One of my favorite things about being in Santa Barbara is the access I have to a variety of plants and herbs that are quite different from what I am used to. One of my favorite finds so far has been the elderberry bushes! I found some accidentally while walking a path down to the beach and I shrieked like a teenager and pulled out my phone to positively identify. The flowers appeared slightly more yellow than I had commonly seen and the berries had a white coating or “bloom” over them rather than the dark shiny varietal I am used to seeing. After positively identifying I learned these are Sambucus cerulea or otherwise known as a blue elder.
1. Identifying an elder bush
The trick to identifying an elder bush once the flowers/berries catch your eye is to look closely at the leaves. They should be opposing each other on each side of the stem and have ragged edges on the side. The bushes can become quite large so keep your eyes looking upward! In the right season finding the flowers is the easiest. The second is the look at the flowers. They are pale yellow to white and have a wonderful delicate smell. They tend to split off of the stem in a sort of “spray” pattern. I ALWAYS recommend using a guide book or checking an ID before doing anything with foraged goods because there are so many look-a-likes out there and we’ve all seen or read “Into the Wild” am I right…
2. Soak the flowers
First you need to get all the little buggers off unless you don’t mind a bit of extra protein. Gently soak them in water and strain them off.
3. Make a syrup with honey, purified water, and lemon zest.
Firstly, I am NOT the queen of measuring for recipes. I believe I collected as many flowers as I could filled a large jug with how much water to yield how much soda I wanted and really just went from the there. First you’ll bring your water to a boil with lemon zest and add depending on how you want to do it at least SOME white sugar to the mix, likely 1 cup to yield a gallon of soda. (You can stick with all honey but the white sugar will really get your ferment going). If adding honey wait until the mixture is bath warm and then add it so you can save all the wonderful enzymatic benefits of honey in your soda. I used manuka honey and a combination of white sugar and had amazing results and flavor. Add 1 cup or more. This mixture should be almost sickeningly sweet because the yeast needs to eat the sugar for carbonation to happen!
3. Add the flowers to the syrup
Alright so add those bad boys to the syrup that you made! The bloom on the flowers will ferment over a few days! At this point I squeezed in the juice of about 3 or so lemons to give it a nice citrusy flavor. It blended amazingly with the honey. Transfer to a glass jar and top with a few layers of cheese cloth or a clean tea towel. Make sure the mixture can breathe but no insects can climb in and destroy your beautiful creation. You can also use a fermentation jar with a rubber stopper, but just make sure whatever you do there is a way for gas to escape or BOOM.
4. WAIT *twiddles thumbs*
Boom. Keep the jar on your kitchen counter in a temperate place out of direct sun. I left my mixture go for about 2.5 days (because it’s hot as balls in SOCAL) and it didn’t take long to ferment. It will start to smell a little funky, almost like beer.
As you can see above, the jar has a rubber stopper on it. It allows gasses to exit but prevents little dudes like ants or fruit flies from drowning in my stuff. Check your jar every day for signs of fermentation! If you swirl it around you should be able to see some active bubbling going on. This is a great sign! High five! Woohoo!
5. Strain the mixture and transfer into bottles
After your mixture has fermented you need to strain off the flowers/lemons and transfer into bottles. I have some glass bottles with stoppers that I use but I want to issue a fair warning… If you have never played with fermented sodas try using plastic soda bottles first so you can feel how carbonated they get; It is possible for glass to shatter if it becomes too pressurized. It can be tricky when you are trying to release the carbonation to check the progress.
6. Wait some more…
Leave your bottles out on the counter for another day. Gently release the carbonation at first to taste it! Once you refrigerate the bottles the carbonation will settle down a little and become far less….implode-y. I got 2 1 L bottles from what was in this jar and it was just enough for me and some friends to share for cocktails.