Awhile ago, I finally picked up Luisa Weiss' memoir, My Berlin Kitchen. And, friends, if you don't already know firsthand, it is lovely through and through. Most of us at some point, I think, find ourselves struggling to figure out where it is we really belong, and Luisa gives clear and heartfelt expression to this in telling her story--the pull of your roots, your history can be hard, but it takes serious courage to leave one life for another, to really listen to yourself for once.
The bits of the book that I like best are by far the ones that take place in Berlin. These for the most part are little vignettes of everyday life--birthday parties, dinners with old friends, summer picnics--but they sparkle in a certain way. You can really tell that this is where Luisa feels most at home. And you get glimpses of Berlin that you can't just by visiting. I was there for a bit last summer and tried to take in as much as I could. I walked and walked and ate and ate, and though I loved almost every bit of it, I never really felt as though I quite got what Berlin was about. And maybe it's just that I wasn't there for long enough, that I didn't see quite enough of it, but my guess now is that what was missing from it all was a kitchen to cook in. You really get the sense from Luisa that Berlin's soul is in its kitchens, with its women and men tending to bubbling pots and deep bowls. How better, after all, could you get to know a city than by taking a trip to an overgrown orchard at its outskirts--probably given up during the Cold War--and picking plums for Pflaumenmus? Or by gathering up bunches of white asparagus at its markets and making sharp, bright salads? Or by snipping the sprays of elderflowers that bloom in its parks and bringing them home to make syrup? I can't really think of any.
In Chicago, you definitely can't expect to find elderflowers just anywhere. (
And even if you do happen upon some in the city, I wouldn't advise cooking with them. Some of the soil around here is pretty seriously lead-laced. This NPR article on lead and urban gardening advises against eating roots and greens growing in contaminated soil but suggests that fruit and flowers might be safe to eat. Maybe you can just harvest elderflowers if you find them in your neighbourhood after all? I don't know. I'd have to do more research.) But Luisa's description of her first drink of elderflower syrup--a couple of fingers' worth poured in a glass filled with cold water, evocative of Berlin's spring and all that was missing in her life at the time--was enough to send me looking for some blooms around here. And I happened to be in luck. Elderflowers' short season in the Midwest falls between late June and early July. So, I was able to arrange with Seedling Farm to have some sprays ready for pick-up at the market. (The blooms are too delicate to survive much shuttling back and forth, so you have to contact the farm ahead of time.) Finding elderflowers is definitely the most troublesome part of making this syrup. The rest is just a matter of snipping the blooms from their stems and steeping them in a sugar syrup, along with a little lemon and citric acid. In a few days' time, the golden syrup is ready for bottling and drinking.
So far, my friends and I have been enjoying it mixed with sparkling water and lemon, sometimes a little good gin too. Yesterday, I tried adding a bit of muddled basil, which I quite liked. Luisa recommends a mix of Prosecco, muddled mint, sparkling water, and lemon. She also says that elderflower, while refreshing in the summer, is an entirely different thing in the dark of winter, that it really tastes of spring and even joy then. I am doing my best to save a little, but I can already tell that it's going to be hard.
From Luisa Weiss' My Berlin Kitchen
Note: You can find citric acid at Indian grocery stores, where it is labelled as "lemon salt" or "sour salt." As usual, I found mine at the Spice House.
20 to 25 large elderflower sprays
3 to 4 organic lemons, washed and sliced paper-thin, seeds removed
3 1/2 tablespoons citric acid
3 pounds and 6 ounces sugar
Clean and dry an opaque vessel large enough to hold about 5 quarts.
Hold each elderflower spray over the vessel and snip the tiny blossoms away from the stem and let them fall into the crock, taking care not to lose any of the pale yellow pollen. (Keep an eye out for tiny insects in among the blossoms. One or two are probably unavoidable. I found an itty bitty caterpillar. Shake them out or nudge them along towards the stem so that they don't end up in your syrup.) Add the sliced lemons to the vessel and sprinkle in the citric acid.
In a medium pot over medium heat, combine the sugar and 1 1/2 quarts of water. Stirring occasionally, melt the sugar and bring the mixture to a boil. Then remove it from heat and let the syrup sit until lukewarm.
Pour the syrup over the lemon and elderflowers and mix well. Cover the vessel with plastic wrap and let it stand in a cool corner of your home for 3 days, stirring once a day.
On the final day, uncover the crock and pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into clean glass bottles. Discard the lemon slices and elderflowers. Store in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark cellar for up to a year.
Makes about 2 litres.