Monday, May 04, 2009

Elderberry Memories

When I was little, one of the many wonders of my Grandmother Valentine's house was the alley that ran behind her backyard all the way to the park where my Mother and I often walked. I was crazy about sliding boards at that time in my life and probably drove my poor mother nuts begging for a walk up the alley to the park where the slides lived. The alley itself was something of a wonder too. Because it ran between the backyards of many houses, it was lined with fences, garages, and garden sheds most of which were overgrown with vines, climbing roses, blackberry and currant bushes, and elderberry bushes.
I thought of this because I noticed an elderberry bush behind a friend's garage recently and it occurred to me that I hadn't heard much about elderberries in recent years. But it brought back a lot of memories. My Grandmother Werner claimed that elderberry tea, mixed with elderberry juice, was the very most reliable cure for flues in the winter time and for years she bottled elderberry juice to save for such an emergency. My Grandmother Valentine, on the other hand, used the elderberry flowers to make pancakes. These were quite a treat.

Toward the end of June or the beginning of July, when the elderberries flowered with their pretty, white blossoms, Grandma would pick the blossoms --- one per pancake --- and dip them, face down into pancake batter and fry them in lard until the were golden and crispy on both sides. They had a nutty, sort of elusive flavor that we thought was quite astonishing. Probably more because of the pretty patterns they made in the batter.
My mother made elderberry jelly. We'd pick buckets full of the berries which were heavy and black, each berry bursting with a tart, tangy juice. She'd wash them and put them through the Foley food mill and then strain the juice and boil it down with lemon juice and sliced up green apples to add extra pectin. Then the juice would be strained again, through cheesecloth this time, and simmered with sugar and Sure-Jell and put up in little glass jars with a diamond pattern in the glass. Sometimes, if there was a surplus of rhubarb, she'd combine the elderberries with that to make elderberry-rhubarb jam. It was tart but so delicious with a rich, wine-like taste which was luscious spread on buttery, home-made bread on cold winter mornings.

Sometimes, if there were enough elderberries to be had --- and there often were because we knew every elderberry bush that lurked behind an abandoned barn or tool shed --- she would can them whole in their own syrup and use them for elderberry pies. An elderberry pie is a beautiful thing, dark and winey. When you scoop ice cream on top of it and mosh it down so the berries mix with the cream the color is absolutely stunning. Too pretty to eat, though not for long.

I'm told that elderberries are good for use in custard pies too, though I've never had one. The syrup is mixed with cream, sugar, vanilla and eggs and poured into shells and baked until firm. I can imagine the color --- and the fragrance.

I don't know how much use people make of elderberries anymore. I rarely hear mention of them. But spotting that elderberry bush behind my friend's garage made me smile. “Do you use your elderberries?” I asked. She laughed. “I never get a chance, the birds usually get to them before I can.”

Well, that's good, too. Thanks for reading.


  1. I've been a little suspicious of elderberries ever since I watched Arsenic and Old Lace.

    Can't be too careful...

  2. I used to pick the elderberries so my mother could make elderberry jam and pies. When there was a good crop she would can them and on those cold evenings in winter she would surprise us with elderberry pie. YUM Do you recall skimming the bubbles off the jam before you poured the wax on the jam? I have fond memories of smelling the jam simmer and the reward was taking a piece of homemade bread and the skim of the jelly that was scooped off. Wonderful memories.
    Oh, as to your remark. I knew of a few secret places where elderberries grew in the wild in oil fields in Pa. We moved south a while back and I was so disappointed that I couldn't find any. Well, we just bought a 200 yr old house; guess what really impressed me. Yep. One of the little outbuildings in the back has numerous elderberries growing all over it. I was thrilled. I am sooooo looking forward to our first crop and I am going to chase the birds away to get most of them for myself! lol
    thank you so much for sharing these memories with us :-)

  3. i, have heard the leaves are good to get rid of fleas in the yard... true or false????


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