Spring has sprung, and this is a time I wait for with delight every year! I make many wild foods, but spring and the arrival of the elderflowers allow me to make my favorite wild food. Elderflower champagne! This sparkly, naturally fermented beverage is subtle, mildly sweet, and incredibly refreshing. Although called "champagne," the drink contains little alcohol - about the same amount as a kombucha. You could achieve a stiffer drink with more sugar and yeast, but that would alter the flavor profile resulting in a drier, less delicate, more wine flavored beverage.
Elderflower champagne is a naturally bubbly, mildly alcoholic cocktail with a delicate flavor made from the lacy, cream-colored flowers of the elderberry shrub. We have Mexican elders (Sambucus mexicana) at low elevations and regular elders (Sambucus nigra) in the mountains in Southern California. One of the differences between the Mexican Elder and the regular Elder is that the flowers are usually half to a quarter of the regular Elder's size, which alters the recipe somewhat.
You may recognize elderflowers from some of the products I craft, like immortelle, hydrate and wildlfowers soap. While I harvest these tiny lacy flowers for products I also set some aside for my most favorite fermented drink!
If you want to harvest your own elderflowers, proper identification is absolutely necessary, as with all wild plants! There is a poisonous lookalike for Elder. Poison Hemlock grows cream-colored flowers in similarly shaped umbels. Hemlock can grow over 6 feet in height, and while the plant looks nothing like the Elder tree, I have seen them growing up into an Elder tree and blooming in the same space as the elderflowers. Always sort your plants after harvesting to make sure everything you've picked is what you think it is!
Of course, you can purchase elderflowers from many small herb farms. If you doubt your botany skills or don't have a reliable, experienced wildcrafter to teach you, I recommend this route. I love Pacific Botanicals and Oshla for high-quality, fresh, potent plant material.
I don't know why the wine is called champagne—perhaps it's due to the color and the fact that it's bubbly. The old recipes make no mention of adding yeast because it's present on the flowers. I've had moderate success (probably around 70 percent) with spontaneous fermentation from the flowers, so these days I usually add some champagne or wine yeast if I don't see any signs of fermentation after a couple of days.
30 large Mexican elderflower heads or 20 regular elderflower heads
1 gallon (3.78 L)water
3 cups (500–600 g) white sugar
3–4 lemons, zested and sliced
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar)
Champagne or wine yeast (optional—flowers should have wild yeast)
Pick the elderflowers when they're all young and pollen-rich. Fresh Mexican elderflowers have a greenish appearance, while older flowers have a whiter appearance. Elderflowers are brimming with tiny bugs, as you'll soon learn. Put the flowers in a bowl outside for about an hour, and many bugs will leave. You'll be straining the mixture, so any leftover bugs are not a big deal.
Place the water in a container, add the sugar, and stir with a clean spoon to make sure it's dissolved.
Add the lemon zest and lemon slices, the elderflowers (remove as much of the stems as you can without going crazy about it), and the vinegar to the container and stir briefly with a clean spoon. Some people add commercial yeast at this stage.
Close the container, but not so tight that fermentation gases can't escape. You can also place a clean towel on top. Let the mixture stand for anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. If you didn't use yeast, you should see some bubbles after 48 hours, indicating that the fermentation from wild yeast is active. If this doesn't occur, then add some yeast at this stage. Using a clean spoon, make sure that you stir the liquid for a few seconds three or four times a day during this process.
Strain the liquid (after 48 hours if additional yeast was necessary) into your fermenting vessel (bottle or bucket). Let the fermentation go for another four days. Using a layered cheesecloth when straining the liquid removes any remaining bugs.
Your final step is to bottle your champagne in recycled soda bottles or swing-top glass bottles. Let it ferment for a week before enjoying it. I like to check the pressure from time to time by unscrewing the bottle slightly to make sure it's not excessive. If using swing-top bottles, very slowly open the top to avoid spraying the bubbly contents everywhere. It seems exploding bottles are a right of passage among fermenters. We all have a story!
Recipe and header photo by Pascal Bauder
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