A taste of English summer


Elderflower. Photo Scott Hill © HHT

Elderflower cordial

Right on cue, as we were setting the dates for the ‘Punches, cordials and refreshers‘ workshops that are held this month, magnificent heads of elderflower appeared in the herb garden at Vaucluse House.

Elderflower cordial has a delicate yet distinct flavour – highly floral, with a heady scent – which the flowers themselves don’t seem to have until they are hit with hot syrup which extracts their characteristic aromas. When the cordial is first made, the lemon seems to dominate but in time the lemon defers to the flavour and fragrance of the elderflower, which lingers on the nose and the palate. You can taste why it is so revered –  it seems to capture the elusive flavour of a timeless English summer.

Common across England, elderflowers and berries have been used for centuries – the flowers for cordials and the berries to make wine.  Testament to their abundance in the English countryside, most cordial recipes call for as many as twenty to one hundred flower heads per batch but, even in its prime, the maximum number of heads from our tree has been twelve or so at any one time. Luckily  the cordial is easy to make, so I’ve settled for making a litre at a time, which makes it even more special.

Elderflower is quite a tall and spreading plant, so if you’re growing it leave a bit of space. It’s particularly attractive grown at the back of a perennial border.  In this view of the Vaucluse House herb garden you can see the elder with its white flower heads growing at the back, behind the rosemary.

The herb garden at Vaucluse House.

The herb garden at Vaucluse House. Photo Scott Hill © HHT

Elderflower cordial

By author Sophie Grigson


  • 12 elderflower heads (in bloom)
  • 600g white sugar
  • 900ml boiling water
  • 2 lemons (if store bought lemons, remove wax coating with boiling water)
  • 35g citric acid


I've adapted Sophie Grigson's classic recipe for this cordial concentrate.

The cordial needs to develop overnight before bottling, so it's a two-day process. Citric acid works as a preservative for the cordial. You can buy citric acid from health food shops and supermarkets in the 'make and bake' aisle. Elderflowers deteriorate quickly once picked, so it's best to have the other ingredients ready before harvesting.


Detail of white Elderflower head.
Trim the elderflower stalks close to the flower heads and remove any leaves. Place the heads in a large ceramic bowl. Discard stalks and leaves.
To make the sugar syrup, put the sugar and boiling water in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
Elderflower with bottles, mint and fruit.
Peel the rind from the lemons, then slice the fruit. Put the lemon slices and the peel into the bowl of flower heads.
Elderflower and lemon steeping in a bowl.
Pour the hot (but not boiling) syrup over the flower and lemon mixture. Add the citric acid and stir until dissolved. Cover the bowl with a large plate or a cloth and leave for 24 hours at room temperature.
Prepare and sterilise airtight bottles - approximately 1.2 litres in total. Using a fine strainer lined with three layers of muslin, strain the syrup from the flowers and fruit into a clean bowl. Measure the liquid and divide evenly between the bottles. Leave for two weeks to allow the flavours to meld before opening. Stored in a cool place, the cordial will keep for several months; refrigerate after opening.
To serve
Dilute using one part cordial to five parts freshly chilled water, or soda water or mineral water for sparkle, or to your taste. It has a delicate fragrance and subtle flavour. Add a sprig of mint or lemon verbena if you have some in the herb garden.