It came as a surprise to me when I first discovered that the elder tree was in the past a symbol of anxiety for many farmers and country folk. It is claimed that Judas hung himself from an elder tree and that if you cut one down, the fairies would come and get you.
The elder tree is indigenous to Ireland and, apart from being a sign of a cursed piece of land, it offers us an abundance of flowers and berries that we can use to cook with and make wine.
Though the flowers have long since departed (they usually bloom in June and July) the berries are in full swing in September. If you’ve never picked elderberries before, I encourage you to do so as they can be used in so many ways in the kitchen. From soups to jams, from syrups to sauces, elderberries are extremely versatile.
Make sure your elderberries are nice and plump and ripe, although if you can still find some green unripe ones, you can pickle them and use them as a caper. Destem the berries, cover them with a good quality sea salt and leave for three weeks. Rinse and then cover with warm cider vinegar. You can use them after six weeks. They are good with pickled fish, such as mackerel or herring.
With the ripe berries I like to make vinegar and sauces for our wild game dishes in Aniar. There is nothing as nice in the autumn as combining wild duck with an elderberry sauce. If you can’t get wild duck, there are many great duck farmers in Ireland, so it won’t be hard to find a local one.
To make the elderberry sauce, first you need to make a duck stock. Roast two duck carcasses until brown. Place in a pot with three apples and cover with water and simmer for three hours. Strain and place back on the heat and slowly reduce the liquid to a nice brown glacé (this will take a couple of hours). Add a handful of elderberries into the glaze and warm thoroughly. I’ll tell you how to cook the duck next week.