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Eat Wild: Elderflower Cordial

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Recently, I’ve been studying a couple of foraging books and trying to use more wild food in my kitchen. Serving locally foraged ingredients has become a feature of international haute cuisine over the last few years. I’m finding that there seems to be a great deal of interest in eating wild with Appalachian and Southern chefs, as well. There’s a long history of harvesting from the creeks and rivers, forests and woods in the South, driven by necessity rather than trend. I know that as a gardener, I feel exceptionally fulfilled when I make and cook from our endeavors. Harvesting from the wild (well, actually, the edge of the yard) and cooking from it feels even more incredible.

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We’ve got lambs quarters and purslane growing prolifically in our vegetable garden, so that’s pretty easy. Lambs quarter is like spinach on steroids, super vibrant and vegetal. Monsieur Milbert used to grow purslane in the potager at Chateau du Fey; it’s quite odd to see it as a weed. In fact, our garden is in such desperate need of weeding, I feel positively virtuous by considering these two weeds as wild foods. “I think that’s really the whole point of eating “weeds” or wild food. It brings to mind the phrase, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It’s just a way of looking at food and how it gets on our plates with a different perspective.

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So far, it kinda sounds like there are a good many weeds that are edible. But this also causes me to consider, just because it is edible doesn’t mean it needs to be or has to be. Queen Anne’s lace tempura? Cattail pollen pancakes? There are also a lot of notations like, “best eaten in a salad” or “dried leaves make a healthy herbal tea.”  Hmm. Well, I am sure I could make tea out of the yard trimmings, but I prefer English breakfast…. Still, it does seem to be an opportunity to enjoy something that’s not cultivated, something truly wild. I am very cognizant that there is a whole group of wild foods that we don’t eat just because we, as a people, have lost that wisdom. As a cook, I am very curious about regaining at least some of that knowledge.

We’ve grown accustomed to our food being neatly packaged for us, especially in the US. I think that Europeans have a much stronger sense of harvesting from the wild. One of my favorite French factoids is that pharmacists in France are trained to identify certain fungi, and if in doubt, mushrooms can be taken to a pharmacist who will inspect them and declare whether or not they are edible.

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Even though I remember harvesting berries from the woods as a child, I admit I am still somewhat fearful of eating wild foods. We picked these wild black raspberries from around the corner. Bursting with flavor, there’s just something there that a cultivated berry doesn’t have. But there’s just a vestige of uncertainty when harvesting foods from the wild, especially when the foraging books aren’t exceptionally clear and the photographs aren’t as definitive as one might wish. I’d also like to point out that an unusual amount of safe, edible wild ingredients closely resemble one form or another of not-so-edible, deadly herbage – and none I might add that cause a gentle death. Lots of asphyxiation and turning blue and such.

elderflower cordial on www.virginiawillis.com

Recently, in a fit of eat wild-DIY, I braved one of these possible mishaps by making Elderflower Cordial. This is a mildly fragrant, lightly floral simple syrup best served with seltzer water or club soda for a refreshing summer drink. Some recipes indicate that it can be added to sparkling wine as a type of kir royale sauvage, though I think it’s a bit too sweet to add to wine. On the other hand, Elderflower Cordial with vodka and soda sounds like a perfect summer grown-up drink.

elderflower cordial on www.virginiawillis.com

I felt so certain with my harvest that I made enough to share as food gifts. (Speaking of food gifts, I’m really looking forward to Food Gift Love by Maggie Battista that will debut this fall.) I had intended to make Elderflower Champagne, but read one too many blog posts about bursting bottles and cork missiles. Hilarious to consider that I could overlook possible poisoning with hemlock, but the deal breaker was the potential of a sticky mess.

So, maybe I won’t go toe-to-toe anytime soon with Hank Shaw or René Redzepi, but I am very excited to explore what the wild world has to offer.

Bon Appétit Y’all
Virginia

PS. Lots of events upcoming in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine before I swing back down South after Labor Day. Please check out my events page

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Elderflower Cordial
Makes about 2 quarts

1 1/2 quarts water
5 cups sugar
30 elderflower heads
Zest of 3 oranges

Bring the water and sugar to a boil over high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool. Place the flower heads in a large bowl with the orange zest. Pour over the cooled syrup. Cover and let steep for 2 days. Strain through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilized bottles and seal.

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photography by Virginia Willis

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 1 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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