of elder trees and bushes - but I'd grown quite fond of it over the past few years. Now I shall have to trek farther afield, perhaps up to Hampstead Heath, where at least the flowers will be marginally less tainted with the city's pollution.

Elderflowers are one of late May's small pleasures. Pretty, plentiful and free for the taking, they have a heady scent that can be exploited in cooking, as well as enjoyed for its own sake. It has to be said that this is not appreciated by everyone, but if you do like it, they are a doubly welcome gift.

I was brought up on elderflower fritters and elderflower and gooseberry fool, at least while the season lasted each year. The fritters arrived as a treat at the end of kitchen suppers, hot and crisp, straight from the pan. A sprinkle of sugar, a squeeze of lemon and they were ready for eating. They're simple to make - dip the heads of elderflower into an airy batter and fry, stalk upwards, in sizzling butter and oil. When the underneath is set, snip off the stalks with scissors, and turn them over to finish cooking.

Even nicer, though reserved for special occasions, was the fool, a classic English pudding of the very best sort. In the south elderflowers tend to bloom early, and we're lucky if they coincide with the first gooseberries, but farther north you should get a week or two's overlap. To flavour a fool, just add a couple of heads of elderflower to the gooseberries as they cook, hoicking them out once the gooseberry mush has cooled, before folding in the cream or custard. Little almondy biscuits go well with this.

Once picked, the power of the odorous flowers is short-lived, so go gathering on the day you intend to use them. Look for a bush well away from roads, and choose only the freshly opened flowers. If a snow of ivory petals tumbles down as you snap one off, it is past its best, though there will probably be younger flowers on the same plant. Get them home fast, and shake off any insect life. Don't wash the flowers, or you'll lose much of their perfume. Arrange them in a jar of water, enjoy their prettiness for an hour or two, then use them quickly.

If you have a burgeoning elder near you, but no time for real cooking, there are at least two ways to capture their scent in a trice. The first is to make elderflower vinegar: cram a preserving jar full of flowers, then cover completely with white wine vinegar. Leave on a sunny windowsill for a fortnight or so, then strain through muslin and bottle. The vinegar is lovely in salads, and good for deglazing pans after frying chicken. Splash in a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar, boil down, scraping up residues, then turn off the heat, and stir in double cream, salt and pepper. Warm through and serve with the chicken.

The other, which requires more time but is barely more onerous, is to make an elderflower syrup: dissolve 4oz (110g) sugar in 1/2 pint (300ml) water over a moderate heat, then add four heads of elderflower and boil for five minutes. Cool, cover and leave to infuse for 24 hours, then strain and bottle. This syrup will keep for several weeks in the fridge, but lacks the longevity and true flavour of the more elaborate cordial below. It can be diluted with mineral water to drink, or used to flavour ice-cream, sorbet (add lemon juice), fruit salad or, indeed, a gooseberry fool.

Recipe: Elderflower Cordial

This recipe was given to my mother by a neighbour many years ago, and is quite the best way of preserving the evanescent scent of elderflowers. As long as the bottles are scrupulously clean, it will keep for months in a dark cupboard. Diluted with fizzy water or, better still, gin and fizzy water, it makes one of the most refreshing long summer drinks. It can also be spooned over ice-cream or added to fruit salads for extra zip.

Makes about 2 1/2 pints (1 1/2 litres)

Ingredients: 20 large heads of

elderflower

4lb (1.8kg) granulated sugar

2 3/4 oz (75g) citric acid (from chemists)

2 lemons

Preparation: Put the elderflowers in a large bowl or basin. Place sugar in a pan with 2 pints (a generous litre) of water and bring gently up to the boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Pour over the elderflowers and stir in the citric acid. Add the grated zest of the lemons, then slice lemons and add the slices to the bowl. Cover and leave for 24 hours. Strain through double muslin, pour into sterilised bottles and store in a cool dark place.

