Perfume Illuminated: Elderberry
"I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries." ----- Monthy Python and the Holy Grail
When I was a little girl my mother made me become a Brownie in the hopes that I would follow in my sisters footsteps and become a Girl Scout. My mother had been a troop leader par excellence and was just thrilled that she had one more chance to do it again! She spent my Brownie year choosing amazing things for us to do and wonderful places to go. I don’t remember most of it because it was all overshadowed by the one place she chose that was perfect.
One of her best friends when she moved into the Orange School District was a woman named Dolly Temple. My mom was the youngest PTA member and Dolly was the oldest, but the two looked at each other and became instant friends. It was because of the huge Navajo Squash Blossom necklaces that each was wearing around their necks in a community that was a hotbed of diamonds and Mikkimoto pearls. As my mother told it, she walked into this thoroughly stuffy group of very fine 50’s housewives and then there was Dolly. She and mom gravitated to each other immediately because of the boldness of those necklaces which at that time absolutely no one understood or valued. My mother looked amazing when she wore her Indian Jewelry and so did Dolly. Both were incredibly strong, with striking features and even stronger personalities. The Indian jewelry that neither of then were ever without simply mirrored the strident boldness that each of them carried within. Both wore black during the day way before it was acceptable to do so!
They were just fabulous , the last of a generation of the “they just don’t make broads like that any more”.
Dolly was a transplanted southern girl who owned 36 of the most incredibly beautiful acres in Moreland Hills, complete with a gorgeous Georgian mansion, horse barns, orchards and pastures. She raised the most beautiful Arabian horses and had several lovely little Welsh ponies.
Dolly Temple was my first mentor, the very first women who ever put me on a horse. My mother in an attempt to keep her youngest daughter interested in the “Silly Brownie Stuff” as I called it took us out to Dolly’s farm. She should have known that it would be all over then . I took one look and was smitten. The day came to cross the Brownie Bridge and approximately 5 minutes before it was to be my turn I looked at my mom and said, “I don’t want to be a Girl Scout…I want to go back to that place with the horses and learn to ride. “ My mother simply smiled and called Dolly. If she was disappointed she never let it show. Her generosity that day completely changed my life.
From that day on I practically lived at the Temples and at least 4 times I week I would go there after school, catch and brush the horses, saddle up the ponies, have my lesson and then go riding around her woods. I’d come into her house afterwards for homemade hot chocolate and huge slabs of crusty warm homemade bread with home churned butter. Sometimes I’d walk in and she’d be plucking a duck or a chicken that she’d just killed herself and the end result that day would be the most incredible homemade chicken and dumplings which she served on lavish Royal Worcester plates with her mothers gorgeous sterling.
Once or twice I accidentally walked in on her in the middle of the butchering process, but I actually didn’t mind because she walked her talk. Nothing was wasted. Dolly was very wealthy, but she did everything herself. She used everything that she raised from fruits and vegetables to the animals that she kept. She taught me to forage on her property for food and was the first woman to teach me about the value of eating wild plants. I adored her. She had blueberries everywhere and raspberries and plum tree surrounding the riding ring. There were French chestnuts that lined one of the lanes and the pastures were filled with apples tree. Everything had a purpose and was in just the right place and she let me explore all of it as if I were here own child.
One day in the spring when I was riding I noticed one of the most beautiful bushes that I’d ever seen. It was growing down along the driveway and it was the filled with the heaviest clusters of creamy flowers that I’d ever seen , draping on beautiful purple stems with thick green leaves. It was also emitting a very strange musky sweet aroma that reminded me a bit of my grandmother not in a bad way, but more like a bottle of vintage violet perfume that’s turned a little bit dark and dirty. I later learned that the beautiful blossoms were Elderberry flowers and that the plant although most parts are filled with more than a little bit of cyanide was one of the most beneficial of the wild tonics. Dolly made wines , cordials and syrups out her Elderberries and she also took some of those flowers and made wonderful fritters, covered in a very light batter and dusted with a bit of confectioners sugar. They were amazing, the heavy flowers were delicious prepared that way although definitely not for anyone who suffers from a battle with seasonal allergies!
If you’ve access to some elderberries of your own you should try to make the fritters and at the very least the syrup! You can buy elderberry syrup in any Whole Foods and it’s indispensible during cold season for helping to beef up your immunity. One of the best tonics that I know of is a simple tea made from the syrup and a bit of chopped up crystallized ginger. I use this when anyone in my house is recovering from a nasty upper respiratory infection and it was my staple drink when I was down with a bout of pneumonia 15 years ago. Something about the elderflower can inhibit a virus and truly shorten the duration of a very nasty flu by several days and I always keep some form of it in my home apothecary.
The very same syrup makes a wonderful iced tea in the summer laced with cinnamon and a bit of fresh mint. You can also use it to make a marvelous martini and a bit of elderberry syrup drizzled over berries and homemade vanilla bean ice cream is a wonderful treat. One of my favorite finds of the last several years is a golden liqueur from France made of Elderflowers named St. Germain. Although not nearly as heady and wild tasting as the homemade syrup it’s a delightfully fragrant addition to a glass of champagne.
If you’d like to try to make your own syrup you should definitely do so but remember that all parts except for the flowers and berries (including the seeds) are potentially toxic. Start with a lot of the ripe berries (about 2 lbs of them) and cook them gently in about 4 cups of water until they are soft. Some people put them through a food mill but I prefer to GENTLY mash the berries and let the weight of them strain the juice through a chinoise or a fine mesh strainer. Put the juice back into a saucepan , add a cinnamon stick, some crystallized ginger and a cup or two of maple syrup. You can also use honey if you’d like or plain old sugar. Gently reduce the syrup until it’s as thin or thick as you like, taste and bottle. That’s it. Make this once and you’ll never reach for another bottle of Robitussin again!
Now enjoy a bit of frolicsome fun with one of my favorite silly Brits, The London Forager as he makes some delicious elderflower champagne!
See that fabulous little Elderflower fairy over there flitting happily among the blossoms? She's come to lead you through the meadows to Roxana Villa's lovely gardens where I do believe that she's prepared a wonderful fragrant adventure amongst the elderberry flowers especially for you!
Elderberry Photograph courtesy of ThriftyLiving.net
St. Germain Poster courtesy of St. Germain
Lavinia Platter Courtesy of Replacements