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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Wednesday 30 June 2010

Experiments with Flowers 2: Elderflowers

Elder trees grow like weeds in my garden, and there was one threatening the telephone wires. Before cutting it back, I wanted to let it flower and harvest them. Well, it was a good excuse to put off tackling the beast. Once the flowers arrived, I needed recipes. I felt brave enough to tackle wine this time, and there were plenty of recipes for elderflower champagne online. Mostly, they went like this:
Pick flowers
Mix sugar with water
Add flowers (not the other way round, to avoid crushing the flowers with the sugar)
Add chopped lemons
Leave in a bucket for a day, then bottle

There was general agreement that the ratio of sugar to water should be approx. 1 lb sugar to 1 gallon of water, and one lemon per gallon would be about right. Where the recipes varied wildly was how many flowers to use. The number of flower heads for a couple of gallons ranged from four to thirty. So I picked... some. Quite a lot, really, but probably not thirty. Definitely more than four.

Some elderflowers, undergoing quality control

I bought a nice new two gallon bucket (OK, ten litres, but I'm old fashioned about these things) and sterilised it, along with all the glass bottles I'd been hoarding. I then wondered why I bothered, given that I was putting bits of plant into them. Into the bucket went sugar, water, lemons and flowers and this was stirred at intervals for the next 24 hours. By this time it was supposed to be bubbling but, though I watched it for quite a long time, I couldn't see any sign of bubbles. Not one.

I got a bit nervous and turned to the internet again for advice. On the self sufficient-ish site I found some helpful notes on wine making in general. Not elderflower wine specifically (though they had a recipe for that too), but I though it would probably be all much the same (ignoring the fact that elderflower champagne generally ends up a lot weaker than most wine). The bit I latched onto was about yeast: “Bread making yeast will do, but wine maker's yeast is much better.” Well, this was Sunday evening, I had a tin of dried baker's yeast in the cupboard, and no idea where nearest supplier of homebrew ingredients might be. One teaspoonful of baker's yeast, mixed with a little warm water, went into the bucket, and it was left for another day.

By Monday evening, there were definitely bubbles. Not lots, but if you watched for a little while, an elderflower on the surface would be disturbed by a little bubble breaking free. Watching it could get quite hypnotic. Satisfied that my wine was working, I scooped out jugfuls and strained it into the sterilised bottles, and screwed on the caps.

Now, I'm aware that homebrew can be explosive if allowed to ferment in the bottles, so I put the bottles in boxes and found relatively contained places to store them (unused fireplace and... I couldn't really find another suitable place, so the other box just went in the study). The weather was very hot, so there was no need to think about keeping them warm, in fact, I chose relatively cool places. I didn't really expect anything to happen for a few weeks so didn't bother sealing the boxes, but kept a bit of an eye on the bottles anyway, as you do.

On Friday when I got home from work, the cat greeted me with loud and persistent complaints. I glanced at the box of bottles in the fireplace – hmm, I'm sure there were six bottles this morning but there are only five now. Closer inspection revealed pieces of broken glass where there had been a bottle and sticky liquid soaked into the cardboard box. Most of the broken bottle was contained in the box, but minute fragments of glass were found in every corner of the sitting room. If the cat was in the room at the time it's no wonder she was complaining!

Extensive cleaning was needed, and a new box, but the scary task was depressurising the rest of the bottles. What if another one was right on the edge of exploding and went off when I touched it? Luckily none of them did. After that, I depressurised every two or three days. This was a slow business, as opening the bottle too quickly just gets half-made wine all over the place. I started to see the point of demijohns at this stage.

That same Friday, we went to visit friends living in the Sussex countryside, so I thought we might take a couple of bottles of homebrew with us. The unfermented mixture tasted quite pleasant, so I thought there was a reasonable chance it would be drinkable at this stage. Husband wasn't too keen on the idea of explosive wine bottles in the car, but I talked him round and they survived the journey. This was lucky, as one of the bottles had the flip-top wire-held type stopper and hadn't been depressurised (but I hadn't told him that, naturally).

At about midnight that night, on a little wooden bridge over a river at the foot of the South Downs, that bottle depressurised quite dramatically.

If you look closely, you can see that the wire trap and stopper have been blown right off.

We managed to catch some of the drink, and it was nice enough to open the second bottle, too. To be honest, it did smell a bit yeasty, but that didn't affect the flavour, which was very fresh and light. Further experiments(!) found that storing the bottles upright reduces the yeastiness, but all the same, I'll get hold of some demijohns before making this again.