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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.

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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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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. 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, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, 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 and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at www.virginiawillis.com.

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