Recipe: Elderflower & Lime Jellies

A light, refreshing dessert for a warm day, the spicy sourness of limes is a marvellous vehicle for the muscat fragrance of elderflowers. If you are running short on time, forget the lime zest and just pour the warm jelly straight into glasses, then leave to set in the fridge.

Serves 5-6

3 limes

4 large heads of elderflower

4oz (110g) sugar

1 sachet (0.4oz/11g) powdered gelatine

single cream

Preparation: Pare the zest from two of the limes and cut into fine shreds. Blanch for two minutes in boiling water, drain and cool. Squeeze the juice of all three limes.

Place the sugar in a pan with 15fl oz (425ml) water. Bring to the boil, add the elderflowers and simmer for five minutes. Let it cool for five minutes, then sprinkle gelatine over the surface. Stand for a couple of minutes more, then stir to dissolve properly. If a few lumps of gelatine obstinately refuse to melt, return to the heat and warm through gently until they have dissolved, without letting the syrup boil. Stir in the lime juice, then strain the mixture. Taste and add more sugar if you think it needs it, while it is still warm. Don't make it too sweet, though. Cool in the fridge until it has the consistency of raw egg whites. Stir in the reserved zest and divide among individual glasses. Leave in the fridge to finish setting.

Serve jellies as they are, or with a film of single cream poured over each.

Recipe: Elderflower and Almond Cake

This is an idea I have adapted from old cookery books - fragrant leaves, such as rose geranium, peach or blackcurrant were used to line a cake tin before baking. It works just as well with elderflowers - as the cake bakes the scent works its way through into the crumb, leaving a delicate but distinctive presence.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 3 large heads of

elderflower

4oz (110g) self-raising flour

pinch of salt

2 eggs

4oz (110g) caster sugar

2oz (55g) butter, melted and cooled

2oz (55g) ground almonds

icing sugar

Preparation: Line a 7in cake tin with non-stick baking parchment or butter, and flour it generously. Shake the elderflowers to dislodge any unwelcome wildlife, and trim off the main stem. Sit on the base of the tin, flowers upwards.

Sieve the flour with the salt. Beat the eggs with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the melted butter, then mix in the flour and ground almonds to give a smooth batter. Pour into the cake tin, over the flowers. Cook at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 30 minutes or until firm to the touch. Let it sit for five minutes, then run a knife around the edge and turn out on to a rack to cool. Dust with icing sugar.

Recipe: Elderflower Bavarois

This airy, creamy mousse is sheer heaven. Serve it on its own, a dome of pale ivory, or accompany it with strawberries or, later on, raspberries.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 2 heads of elderflower

3/4 pint (425ml) creamy milk

4 eggs, separated

4 1/2 oz (125g) caster sugar

1 sachet (0.4oz/11g) powdered gelatine

5fl oz (150ml) double cream

Preparation: Bring elderflowers and milk slowly to the boil, turn off the heat, cover and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks with 3oz (85g) caster sugar until thick, pale and creamy in a bowl large enough to take all the milk. Boil up the milk again, then strain through a fine sieve. Pour the hot milk in a steady, slow stream on to the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure the base of the bowl does not touch the water. Stir until custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Measure out 4tbs hot water into a small pan, and sprinkle over the gelatine. Stir until dissolved - if it seems lumpy, return to a low heat for a few minutes, but don't boil. Pour into the hot custard and stir. Leave in the fridge to cool, until barely tepid and thickening.

Whisk the egg whites into soft peaks. Sprinkle over the remaining sugar, then whisk until stiff. Fold into the custard. Leave in the fridge until almost set. Whip the cream and fold in. Rinse a 2 1/2 pint mould with cold water and shake out the excess. Spoon the mixture into the mould, smooth down and cover with a lightly oiled sheet of greaseproof paper. Leave to set in the fridge.

To turn out, remove the paper and dip the mould into hot water for about five seconds. Run a knife around the edges to loosen, then invert on to a serving dish. Give the mould a firm tap, and lift off.

NB: Elder is distinctive, but there are other trees and bushes with a passing resemblance, so make sure you know what you are picking. Check leaves and flowers with a reference book, if in doubt.

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