"Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!"
- Monty Python's Holy Grail
Well, I'm not sure about the hamster bit, but smelling of elderberries, it turns out, isn't such a bad thing. This summer, we experimented with the native berries and found them, while a bit tart, quite flavorful. And we managed to make our first berry pie with them, then plenty of syrup before the heat sapped us of berry-picking energy.
E spotted the plants growing on our property earlier this year. I though, as I too often do, that she couldn't possibly be right. The only elderberries I'd heard of came courtesy of British comedy, so I figured they'd only grow in cooler climes. Fortunately, E and V had been paying attention during their junior docent training and La Purisima Mission. They've spotted all sorts of plants here that they learned about during those sessions; among them, elderberry.
Once they'd educated me (and, of course, I'd done more research on the internet and double checked with adults-in-the-know in our new neighborhood), I could see them all OVER the place. Now, on our drive to town each day, I can spot them at high speed a fair distance away.
We checked on our drive-by berries now and again until we discovered they were ready for their first round of picking. One warm, sunny afternoon, E, V and I gathered some bowls and headed out. Together, we gathered enough berries to make our first berry pie using a recipe from our trusty old, red-bound Good Housekeeping Cookbook. The pie turned out scrumptious, but we learned there are LOTS of seed in elderberries. I also learned why it is I've never really cared for berry pie on its own: it's basically jam in a pastry. I eat jam with peanut butter, but I'm not one of those who sneaks spoonfuls of the stuff as a treat. And I've never been big on pie pastry. Still, it was great with ice cream! Next time: use a ricer to remove the seeds and make it a jelly pie.
We returned to our favorite picking bush a week or so later to gather another bundle. Grandma M helped us pluck the tiny berries from the stems and assure there were no leaves in the final product. (Turns out that while the berries are tasty, the leaves and stems are poisonous.) It was time-consuming work, but well worth the effort. We cooked down the berries, used the strainer to remove a lot of the seeds, then returned the good stuff to the pot for more cooking until it jelled. Using the Ball Blue Book of Canning and no pectin we conjured up a pretty good batch of elderberry syrup. I think we could've cooked it longer, but we really didn't want jam this go 'round.
We'd hoped to return for another berry reaping, but the heat got to us far before it adversely affected the remaining berries. We couldn't bring ourselves to get up early enough to beat the sun to the berries, nor to stand in the pounding heat. But next year, you bet we'll be returning for more jam, jelly and syrup makin's, and maybe even another pie.