The Secret Recipe – Elderflower Champagne

Elderflower champagne is what started my fascination with foraging.  It started when I was 15 and found I could avoid blagging the off license for a month or two and just make alcohol.  You can just pick a flower at the bottom of your garden in June, go to the supermarket buy some sugar and lemons and after 4 weeks…boom.  It was a bit of a revelation.  I made 10 litres the first time, it was way too sweet but it was alcoholic and got my friends and I drunk in the sun.  The first time I didn’t know how much pressure built up in the bottle.   I stored the brew in the the utility room in the corner on its side. When I opened the door I could feel something not quite right in the door way.  I couldn’t work it out but I bloody knew it had something to do with that elderflower concoction in the corner.  I got my mum, but she thought they looked fine, so I put her in the door way.  She said something creepy was going on.  I investigated these inflated bomb looking elderflower bottles and found there was a tiny perforation in  the cap with a jet thinner than a hair perfectly arching from one side of the room to the other, but you could only just see it if you knew it was there.  It was pretty amazing.  I then picked the bomb up and it exploded. 

It is does quite explosive but you can control it.  The alcohol and fizz comes from wild yeast in the elderflowers.  As long as you release the gas you’ll be alright.  What is living if you don’t take a risk, eh?

SUGAR + YEAST = ALCHOHOL + CARBON DIOXIDE

What a perfect equation.

Elder trees have a dark side though as legends and superstitions surround it.  In the middle ages it was believed Jesus’ cross was made from an elder tree.  The Danes believed the tree was under the special protection of the ‘Elder Mother’ and strict rules applied by the superstitious in using the products of the tree.  Flowers could not be gathered without the special permission of the ‘Elder Mother’ and the use of the wood for household furniture was taboo.   Folk law said the ‘Elder Mother’ would strangle any baby unfortunate enough to be placed in a cradle made of elder wood. 

Maybe I should have asked permission from the ‘Elder Mother’ because over 10 years I’ve had failures – explosions, spilling calamities, vinegar taste and theft.   Failure breeds success though and now I have a solid recipe (in my head) and understanding of the processes, so I have up to 70 litres every year.  Selling them to my mates and generally revelling in having a continuous flow of summer drink for months.  I can’t do much wrong in July and August because I can just pay people off in bottles of elderflower.  Making it is a good excuse to have a party as well.  I need to get many plastic bottles and Tesco seem to be the cheapest.  I buy the 17p lemonade bottles- 45 for like 8 quid.  Stack them up at the party and tell everyone to bring a spirit!

“You can’t call it champagne, its not from Champagne”

Yer yer yer.  If you made it, you would call it champagne.  I like to think it’s called champagne because it is brewed in the bottle, like ‘proper’ champagne.  It does get super fizzy from the wild yeast so thats why I use lemonade bottles because they are designed to take the pressure.  After a couple of weeks the dimples at the bottom will start to get rounded but these bottles are pretty hardy.   After a 1.5 months I think its safe to transfer them into glass champagne or prosecco bottles if you wish.  But it needs to be drunk sooner rather than later otherwise it MAY explode after 2 weeks but it depends how long they have been brewed for.  Wild yeast makes it an art rather than a science.     

the SECRET RECIPE

I decide how much I am going to make and scale up the recipe.  If you want to make 40 litres times the below by 40.  30 litres times everything by 30.

N.B All ingredients are to the litre of water
137g of sugar
0.4 lemons rinds removed and juice squeezed (keep the rinds throw the pith)
0.7 heads of elder flowers
6mls white wine vinegar
0.2g of brewing yeast (insurance- to make sure its alcoholic!)

 

I never really wrote down my recipe, it kind of just came back to me every year and of course it changed.  I think I subconsciously I told myself what to alter based on last years performance and then made last minute little adjustments based on a little voice in my head.  This is often right at the last minute so anything I wrote down at the start,  wasn’t true any way. Even so i have ATTEMPTED to write down what I did this year and quantify it.

This recipe works and will be great, trust me.

