Sunday, 7 August 2011

A syrup of sweet sonsie, peelie-wallie flouers - Elderflower cordial - a good life lab experiment

The good life gardener, in action, best wellie forward,  knee deep in an elder..........
You may indeed think I've completely lost my marbles or I'm typing when tipsy. Neither of these are true right now, although I've been upto my wellies and armpits, often on my tippie toes, in elder bushes (sambucus niger) lately picking elderflowers, so I may be giddy or intoxicated from the pursuit of this task ! I've got all inspired by several folk to have a go at making Elderflower Cordial, whilst the season is over for most of you, the flowers are only just going over here, so I've been busy plucking flowers and making home made cordial or syrup to reduce our buying at home and to have a yummy stash of local home made cordial in the larder at home. And, me being me, means with the best of intentions, I often forget to do things when they are ripe/ready. But, not this year!
A sonsie plump elderflower head
And, why a 'sweet sonsie of peelie-wallie flouers' you may ask? Well, flopped out on the sofa, on a saturday night, as you do, I spied quite accidentally across the BeechGrove Garden on BBC TV, a local scottish gardening programme. I'm not great at sitting and watching TV, I think I have an attention problem, I have the attention span of a gnat and I'm also a figdet - these two qualities do not readily inspire couch potato behaviour. Anyhow, good old Jim McColl's first words contained some scots phrases I absolutely love, they roll of the tongue, I learnt many of them from my Grannie! Phrases you don't hear much now like 'peelie-wallie' {meaning pale, delicate, or often insipid} and 'sonsie' Jim was bestowing on their rather fine cabbages. I'd heard of 'sonsie' but didn't really know what it meant, I kind of knew the gist of it, but not the true meaning ' a sonsie cabbage, do I want one? Jim what on earth is that?' - being a fidget, out came Mr Google and the online scots dictionary told me the following:
sonsie ['sonse]

adj. Enjoying good fortune, fortunate, prosperous, attended by good luck. Engaging and friendly in appearance or manner, hearty, jolly. Of people: sound, sensible, shrewd. Of women: comely, attractive, good-looking. In respect of the figure: buxom, plump. Of things or personifications: fine handsome, impressive, pleasant, cheery, big, ample, roomy, capacious, substantial, abundant, characterised by plenty.

What a fine word that  is for a gardener to be learning! Therefore I thought I'd use it today, whilst I don't sound scottish in real life, I am scottish and I'm clearly scottish in my own head as I talk to myself in scots dialect quite alot. Funny that isn't it? Not the talking to myself bit, the talking to myself in dialect bit. And, I found out the dialect word for flower = flouer - nice to know!

Elderflower cordial, a brewing...............
Anyway I digress - back to the sweet sonsie syrup of the peelie-wallie flouers. Elderflower cordial, is, it has to be said, delish and easy to make. No special equipment needed, you can be all romantic and take fancy equipment if you like to make this but to be honest all you need is a bag, a pot, and/or a tub to steep (infuse) it all in and a teatowel/colander to strain it all in and a jug to decant the stuff into bottles after you're done. There you go it really is that simple, here in the goodlife lab, we try and find the laziest (um, I mean easiest) way to do things, with the least fuss and clobber required to make life simple, cost less and tasty. Well thats the remit anyway!

OK, cordial - recipe came from here at the Jammy Chicken thank you very much for the recipe, this blog has truely beautiful pictures, mine are at best comedic, as I can't possibly compare with the fine photography over there! And thank you to Wittgenstiens Watering can for putting me in the direction of the recipe!

Basically its 10 sonsie (plump and extravagent) peelie-wallie (beautifully pale, not insipid) elder flouerheads to each 2lb sugar, to 1 pint water, to a handful of lemon (in my case frozen sliced lemons unused at xmas and bagged up for a later use) and 35g of citric acid, which makes it nice and tart, although you can avoid this and use more lemon if you like. Its YOUR cordial, have a bash and see what you prefer, I experimented and I prefer it with the citric acid, but its your show. Basically, I ended up with a bag of sugar (minus a bit if I remember otherwise I put in 1kg) to a pint of water with random amounts of lemons added and roughly 35g citric acid. Lifes too short for measuring too precisely in my life. Enjoy experimenting, don't be stressed by getting everything perfect, lifes not! Lob sugar and water into pot, bring to boil, dissolve sugar then let it cool whilst you're off communing with nature. I popped in the frozen lemons when it was cooling to get that bit out of the way unpeeled, ungrated, just lobbed in. Purists can grate and peel, I, I'm afraid am more of a lobbing kind of cook. Zesters and graters cost money, whilst I own a grater I don't own a zester, so thats my excuse. Add citric acid once the mixture cooled down.

