The ephemerality of elderflower (and a champagne recipe)

One of the great delights for me this time of year is remembering the vats of elderflower champagne I lovingly tended back at the beginning of June, now stashed in my father’s spacious fridge. The flowers were late this year, so my brewing frenzy went on well into the month with an increased sense of obsessive, protective attention to the beautifully simple but elegant alchemy of this best of homemade summer tipples. Making the champagne can be as intoxicating as drinking it. Within 24 hours the brew releases that  distinctive, heady elder aroma which has intensified during the initial steeping process. Each morning I check on the muslined buckets and jugs ranged in my study, fingers crossed for the cauldron bubble which means it’s doing its thing; each evening release the pressure every once the precious stuff is in bottles, treating it with all the care of a proud gardener whispering to his prize tomatoes and measuring the length of his beans every hour (although I could get quite into that as well).

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The thing is, the hedgerow brew’s always a bit hit-and-miss – you just never know what the yeast content is like in any given year; how the weather has affected the flower’s scent; whether the liquor will ferment from the natural yeast or not; whether you ought to add a pinch of artificial yeast, and if yes, ensuring it’s just the right amount. It’s why I make up batch after batch, stripping the hedgerows bare in the fields around, initially because I plan to drink lots, but ultimately because they won’t all work out. It’s part of the great pleasure of this drink though: there are no guarantees, every ‘vintage’ tastes slightly different, and that unpredictability suggests something of the delicate flower itself – blooming for just a short few weeks in early summer. That’s what you’re trying to bottle, to pop open that musky, elegant, last-week-of-May fragrance just late on enough in the summer that you’ve forgotten all about it.

Here’s my recipe. The basic measures originally came from a kindly and eccentric chap who runs the Slatemill Lodge B&B in Marloes, Pembrokeshire. His brew is wonderful and there’s always some ready if you go and stay, whatever time of the year! I think I’ve just about got this right now after two years’ of trialing. Even still, I needed to tweak things a little this year when the first attempt turned out very yeasty. I’d added literally a few grains of the dried stuff to help things along, but it completely ruined it – perhaps there was a high yeast yield in the flowers this year? No doubt next year will require a little adjustment too.

ELDERFLOWER CHAMPAGNE – 5 litres
1. Pour 1 litre of boiling water into a suitably large sterilised bucket/jug/bin.
2. Dissolve 600g sugar in this water. Then add 4 litres of cold water to make 5 litres in total. Leave to reach blood temperature (use a thermometer or just your finger to ensure it is tepid).
3. Add the zest and juice of 2 lemons, 1.5 tablespoons of cider or white wine vinegar, 20-25 heads of elderflower (checked thoroughly and cleaned of insects, although don’t worry too much – you can strain any remaining bugs out when you bottle!). If adding artificial yeast, do so now (which is why the water needs to be tepid). A few grains is all. Bread yeast is fine, but brewer’s or champagne would no doubt be better if you’ve got it.
4. Stir gently, cover with muslin or a tea towel, and set aside somewhere to do its thing (not somewhere cold).
5. After 24 hours, wherever you’ve stuck your brew should smell wonderfully of elderflower. After 48 hours, it should be starting to bubble. If it’s not doing this, add a few more grains of yeast – this has done the trick for me before.
6. 5 days after you first set your brew aside (6-7 if it took a while to get going), fermentation should be well underway, and now is the time to gently strain the liquid through muslin pulled over a sieve and pour into your bottles. A kitchen funnel is very useful at this stage. If you want it to look fancy, swing top champagne bottles are great, but I mostly use plastic fizzy drinks bottles.
7. Whatever bottles you are using, release the pressure once a day to avoid explosions. After a week you can stick your valuable champagne into the fridge to stop fermentation (because the yeast becomes dormant) and your champagne will be ready and chilled for whenever you require it. Even months later.

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