Kick off the New Year with a taste of this iconic berry, which is loaded with antioxidants and vitamins.
Bare and crooked in the winter, the elder tree is a powerful symbol in medieval lore, a potent ingredient in Native American medicine and an important key to delicious alcoholic beverages.
In medieval Denmark, peasants wouldn’t cut down elder trees for fear of the Elder Mother. Some imbued her with fearsome qualities while others venerated her. Irish stories recall the elder tree as witches riding crooked boughs and magic horses. Some Scots believed the elder tree warded off evil spells and witchcraft.
Native Americans relied on the elder tree’s bark, berries and flowers for wound poultices, pain remedies and cures for upper respiratory infections, gout and stomach ailments. They were right. Elders are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and anti-inflammatory agents.
In fact, elder trees have a well-earned place in wine and spirit-making when the Elder Mother reveals her splendor in the spring.
Blossoms of fragrant, creamy sprays transform the bare and crooked elder tree. In the French Alps, elderflower blooms are prized for their aroma of lychee nuts, vanilla, butter and pepper. Freshly harvested flowers make the world-renowned St. Germain liqueur.
Produced in an artisanal manner, St. Germain uses flowers gathered from the hillsides of the French Alps during a short four-to six-week period in spring. According to the company’s website, they bicycle the picked flowers to a collection depot. Immediately, they macerate them to preserve the fresh flavors of the bloom. Extracting the flavors of this flower is not an easy process, and the St. Germain Company keeps theirs a family secret.
Once the elderflowers die off, the berries ripen.
Loose clusters of deep purple berries appear along roadsides, forest edges and open fields. These wild berries are easy to gather, hardier than elderflowers and a free alternative to wine grapes. Also, their unique chemistry allows elderberries to withstand many novice winemaking errors while still producing a tasty wine.
If you would like to try your hand at making elderberry wine, there are many recipes available online.
If wine making is not for you, elderberry wine is also commercially available—but buy with caution.
Large commercial wineries produce a product called “Elderberry Wine,” but it’s typically grape wine with artificial elderberry flavor that doesn’t even remotely represent a true elderberry wine. If you want the real deal, look to lesser-known, small wineries.
Since elderberries are quite tart, most winemakers add sugar, honey or other fruits to stamp a unique signature on their wine. At Island Winery, we combine local honey with our elderberries. The rich, floral taste of local honey perfectly tames the wild spirit of the Elder Mother.
By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery
The perfect bottle of handcrafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Rd. Tastings, wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. 843-842-3141 or www.islandwinery.com.