I finally got around to doing a little research on elderberries. I often see the shrubs growing here in Los Angeles and also all along Highway 101 when I drive up to the Central Coast. I recognized the creamy white blooms, which grow in little umbels, and had tasted elderflower syrups, but never anything made from the berries.
I learned that in Southern California we have the Sambucus mexicana and Sambucus caerula (or blue elder) varieties. They have long been important plants to indigenous people, a prime food source for birds, and excellent pollinator attractors. The blue elder is distinguishable in part by the glaucous coating on the berries. This appears as a greyish-white bloom that gives the berries a pale blue appearance yet wipes off with a little friction. Now that I recognize them, I seem to see them everywhere!
In certain parts of Europe, the elder tree has been associated with witches and fairies. Lore has it that one should ask permission from the “elder mother” before taking any wood from the tree so as not to suffer her wrath! She seems especially keen on pulling the legs of babies and small children while they sleep. Yikes!
The elderberries themselves are commonly used in syrups for cold and flu season. They are packed with vitamin C, A and antioxidants. However, if preparing your own elderberry concoctions do so carefully as the leaves, stems and unripe berries are toxic!! Make sure to identify the elderberry properly before jumping into any recipes. I found that many of the recipes for elderberry syrup are flavored with ginger, cinnamon and clove and sweetened with honey. This lends a pleasant warming quality to the syrup and makes for a tasty flavor combination. I followed the recipes found on Wellness Mama and Mountain Rose Herbs. I was not able to get a true syrup thickness with these recipes, however. The finished product was fairly liquidy, but delicious nonetheless! I tried a second go-around letting the liquid simmer for longer uncovered, thinking maybe that would help it reduce. But that seemed to just result in more evaporation. Perhaps if I had added the honey and then reduced? I’d like to find a recipe that will get me a really nice thick syrup, but for now this works just fine. If anyone has found a truly syrup-y recipe, please let me know!
The syrup can be taken as a supplement or just used for flavorful addition to a variety of dishes. I added some drizzles of it to yogurt with blackberries and it was divine. My friend says she eats hers on ice cream! It’s also a nice addition to sparkling water. I’m also curious about the British “pontack” sauce, which combines elderberries with shallots, vinegar, sugar and spices to create a “ketchup” popular in the 17th century and typically used to season game. Perhaps I’ll give this one a try sometime!
UPDATE: I recently tried thickening my syrup with arrowroot powder and it works pretty well! It does have an ever-so-slight flavor but I’d say it’s almost undetectable. I recommend mixing the arrowroot powder thoroughly with some of your liquid syrup first before adding it back to the pot so you don’t get lumps. Start with a little and add more as needed. It will thicken a little more after cooling, so keep that in mind as well.