Nothing could be more cordial

Photo: Hillary Rowley
Photo: Hillary Rowley
If you thought children enjoyed drinking elderflower champagne because it is so delicious, think again. This delicate, sweet, floral, fizzy drink actually does contain a little alcohol. I was wondering why my friend's children were so happy glugging it down. I thought I was just giving them a sugar rush.

Elderflowers make a lovely drink, but with the "champagne" version it can be difficult to get the sugar level right. Too much sugar and it has a terrible habit of exploding glass bottles or, if bottled in plastic, turning into a geyser when the bottle is opened, and when it has finished spraying everywhere, leaving nothing in the bottle to drink. There is a better way. Try making elderflower cordial, then adding it to some sparkling soda, preferably made in a soda stream or similar device, to avoid buying single use plastic bottles. Making elderflower cordial also reduces the amount of storage needed when making elderflower "champagne".

Elderflowers are at their best, in a normal summer, at the time of university exams. Pick the blossoms on a warm sunny day when there are many bees busy, and choose blossoms from a tree which has the most pleasing or strong muscat grape scent. The flavour actually varies quite a lot between trees. I have a favourite and easily accessible tree, but have a bad habit of picking too many flowers from it in early summer, so when I return in autumn to pick elderberries for making cough syrup, there are very few left to pick.

There are loads of recipes for elderflower cordial which use a silly method where hot sugar syrup is poured over the flowers before straining them. This leaves a sticky jelly bag full of sugary flowers to throw in the compost heap to attract wasps and rats, not to mention the waste of sugar. This recipe is the only one I have found to soak the flowers in water, and it is so much easier.


Put 25 elderflower heads in a bucket or large bowl, with the zest of 2 lemons and one orange.

Reserve the citrus juice.

Cover the flowers with 1.5 litres of boiling water. Cover and leave overnight.

The next day strain through a jelly bag (piece of muslin) into a big pot.

Add 1kg of sugar and the reserved juice.

Heat gently to dissolve the sugar and cook for a couple of minutes.

Pour into sterilised bottles, (washed dried and heated in the oven) and screw on tops which have been boiled to soften the seals. Make sure there is a couple of centimetres headroom at the top of each bottle.

I process the bottles in a water bath to ensure they don't start fermenting and exploding without refrigeration. To do this you need a deep pot. Put some folded tea towels in the bottom, to keep the bottles from sitting on the direct heat. Place the bottles in the pot and loosely pack them round with more tea towels so they can't fall over. Fill the pot with water, but no higher than the necks of the bottles, bring up to a simmer and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the bottles from the pot and cool. Check that the lids have popped down. With a good seal the cordial will keep for over a year. Any bottles which don't form a good seal will have to be drunk earlier, which is not too much of a trial.


If you like, you can replace the sugar with a mild flavour of honey, such as clover, or use an artificial sweetener such as stevia. When using stevia you will definitely have to process the bottles as stevia is not a great preservative.

Elderflower cordial is pretty posh stuff, very expensive to buy and it looks impressive in tall glasses on a hot summer's day with a garnish of mint and plenty of ice. If you really want to bring back the alcohol factor try mixing it with a very dry sparkling wine. Cheers.

Hilary Rowley is a frugal, foraging foodie from Waitati. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


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