Assuming our readers didn't harvest and batter-fry all the elder blossoms in the world, as we advised in the spring, it's time now to go tramping back through those fields and creek bottoms and gather in the surviving elderberries.
Hoo hah, some may say, who wants to fool with elderberries when there are blackberries and wild cherries and serviceberries and whatever ripening on every hand?
Some good reasons are that elderberry bushes (which often grow to the size of small trees) don't have thorns, don't have to be climbed and usually are found in large patches bearing fair-size clusters.
Yeah, but so what. Anybody who has ever eaten a raw elderberry will tell you the taste is utterly insipid. And there are those who are put off by the fact that the plant - root, branch and all save the blossoms and fruit - ia poisonous.
These really are the virtues of Sambacus canadensis. Because it is poisonous, hardly any bugs bother it, and because the fruit is so tasteless and sugarless birds and children and other beasts more or less ignore it. That leaves the elderberries to those who know what magic happens when they are cooked into jelly or fermented into wine.
Elderberry jelly, made from the standard recipes in packages of powdered fruit pectin, is similar but far superior to the finest grape jelly. This assertion comes from one who has made plenty of both. Elderberry juice complements that of other fruits, so it is possible to play endless variations on the theme. And if for one reason or another the stuff doesn't jell, it makes a superb syrup for ice cream and pancakes. Mixed with ice water and a dash of lemon or lime juice, it becomes elderade.
Vinified sweet, elderberries yield a dessert wine of such color and quality that the plant has been outlawed in Portugal lo these many generations. Fermented into dry table wine it requires long aging because of its high tannin, but becomes so fine you could get arrested in Burgundy or Bordeaux for having the fruit in your possession.
Elderberry clusters often weigh a quarter-pound or more, so it doesn't take all day to get a mess of them, and five pounds of the crushed berries will yield a quart of free-run juice. Simmering the remaining pulp with a cup of apple juice and pressing will produce another quart. Leave the free-run juice to settle overnight in the refrigerator and you can pour off three cups of clear liquid; this will cook into six eight-ounce jars of jelly that will carry off the prize at the County Fair. Treat the pressed juice the same way and you get jelly of a deeper color and flavor that will win second place.The dregs will produce a sort of jam that is less handsome but even more flavorful, because it contains more of the fruit solids.
Don't be put off by the fact that the elderberry is mostly tiny seeds. Crush the fruit gently in a food mill (the one that looks like a cone-shaped colander with a big wooden pestle works best), ignoring the seeds that slip through. Run the juice through a fairly fine-mesh strainer, which will catch the remaining seeds and skins. The muddy-looking liquid will settle out clearer than if you had used a jelly bag.
Making wine is more complicated but even more satisfying. Any shop that carries winemaking supplies will have books with full explanations and tested recipes. Given a choice of conflicting authors, go with S.M. Tritton or others of the British persuasion; they've been making "country wines" in England since Roman days, and they know.
Ah, yes, but where does one find the credible elderberry? In moist places, mainly along creeks and river floodplains. Any field guide will provide identification (or the Rangers on Roosevelt Island will be happy to point some out.) Elderberries grow in full sun to heavy shade, and, like deer and quail, are most numerous around sloppy or abandoned farms. Don't worry if the fruit has shriveled; just soak the nasty-looking little things and they'll plump up. If you run short of juice, you can stretch it by a third will apple juice without hurting the color or flavor; you may even prefer the lighter and fruitier result.
If you can't find an elderberry thicket, or someone gets there first, send to a nursery for the Adams clone and/or hybrids to plant next spring. They grow fast, often bear the first season, and have larger and juicier fruit whose flavor is equal to the wild.