Anyway - if in full cordial making mode, I'd make the syrup before you go out and don your finest wellies and pick flowers when in season - ours are only just going over here in the frozen northern isles and we don't always get berries here (due to the wind) so to be honest picking flowers is a safer bet than hanging out for berries in my mind. I've been making larger batches - that way the process is more rewarding, but its upto you, I stick to the bag of sugar to 10 flowers, to a pint of water. And when picking the flowers you want right 'sonsie' ones, big plump lush flowerheads - they make great cordial, but I'm not a purest, the peedie skinny ones get grabbed too. I'd say only that not to take all the flowers from one bush, remember the bees and butterflies love this plant, and the birds will love the berries later, so pick carefully and don't gorge yourself from only one plant. Be respectful of other users, be them birdies or beasties. And talking of beasties, give the flowers a shake to make sure you're not taking any home, but don't wash them (the flowers not the beasties), you'll lose that gorgeous flavour...........

An elderflower head, is a mass of flowers, in a corymb..........

Individual teeny tiny elder flowers, aren't they very pretty and cute? I think they look like flower confetti.
Back to your own good life lab for the messy bit. Well its not exactly messy, but you have to, um, deflower, the flowers. That got me giggling as to be fair it sounds a bit rude, but its not. Basically the only way I can describe it is you clasp the flower head in your hand and gently rub off the flowers - an elderflower is a flat head is a branched cluster of many flowers in what they call a corymb, just alot of flowers in a tight cluster, great for picking them. Each actual flower is tiny! I'm glad they grow in corymb's - imagine picking them one by one - bleurgh! Anyway, the easiest way found to work is to almost think of crumbling the flowers, gently like when you add a stock cube to soup or crumble a bit of cheese. Using your two forefingers and thumbs gently tease the flowers straight into either a bowl or a tub or the syrup.

I started using a bowl with a tea-towel over it, but found it a bit messy to move, so I've settled on a large old plastic tub which has a lid, (a recycled ice-cream tub would do) it keeps the flies out and if I want to put it in the fridge to do its magic, its easier to move. But, its your cordial, do it with what you've got to hand and however suits you. And, thats it, once you're sweet sonsie peelie-wallie flouers are in the syrup, go off, enjoy your life for 1-2, maybe even 3 days if you like and then strain it through a seive, or a colander or through a jelly bag - whatever you've got to hand. I have found using a clean tea-towel does fine, if its placed over a colander. You can leave it to strain or squish it through yourself - depends how you're feeling.  The cordial can be ready after 24 hours, but leaving it longer also works - I've left it upto a week the strained it, not much improvement in flavour, but I was going away for a few days on another adventure and wanted to do it when I came home.

Once strained, put into a container, bottle, jug, in the fridge, I'm told it can last for a year, probably not in this house, Mr Flowers has taken a real liking to the flowery cordail. We've got it hidden, um I mean, stored in well washed out recycled milk containers, old tomato sauce glass bottles, old bubble bath bottles, wine bottles, jars and old pop bottles. Whilst this cordial is very gorgeous, its not a drama queen and won't object to being in a recycled bottle, it probably quite enjoys its 'vintage, recycled, shabby chic' new home. A label is probably a good idea, I've used a garden label pen to write on the containers, but if you forget, then just sniff it, you'll know what you've got. It's really that simple. The recipe worked for raspberries too, I'd try out more things and see what you like.

Hooray - we've got luscious local home made cordial stored for the loons (young men), quines (young ladies) and the bairns (kids), for the cost of a bag of sugar (80p) we get two pints of cordial, from a bit of a foray into the shrubbery and a bit of deflowering of sweet sonsie peelie-wallie flouers.  I'm trying to grow/eat more local produce and reduce both my food miles and my spending. Whilst there are a number of very lovely elderflower cordials on the market, they are expensive and YOUR own will be far superior and local and cheaper in money and carbon. 

I'd never considered growing elder before or even really an advantage to having it in my garden, the foliage smells a bit and I've never thought of it as an interesting shrub, shame on me, now I'll think again. What a brilliant little productive plant it really is. I've never really been foraging much, but I'll be looking out for other local things to be harvesting for my own storecupboard. I've even used a few of the flowers from the ornamental elder 'Black lace' which was flowering at work...........worked nicely too.

Another great good life lab experiment!

And, I've heard that meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) can also be used (although I heard mixed results about its flavour), which I have all down the track to the hoose so I'll give that a go too................found a recipe here looked pretty good.
Filipendula ulmaria, not a Harry Potter spell as my other half thinks I make up most latin plant names, its actually common meadowsweet!

Filipendula ulmaria, meadowsweet on the track to the hoose, fery leaving stromness taking Mr Flowers back to the deep south of the central belt.
If you think you're not sure what I'm blethering (talking) about, I've put a link to the scots words I've got up there and you can amuse yourself by putting in 'english' words and seeing what the scots are!

And, as the inspirational Beechgrove lot would say - Cheerio!

