Gathering with friends is only fun if its an enhancement of gathering alone. Because alone, gathering is a holy experience. You sink into a rhythm, a quiet calm. Snip, pluck, drop, move, repeat. That rhythm becomes a background humm, that turns into a moving meditation. By the time you emerge from it, your bag is full, and problems have resolved themselves in the recesses of your mind, and, most likely, your eyes are a shade brighter than they were before*. I do this so often that I had forgotten how nice it was to have company. Especially company that gets as excited about happening upon a bounty as I do. Like when Emily and I were out looking for currants a couple of weeks ago and just happened upon a big, heavy mama elder tree so laden with berries that the branches hung low to the ground.
By the time we left, my backpack was so full and heavy that the ones on top started crushing the ones on the bottom and the juice started seeping out the bottom of my backpack, down my back, onto my pants. The top of my pants, by the time our walk was over, were stained blue. I think this would go into the category of ‘forager and herbalist problems’. And I’d guess that, if you see someone out in the world and the back of their pants, from waistband to butt, have a slight purplish tinge, then you know what happened, and you can throw them a high five and say ‘what’s up, elderbutt!’.
But back to those berries. There are lots of reasons to go out and find some elderberries this year. The first is, of course, elderberry elixir (or syrup). You MUST make a batch (if you cant, then you should probably buy some, as a medicine cabinet devoid of elderberry preparations is like a fortress devoid of a wall). Your immune system will thank you, as will the rest of your family when they never get sick again. As will your cabinet, for finally feeling complete (cabinets are known to be very insecure).
The second is this chutney. There are plenty of other things you CAN do with a big batch of elderberries, from jams to wines, to pies, to juices, but as far as I’m concerned, this chutney is the business. Its best application is on top of something bread-like, like oat cakes, alongside something tangy, like goat cheese. It makes lovely hors d’ouvres when you have people over, but it’s even nicer for a summer lunch, with a bottle of something crisp and cold (Ginger beer. Definitely ginger beer.) and a nice shady spot outside. Bring some crackers, bring some cheese, and a knife, and a little container of chutney. Take a cracker, then a slice of cheese, then a dollop of chutney, and munch on it while you survey what’s around you and listen to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. And then lie back and relax, and let all those little elderberries go to work strengthening your immune system, improving your circulation, tonifying your blood, and generally making you stronger and more resilient. And reflect, with a full belly and a full heart, on how you are ingesting something from the land around you, and what that means for your soul, as a whole, to be connected to the earth, and a part of the life cycle. And if you feel like it, maybe even do all of this with a friend.
5 cups elderberries
1 cup elderberry juice
1 cup raisins
1 apple, peeled and chopped into small cubes
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp coriander
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 inch ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mustard seed
2 tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup sucanat
In a big pot, put all of the ingredients, then turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Reduce to simmer immediately, and do so for about 3 hours. Once the liquid has reduced dramatically (you still want SOME, but not a soup), and the whole thing looks like a big mushy mess, sterilize your mason jars. Spoon the hot chutney into your hot jars, leaving a half inch space at the top. Seal with fresh lids, and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. They'll keep for a year. Refrigerate once opened.
*Not to give too much of an impression that wildcrafting is an idyllic experience- it’s not. You get stratched up, scuff knees, ruin favourite skirts, break nails, get sharp things under nails, get whacked in the face by branches, bitten by ants and spiders and bugs and scared by rattlesnakes. You come home with dirt in places you didn’t think it could reach, and twigs in your hair. In other words, it’s really fun.