“Your father smelt of elderberries,” taunts the French knight in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. And that was not a compliment. Even Euell Gibbons, the ever-optimistic grandfather of American foraging, described the elderberry’s odor and flavor as “rank.” But if these berries are so offensive, why do people forage for them? Two reasons: jelly and wine.
American elders (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis) aren’t hard to find. They’re woody shrubs with opposite, pinnately compound leaves and pithy branches. Their bark is covered with blister-like lenticels. Many wet and sunny roadsides explode with their showy, white, flat-topped, branching clusters of flowers in the hot days of early summer. In our area, those flowers will ripen into heavy blue-black fruits that weigh down the arching branches in September – the clusters about the size of a tea saucer. Red elderberry (S. racemosa) is found in our region, as well. It flowers much earlier and its fruit ripens in early summer. Its small red berries are less edible and require different preparation.
The easy part of elderberry foraging is the harvest. The flowers and ripe fruit are the only edible parts of the elder. All other parts of the plant, including leaves, twigs, roots, and unripe berries are toxic. There’s no need for meticulous picking. With elderberries, the whole cluster can be cut at once with a pair of shears. You can gather gallons of berries in a few minutes. Unfortunately, no one is likely to eat the raw berries that you’ve collected, except the birds. I’ve met few people who find their flavor pleasant.
Turning those berries into something tasty requires three steps – destemming, cooking, and deseeding. The quickest method for destemming elderberries is to lay the clusters on a cookie sheet, freeze them, and then roll the frozen berries off of the stems with your fingers. Cooking elderberries destroys the substances that give raw elderberries their unpleasant flavor. Most foragers boil the berries for about 15 minutes in one cup of water for every quart of berries. Mash them lightly once or twice after boiling. Thus softened, it is easier to strain the elderberry juice through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. What results is a dark, slightly sweet juice.
We’ve made elderberry baked goods with varying success. We’ve enjoyed elderflower mead. But most foragers agree that the highest uses of elderberries are jams and wines. We have no experience with wine-making, but we enjoy jellies.
Elderberries are better as a jelly (made of the juice) than as a jam (made of the whole fruit). To make a good jelly, add sweetener as well as a source of acid – lemon juice, apple, crab-apple, and commercial pectin are all good choices. Mixing the elderberry juice with other sour juices makes for interesting flavor combinations and tends to lighten the color – a great choice is to mix it with an infusion of staghorn sumac berries. People are quick to forgive elderberries for their shortcomings as a raw fruit after they’ve enjoyed elderberry jelly on a warm biscuit.
4 1/2 cups elderberry juice
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 package low-sugar pectin
1. Sterilize five half-pint Mason jars and lids.
2. Stir 1/4 cup of sugar, pectin, and precisely measured juice into a large pot.
3. Bring to a full boil, stirring constantly.
4. When mixture reaches full boil, add remaining sugar (23/4 cups). Stir until boil return. Then boil one minute more.
5. Remove from heat.
6. Pour into prepared jars. Seal with lids.
7. Turn jars upside down for 10 minutes. Turn back over and wait until you hear the lids seal.
8. Jelly will set within 24 hours. Will keep in unopened jars at least one year.