Monday, July 16, 2012

Ten Green Bottles

When researching elderflower champagne recipes on line, I read that you should pick the flowers on the morning of a sunny day when they will have a slight banana scent as opposed to the essence of feline urine that develops by the afternoon. Usually here in Hastings in the summer every day is a sunny day. This year I had to check the weather forecast daily and bide my time. I had already looked around my local green space to find some nice smallish trees with plenty of flowers, within reach, not too near the road. I finally noticed a sunny morning was due so I got all my equipment ready and started sterilising bottles. I went to collect my son from school. We always visit the playpark on the way home which is at the top of the green space. While there, a neighbour arrived with her daughter, her dog and a big black bulging bin bag.
"What have you got there?" I asked.
"Elderflowers" she replied.
I sighed.  She'd pilfered my stash.
Her husband who runs a restaurant makes elderflower jelly. This is what comes of living in a town with enterprising foragers; don't dally when it comes to harvesting your wild foods.
We were left with some really amazing big bunches of white flowers....right at the top of the trees. The next morning my husband and I and the loppers went out on a mission. Half an hour later I was balanced on his shoulders with loppers fully extended risking my life to reach the best blooms. I really don't like heights and in 20 years together I have never sat on my husband's shoulders so this just demonstrates the lengths I will go to to when I've put my mind to something.

Once you've nearly broken your neck getting hold of the flowers the actual making of the champagne is dead easy. I roughly followed a recipe, chucking the flowers, some cut up lemons, some sugar (and icing sugar because I didn't have enough granulated) and a little apple cider vinegar into a sterilised bucket then filling it up with water. I left it in a cool part of the house for a couple of days with a tea towel and piece of cardboard on top.
The next bit was a faff and a half. I had my plastic bottles lined up in the bath to sterilise them with sterilising fluid. I had a big jug of cooled boiled water to rinse them out afterwards. I scooped out all the lemons and flowers I could from the bucket. Then I filled a glass jug with the cloudy liquid and poured it through a tea towel (that had been rinsed in boiling water) into another bowl. This was to filter out any little bits that were left. I then poured this through a funnel into my bottles. When I had finished I left the bottles sitting out next to the washing machine with the tops just resting on them. I had read that it was a way of preventing the pressure from the gas building up and blasting them off. There was a whole thread of horror stories of broken glass and sticky liquid coating walls on the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall site. I was glad I decided to use plastic bottles. I told my husband about the loose-topped bottles. A couple of days later I came home to find him mopping up an inch of liquid from the floor next to the washing machine. There is something a little upside down about a wife being furious with her husband because he's spilled her home brew while putting a washing on. How times have changed. It's a wonder any of us can keep up.
Only three bottles were left. After a week we did have bubbles so I put one of the bottles in the fridge. It was the most delicious, refreshing, zingy drink I have ever had. Like most things you make yourself it definitely tastes all the better from all the effort. It has actually made my dreich and dreary summer a joy. I can't believe I managed to make this delicious beverage myself and that I made sparkly bubbles from flowers, water, sugar and vinegar. It's amazing. So we went for a walk in the woods and came back with another load of flowers and I started the whole process again. The second batch looks more cloudy. It's worth noting that the flowers do not keep so you really need to have everything ready to go and get them home as soon as possible. We had a bus journey back from the woods. I had collected them in a pillow case thinking they would have more air and stay fresher but when we got home they were already starting to discolour and I had to throw some away. I risked my life, stung my legs to bits with nettles, ruined two tea towels and a pillow case (don't use your best vintage ones) and it was so worth it. I'm hoping my brew will last us into the winter months and will help me cope with the miserable summer. Then there's only eleven months to wait until the flowers come out again to decorate the trees like clusters of magical stars. Something to look forward to!


  1. I've just opened my first ever bottle of the champagne. I agree, it is absolutely gorgeous! I have 6 more bottles and kind of wished I had made more, although I don't know how long it keeps. I must admit I made mine in glass bottles, but was advised to just let the pressure out every few days, so no problems so far. I think plastic ones may be the answer next year though!

  2. Yay! I think it can keep for as long as you can stop yourself drinking it! I also let the pressure out (once I had screwed the tops on the ones that were left) but with the new batch I've just left them alone. My neighbour (a different one from the one I mention above) left hers and when she opened one they had much more bubbles in them.

  3. Aha, the elderflower shampoo, we had a right palava with it too. Have 6 glass swing topped bottles in storage for winter now though. First batch e did we disposed of as it gave us terrible indigestion. On the second batch we brewed ours out for 14 days to give most of the extra fizzy gas a chance to tire.
    The story isn't over though, if you can surce trees that haven't had the flowers lopped then you can make elderberry wine in the autumn too!!!

  4. Brilliant, Lorna! There is so much information about how easy it is to make elderflower cordial or champagne out there that, for me at least, it's very reassuring to know that it can be a total faff. I would definitely be the person hunting for a means to sterilise the bottles and bucket AFTER I'd picked the flowers. I want to go and make some now but I guess the season is finished? I may have to go on a long walk on Hampstead Heath tomorrow, early, so I can identify the right flowers!

  5. The flowers have all finished down here in Hastings so possibly where you are too? Maybe you could go with Paul's suggestion of the elderberry wine. I'm tempted. Though I don't know where I'm going to make it if it involves proper brewing stuff. I would need to have a good clear out to make more space. For next year've got a couple of days brewing the flowers in the bucket to get your bottles ready. I thought I would be a bit cautious, ours has quite a lot of sediment, the odd floaty bit and my flowers weren't all perfect. It's still delicious.


  6. I think I might give this a go this season too. Thanks for the inspiration and the handy pointers. :)


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