What you need

For brewing

A new bin or large vessel
A jug
clingfilm
a wooden spoon
washing up liquid
a kettle

For bottling

2 x arm length of hose
bucket or large bowl
colander
tea towel
Many lemonade bottles

 

What to do

Go foraging and pick the elder flowers!  Ask the ‘Elder Mother’ if you are superstitious.  I like to get the really white ones which are in full bloom on a sunny day.  Cut just under the head.   Careful of bugs, sometimes they are all over the underside of the bunch. Once you start looking you will be surprised how many are out there.  They are easy to identify.  Picture below.rsz_img_4877

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I picked my elder flowers with my housemate Tom in Brockwell park. This bush is 200m from my house!

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IMG_4875Buy your lemons, sugar and white wine vinegar.  You can order brewers yeast off the internet,  its pretty universal and should hold you in good stead for future brewing projects.  You shouldn’t really need it though and I have gone without it before.  I have used bakers yeast but this produces loads of silt.

Get your housemates/family to peel and juice all the lemons on promise of shares in your elder glory. 70 litres is 28 lemons.

Get your vessel, scrub it clean with washing up liquid and then pour boiling water in the inside to get it squeaky clean.  When your ready to start, turn all your hobs on the cooker on and boil as much water as possible (measure it in litres). Then (this is the best bit in my opinion) empty all you sugar into the bin.  I love anything in bulk and tipping all that sugar in the bin makes me happy for some reason.  For 70 litres is 9.5kg.

When your water has boiled pour it in the bin and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Make sure you know how much water is going in the bin.  If you make 70L you will need 10L to dissolve the sugar.  If 20L you will need about 3L.  Roughly an 1/8 boiling water.

rsz_img_4892Once the sugar has dissolved get your bin by the kitchen tap and top up your water to the amount you decided on.  I like to shout loudly so I don’t forget the number of litres.  When your half way there add your elder flowers- no need to wash them.  Add your white wine vinegar (70L = 420mls) and lemon juice and peel.  Activate the yeast in a little warm water for 5 minutes and then add to the concoction (70L = 14g),  this is really a just in case measure, wild yeast can be unpredictable.

Give it a really good old mix.  I wrap cling film round the top but leave it open in the middle so when I move it it doesn’t slosh every where.  Cover the container with a tea cloth or the bin lid.

Leave for 4-5 days to start the fermentation process.  When you come back to it you should be able to hear the yeast in action.  Probably best to say hello to your yeasty guys.

Bottling

The next stage is to go and get your bottles in the 4-5 day marinating stage.  I throw a party but usually end up pouring all the

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The magical act of siphoning is the aim of the game here.  It is so much quicker then pouring by jug, doesn’t disturb the silt at the bottom and you don’t have to deal with the debris.  Go and snip a hose length as long as your arm and scrub it with some washing up liquid.

Put the elder flower master brew on a table OUTSIDE and set up a bucket/big bowl, sieve and clean tea towel or muslin over the sieve ready for the siphon at the base of the master brew.   Prepare to get sticky.

Inset one end in your elder flower and suck very hard, until it comes into your mouth (don’t worry it is fine to drink).  Put this end below the end in the brew and through the magic of gravity it should start flooding out, direct the stream on to the tea towel lined sieve.  Now if you have skills you can get a second piece of hose and siphon from the bowl to your empty lemonade bottles.  If you do this though you will need a helper to pass the bottles to you as it can be hectic.

ONLY FILL THE BOTTLES UP 3/4.  Explosions, jets and loss of elderflower has taught me to only fill the bottles up 3/4 and squeeze them until the liquid reaches the top.  This way you have a week before you need to let the gas out.

Once you have it bottles place all of them on an old sheet.  This way if you have any explosions then it gets soaked in and total stickiness is avoided.

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Leave for a month and a half. 

Check bottles every week and release the gas, it will soon get fizzy again as the perfect equation plays out.

It is ready after month but if you like it more tart then leave for longer.

Chill over night in the fridge and serve to your best friends. 

If you want to go one stage further decant into champagne or prosecco bottles.  Get hand plug champagne corks and cages and leave it for a week to build the pressure.  Finish with a flurry and saber the top off…..I dare you. 

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