Beau August 28th, 2008
The past few days have started a fun-filled week of outdoor activities, fresh air and just good ‘ole fashioned country living. Which translated means getting a lot of work done and not writing on the blog nearly enough. But it seems many of the trees have been shedding branches this summer, so it’s been round-up time for the big burn pile. Next time we get a good day or two of rain, we’ll think of burning some brush.
Catching up with the grass and garden is also part of the mix, and we’re seeing what may be the last of the hot summer days this week.
But what is it about a beautiful sunset that fires the imagination? Cutting the grass in the evening the other day I watched the sky turn to dusky orange, pink and purple. For a brief moment the pond and the sky are almost one, glowing with color.
Which reminds me of the colors of elderberry jam and grape jelly. Those Concord grapes from a few days ago? I decided to mess up the kitchen and they’ve already been converted to delicious, gooey jelly. Beautiful purple and very grape tasting, with a little tart flavor to go with the sweet. Here’s a bowl of concord grape juice after cooking only 3 pounds of those grapes down for about 20 minutes. It’s so neat to have something from the yard turn into something you can use in the future.
But even better is the Elderberry jam, at least I think so. From the middle to late August, the elderberry plants are full of fruit, with heads or corymbs of purple-black berries. It’s a strange little berry that doesn’t taste very good by itself. Some folks believe the berries are toxic if not cooked first. Never made it before, but after learning about elderberries I thought it would be a neat experiment. I combined the elderberries with a little of the Concord grapes and the flavor is wonderful. I’m no expert with jam or jelly, but it seemed to turn out pretty well.
Where did I get the elderberries? Some were found on our property, but even more from driving the countryside and spotting a bush here and there. Today I even spied a few full heads of berries off a main road (one used for this picture!), and I had to park quite a ways down and walk back. I just couldn’t let them be wasted… so there I was, feeling guilty walking past several country houses, standing in a roadside ditch cutting off heads of elderberries.
I know the folks driving by wondered what in the heck I was doing. And yes, these are little berries, not much larger than BB’s. How do you get them off? It takes time with a fork or nimble fingers (which will turn purple in a short while). One of the easiest ways is to freeze the whole bag full of the heads of elderberries. Then bring them out and the berries pop off much easier, as well as much more “bug free”! But although tedious, the end result is worth it.
There are many types of elderberry around the world, and a few that are too toxic to eat. Even our local Sambuca nigra can be toxic if one eats the leaves or stems, and some say the raw elderberries are toxic as well. As I said, the berries don’t taste very good fresh, but when made into jam or jelly it becomes very special.
So I cooked 2+ pounds of elderberries down for about 20-30 minutes, and then combined them with pressed Concord grape juice from about a pound of grapes. Of course both the elderberries and grapes went through a food mill after cooking them down in order to remove the seeds and skin, resulting in the juicy, pulpy mix above ready to make jam or jelly. Some recipes use cheesecloth or something to strain the cooked berries to a clear juice, but I love the pulpy mix in the jam or jelly, so the food mill helps retain a thicker mix.
And look how much jelly that same juice has made!? I’m amazed what you can do with a few pounds of grapes. Homegrown and homemade from the garden in less than a week. Not sure I can see doing this very often however, as it’s a messy business. But the family enjoyed eating the grape jelly after helping to pick, stem and make it.And it’s Oh so good! Just a little tart and yummy sweet combined, awesome for toast or biscuits.
The grape jelly set beautifully within in a few minutes, but my first time at making it meant that the elderberry jam is a little thin still and hasn’t set quite yet. And I even made it twice to try and get it to set! Think it needed more sugar, but I was trying to keep the sugar content as low as possible. No matter, as we’ll use it for syrup or a health tonic. Some believe elderberry juice can help ward off cold or flu and serves as an immune booster.
There is a product I like called Sambucol which is an Israeli-developed elderberry syrup that has been shown to have anti-viral effects for flu. It’s not cheap, and who knows if it really works. But they make a good argument for the health effects, and maybe those old-timers knew something we didn’t about elderberry syrup and wine? Elderberry was also revered as a magical plant in 17th century Britain and Europe. They say that fairies live and play around elderberry plants and that on the Isle of Man every house has an elderberry nearby to ward off evil spirits. Around here those fairies must dance a lot to avoid getting run over by cars with all the elderberry plants on the roadside! ;) But most of the literature involves the medicinal aspects, and apparently a host of folks use the early summer flowers as a tonic or for herbal teas.
I don’t know much about all of that or the health aspects, but the jam sure has a unique flavor and if it’s even remotely healthy that’s good enough for me. As with the grapes, I need to find a wine-making mentor… and that will be whole ‘nother matter! Have a great Labor Day weekend.