Ps one of the Beechgrove team was the guy who interviewed me, gave me my first break and was my main tutor when I studied flowers for the first time, I've so much to thank him for, his direction was indeed life changing. However, when  his booming voice now coming out of the TV it still gets me sitting up straight and paying attention, in case he asks me a question. Whilst I know that can't happen, you just never know with that canny loon! Mr Anderson, thank you and I'm absolutely paying attention!


  1. Yet another wonderful post. My elderflower champagne was lovely last year but I have mixed results with the cordial. So if Mr Anderson taught you do you think he would be interested in your blog? I would be sending him an email to (re)introduce yourself. Who knows we might be seeing you feature on Beechgrove Garden in the future;)

  2. I don't take the flowers off, just lob them into a bucket with the cut up lemons,sugar and citric acid, after you have put 1 pt boiling water in to disolve the sugar, stick in the flower heads 5 pints of cold water and leave to steep for 24 - 48 hours, strain and bottle and stick the rubbish on the compost heap. I have 2 bottles in the wine rack and one in the fridge. Delicious with ice cubes and fizzy water on a hot day, or if you just want a long cool drink.

    I have als used it with just a little hot water when I have a cold ( not very often) nice sharp taste and helps to clear the muck from a sore throat.

  3. I love this! The photo of the 'brewing' cordial is wonderful. I'll have to have a look around my yard for something peelie-wallie or sonsie! Your wellies are so cute, too.

  4. Cheri thank you! I think George still has a restraining order out (I'm joking!) I'm still very much on a steep learning curve with plants, but one day, you never know!! Something to aim for, but there's so many good gardeners out there!

    Sue glad you liked the photo, enjoy blethiering in scots.

    Silversewer very interesting, I'll email you, that's even more straightforward! And, I give the flowers after to my chooks, but composting is brilliant too :)

  5. Cheri do you have a recipe for the champagne?

  6. Great post ..........................if a little late for us southerners!! (all flowers have gone some almost in berry!)

    I have heard the black elder flowers make a pink coloured cordial yummy

    I was at a farm visit yesterday and thought of you as the chap had planted loads of different willow varieties on his sustainable smallholding...........fabulous

  7. Squirrel, exactly, I'm so surprised at the difference in season, between here and the remaining uk, I've read about it, but actally virtually seeing it is quite scary! Bookmark it for next year :) at least, at my snail pace, I manage to keep up with you all, due to our shorter, later growing season!

    Oh pink cordial, that would be fun :) xx

    Yay to sustainable smallholdings :) willow is awesome! Even after four years of it, I'm still amazed at it's potential

  8. Lucky lucky you to still have elderflowers in August. I only just caught the tail end of mine (mostly trashed by the gales and torrential rain) so I didn't get much made, but every wee drop is a delight isn't it.

    Just read on your profile that your were at the Botanics, me too, but I was a volunteer (2002-4 I think). Would have taken it further but got M.E. Still, I love my own wee patch at home and it's always good to find other gardeners who have wind issues, and clearly you will have WAY more than me up there (I'm by the Pentlands and it hits me full on, but only sometimes).

  9. Oh my goodness I feel like I've been in your kitchen. What an awesome post. I laughed so much and learned so much. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I agree with that "life's too short for measuring" philosophy. And as a cheap cook who also has a grater and not a zester, it just all makes sense. I enjoyed to death the Scottish language parts. And your "deflowering" was hysterical! Then too I assumed it was berries you use & was surprised at flowers. Can you describe the taste? Does it change? Does it become alcoholic?

  10. That's very interesting, my elder bush is tiny can't wait until it grows bigger and I can harvest berries. I love the subtle taste of elderflower too.

  11. Oh I'm glad you've had so much fun with the cordial. I do miss Beechgrove Garden since I moved doon sooth.. I wonder if it's on iPlayer?

  12. Callie, I'm lucky I studied there twice 2000-1 doing 'plantsmanship' and returned in 2005-6 to do the plant biodiversity and taxonomy MSc - hard work but brilliant! Looks like we missed each other! We go most times we are down, being a free place to visit, is awesome!

    Pentland hills are very brrish!

  13. Linniew the cordial it's incredibly refreshing, aromatic and sharp, fresh and clean, it's very yummy. Not alcoholic, but you can make champagne with it.

    If that helps....

  14. Wwc thank you, and I think it's yummy and very kind of you :)

    Mrs bok, I'm willing it grow for you.

  15. Really interested to come across this blog when searching for 'elderflower orkney' to try and find out whether elders grow well in Orkney as we move up in 6 weeks and though I have made endless batches to last us through the winter I am delighted to know I can go foraging and make more next year. Interesting to hear you used frozen lemons, never tried that in coridal. I crush a couple of campden tablets in each batch as I find that's the only thing that works to keep it for months...Look forward to reading more of the blog as we prepare for our move up...