By Aurora @ Island Dreaming
The urban hedgerows around here are heavy with elderberries right now - offering abundance to anyone willing to look up and take notice - seemingly very few people. This is a great shame as they are delicious. They have a nice fruity berry taste, if you can get past the astringency of the tannins they contain. The best way to do this is to cook them, usually with sugar or sweeter fruits. They make delicious jellies, preserves and pie fillings on their own or with other sweeter fruits, and good wines and cordials. I have no experience of this, but they can also be dried and added to baked goods.
This year we plan to make wine and jelly with them. I don't like taking too many bunches of berries from the same tree, or too many from the same area and so we have been collecting small harvests on walks across the city over the last few weeks, which we freeze for use when we have enough berries and enough time to do something with them. Only the ripe black berries are edible and they must be removed from the toxic stems. This is easier said than done as the berries are densely packed onto delicately branching heads that collect all manner of dust, debris and creepy crawlies whilst on the tree. Bunches tend to be of mixed ripeness, so going for the most uniformly ripe heads that you can find means less picking and less sorting later on. Once home, there are two main methods of removing the berries from the unwashed stems, both of which are fairly time consuming. If you can rope in a companion to help, the task will be infinitely more enjoyable.
Firstly, the berries can be gently rubbed off of the umbels between fingers and thumb. Green, unripe berries tend to stay attached to the branches, which means less sorting later on. This method is my preferred method, as it can be done with one hand, holding a baby or cup of tea in the other if necessary.
Another method is to use a fork to comb the berries from the stems. This second method of removing them is faster, but strips all berries, regardless of ripeness. Weaker stems also tend to break off, often with berries attached leaving more sorting for later.
Any obvious debris, unripe berries and young spiders can now be removed from the berry mountain. It is fairly easy to pick out large bits of debris - leaves, branch and unripe green berries. It also gives young spiders enough time to crawl out of harms way.
After this, it is necessary to wash the berries to remove dust. If you have several kilos it is best to process small batches at a time to prevent crushing, preserving as much of the juice as possible. Filling a bowl with cold water and then adding the berries to it prevents them being damaged by a blast of water from the tap. A few gentle swirls will lift the dust from them and any last bits of stem and unripe and spoiled berries tend to float to the surface where they can be skimmed off, and a few unripe berries and small bits left behind won't hurt anyone. Drain gently in a colander and store or cook as you wish.