31 May 2014

May 26th

A raindrop has appeared on the window. In a brief while it will be replaced, drowned, by the galaxies of others. For the time being it remains motionless and lone. The weather forecast foretells showers with thunderstorms. I should close the windows, a common act. I recall I feared summer thunderstorms (and stray dogs) the most. Were I to find myself home alone when a thunderstorm was looming, I would unplug every electrical device in my parents' apartment: the fridge, washing machine, TV, radio, phone, no exceptions. I would also shut the balcony door and each of the six windows, and then I would check if I'd shut the balcony door and each of the six windows well enough. I had heard horror stories about lightning bolts, and worse, ball lightnings passing through doors and windows, even through closed doors and windows, and so, regardless of the preventive measures taken, each thunderstroke punctured my nerves like a nail punctures a tire. I got hot, too. 

The rain drop inches downward, reluctantly, and then it stops. I hear a plane taking off. I can't see it -- the sky looks spent, seems like somebody has poured over it a massive quantity of bleach and then grey -- but the roaring of the engines is close. Humidity weighs the air down; the clouds are to burst open any time now. I was planning to go and pick elderflowers for the eponymous cordial, but their desired fragrance is in their pollen and rain is going to wash it off. I'll have to wait two or three days, perhaps longer, it needs to be dry out. Good that I have a little bit, a quarter of a bottle, of last summer's batch left.

Wild towering elderberry trees, the fixtures of the northwest, start to bloom around here in the second half of May, and the lacy parasols that are the elderflowers, creamy-white and delicate, are what I'm after again. Right from the tree the elderflowers smell of fresh yeast, tea roses, lemons stripped of their zest, and tomcats, but steeped in lemon juice and syrup, they turn sunny, ethereal. They have become for me, a foreigner, a southerner, the equivalent of the first cherries of the season. The shoes are to get damp from morning dew as I'll tread on the spiky grass towards the elderberry bushes, and perhaps a few stray bugs will, until disclosed, call my jacket home, but I don't mind. That's to me the equivalent of the teeth and clothes streaked maroon by the fruit of the cherry tree. There is a large park close to my home, not even five minutes away by bike. When the rains subside, I'll aim to scout it for fresh elderflowers early on, in solitude, before the first joggers and dog owners are wakeful.

The raindrop is gone. In its place is a curtain of rainwater.

Eldeflower Cordial (Syrup)
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen, by Luisa Weiss

I'm a big fan of Luisa Weiss's writing and recipes. I started reading her blog, The Wednesday Chef, soon after I got to know what a blog was. Her first book, My Berlin Kitchen, is about Luisa's journey away from and back to Berlin, her hometown, via New York, her other hometown, through heartbreak to bliss and three cultures and cuisines. It came out a few weeks before Anthony and I got married, and I remember thinking of it as a perfect pre-wedding treat. It's truly a beautiful thing, heartfelt and honest. Read it if you haven't yet. And if there is a flowering elderberry bush near you, make this cordial. 

Snip elderflower sprays with care. Do so over a basket or a large plastic bag lined at the bottom with paper towels; you don't want to lose any of that fragrant pollen. Which is why the elderflower sprays should not be washed (or rained upon), and that is why they should be exhaust-free.

Mix with tap or sparkling water (about a tablespoon per glass, or to taste), or with Champagne or Prosecco, what have you. Add a slice of lemon or cucumber, and that's what summer in the northwestern Europe may taste like.

Here in Amsterdam I found citric acid at The Vitamin Store. Labeled as "sour salt" or "lemon salt", it can also be found in Indian grocery stores.

Yield: about two 1-liter bottles

20-25 large elderflower sprays
3 organic lemons, washed and thinly sliced (seeds removed)
3 1/2 Tablespoons citric acid
1.5 kg sugar
1.5 liters of water

Wash and dry a big earthenware crock.

Hold each elderflower spray over the crock, snip the tiny blossoms and let them fall into the crock, making sure not to lose too much of the pale yellow pollen. Shake whatever pollen gathered on the paper towels into the crock as well. Add the sliced lemons to the crock and sprinkle in the citric acid.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium pot. Stir the mixture to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil. Then remove it from the heat and let cool slightly. 

Carefully pour the hot syrup over the elderflowers and lemons, and mix well. Cover the crock with plastic wrap and let it stand in a cool place of your kitchen for 3 days, stirring it once a day.

On the final day, uncover the crock and pour the liquid through a strainer lined with a double layer of cheese cloth into clean glass bottles. Discard the elderflowers and lemon slices. Store in the fridge or in a cool, dark cellar for up to a year.