Like slipping over on concrete next to a lukewarm paddling pool or complaining about the heat while eating Cornettos, harvesting elderflower is a British summertime ritual.
Between the end of May and early June each year, tons of elderberry blossom are gathered to make the bottles of cordial, sparkling wine, pressé—or in fact any variation on elderflower + teeth-dissolving quantities of sugary water—that encapsulate the high-tea-and-cricket image of English summer afternoons.
Deep in dreary suburbia, Thorncroft Farm plays its part in keeping the ritual alive.
Near Leatherhead, the farm has 30 acres of elderflower and a field of horses across the river. It's positively bucolic. The Surrey suburbs—all littering teenagers and Sunday drivers—suddenly transformed into something out of Cider With Rosie.
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Looking out from farmer Guy Woodall's house across the rolling countryside, you could be in the rural surroundings of Gloucester or Dorset. There's nothing but the uninhabited misty distance and the overwhelming scent of elderflower.
Woodall has been running the farm since 2000 and developed a passion for the craft at a young age.
"My love of elderflower came from my grandmother," he says. "She was a very traditional farmer's wife who ran a farm very close to here and single-handed while my grandfather went to fight World War II. She used to make elderflower cordial for us and we loved it."
In June, Thorncroft Farm works overtime to pick, process, and package the winding rows of blossom into cordial.
"The season is three weeks long, and it can happen at any time of the summer—it's just when the sun comes out, really," Woodall explains. "We're at the end of week one."
With boring inevitability, the British drizzle gets in the way whenever it can.
"Rain's a nuisance because the whole process doesn't work if you've got wet flowers, so they have to be dry," he explains.
If it does decide to piss it down, the flowers sit there in bud and just wait for the sun to come out, meaning each bush has to be gone over multiple times.
"This whole farm is organic and we have terrible trouble getting the elderflowers to grow," Woodall says. "They're wild, they don't like being told what to do."
While the product might be wild, the harvest is run on a tightly organised schedule. Around two tons of flowers are picked and dried, before being put in a tumbler to remove the acrid-tasting stalks.
Consisting of a revolving metal cage, it takes 20 minutes for the tumbler to shed the blossom to the floor. It is then swept up and put into a huge crate to soak for a couple of days before being pressed, stored, filtered, and eventually pasteurised.
Pasteurisation involves boiling bucketfuls of golden liquid at around 82 degrees Celsius for hours at a time, with up to 600 litres of cordial being processed each day in a mammoth, metal-lidded pan. Woodall then bottles the liquid up and ships it to suppliers around the country.
As the harvest is so short, the he and his team often end up working well into the small hours, sometimes until 3 AM.
Despite being thought of as a British product, Woodall actually runs another much bigger and more productive elderflower farm near Transylvania. While he produces around four tons of blossom from this farm, some buyers still insist on English Elderflower For English People.
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"They use elderflower in drinks in Hungary, the same as we do—there's a lot of elderflower out there, and labour is very cheap," says Woodall. "I also get a lot of wild-picked elderflower brought in—picked around the Gloucester area. We have to make the equivalent of four tons of elderflower for a specific brand, who insist on their elderflowers being English, which doesn't make any difference as far as I can tell. There's no difference between the English and the Hungarian elderflower in terms of taste or smell."
"British" or not, elderflower is more versatile than many people think. Aside from cordial, the blossom can be used to make sorbet, panna cotta, and jam. Woodall is a big fan of elderflower wine.
"It tastes a bit like a Muscat, but there are some German varieties of aromatic grape that taste exactly like elderflower, too," says Woodall. "You'd make it 11 to 12 percent and some people will also make it into a sweet wine, like a dessert wine."
For most people though, a trusty elderflower cordial is enough to summon the British summertime vibe. That and a paddling pool.