Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I haven't been blackberry hunting in a few years--time or less-than-optimal summer weather has been against me in my endeavors to get tasty fruit for free.  Furthermore, the plants themselves only produce a decent harvest a few years at a time, so the places that would have yielded a good picking have probably changed by now.

But it is elderberry season, and these are somewhat less-dependent on the weather, and in fact a cool wet summer is ideal for fat, juicy elderberries.  Vlierbessen grow almost everywhere in the nearby Heumen Bos, and the one year we went after them, we picked so many we had to (much to my regret) toss about half of them, simply because they couldn't be used--and this was even with leaving what I called a "bird tithe", as we'd only pick about half of the berries on a bunch.  Karel made a delicious syrup that year--whether it actually cured colds is a matter of debate, but a hot drink made with that syrup and a bit of ginger tastes like spring on a cold day in winter and I'd imagine that the syrup would taste great as a summer drink with a bit of soda water (and rum).  Unfortunately, we only had one bottle that could be used to store it, and after another year in the fridge, we couldn't trust it to be good anymore.

However, this year, I've been saving up the smaller koffiemelk bottles; Karel had wanted to make ketchup, but the gods had decreed that the tomatoes would only go on sale when he didn't have the time to make it.  But it's okay, because this year we've gone out and gotten ourselves yet another harvest of elderberries for yet another syrup.

In Dutch cooking, vlierbessen are often mixed with fruits like apples to make something similar to apple butter, added to jenever or vodka, or made into jellies.  I haven't come upon any recipes for elderberry wine in Dutch--most of the recipes and how-to's I've seen come from England.  Elderberry wine is pretty simple in terms of processing, but it does take a bit of time and being around on certain days.  While you could probably make a decent "trail wine" (a mash of berries and water, fermented with natural yeasts for an afternoon in your water bottle) with them, the good stuff, as several sites have assured me, will have aged for at least 1 year, and preferably from 3-5.

I'm not going to include step-by-step directions for Karel's syrup, since there is no perfect way to preserve (other than "sterile").  Karel likes to infuse his preserves with little special somethings--cinammon, brandy, kirsch, herbs, you get the point.  There are a lot of good directions on the Internet for making preserves, but by and large the most critical factor is to keep everything hot.  I should add that I'm not a fan of dishwasher sterilization, personally; unless your dishwasher has an "sterilize" function (ours does not) and bakes your glass at a temperature well above boiling (250° F, 121° C), merely running your glassware through a dishwasher won't be enough, as Clostridium botulinum spores can easily survive a boiling.  Karel covers his glassware with aluminum foil and then bakes it for about an hour--covering stuff with foil is a tried-and-true method of keeping glassware sterile, as labs everywhere use it to keep their tissue culture stuff sterile. Caveat emptor, and to each his own.

A word of warning to those who may be tempted to go a-foraging:  the elder plant and unripened berries are poisonous--and this includes the stems, so be careful when you're gathering your fruit.  The ripe berries themselves are perfectly edible, though they taste a lot better after they've been cooked.  And happily, it's easy enough to tell when the berries are ripe:  they'll be a monochromatic black, with no traces of green or red.  

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