There’s something a little bit magical about elderberries. They’ve been regarded as a sacred healing plant since ancient times and were once thought to both ward off evil and protect witches. Perhaps their habitat contributes to this mystique. They seem to flourish where humans seldom tread, in lowland swamps and river bottoms, where their rich purple berries are known only to animals as wild as themselves.
And yet the elusive nature of the elderberry bush makes it a favorite of veteran local foragers, who spend much of August scouring the sunny wetlands that border our many streams and rivers to pluck heavy clusters of the BB-sized fruit from drooping elder branches. They deliver their painstakingly gathered umbels to our kitchen each afternoon by the bucketful, and we begin the work of transforming the tiny berries into a rich, dark jelly.
Making jelly is a pressing task. Unlike jams or preserves, which are made from crushed or whole fruits, jelly begins with fruit juice. In the early days of American Spoon, Justin used to load a year’s supply of fresh elderberries into the back of his station wagon and drive them to John Zimmerle’s Wolverine camp, where he helped John run the berries through his mechanized cider mill in exchange for a small share of the resulting jelly. These days, we make the juice by hand in our own kitchen, pressing small batches of elderberries in an antique press once used for cider but now stained elderberry-purple.
The pressing itself it physically demanding, but the real work lies in separating each tiny berry from its equally diminutive stem. It takes over sixty pounds of elderberries to produce the 24 pounds of juice in every kettle of Wild Elderberry Jelly, and the de-stemming process consumes entire days. The juice, once pressed, is cooked down and concentrated to create a deep, dark, richly complex jelly with hints of anise and grape and the secret wild places where elderberries grow.
Our Wild Elderberry Jelly has such a loyal following that it sells out every year. Try it on the ultimate PB&J, in our delicious Elderberry & Lemon Tart or in an earthy Autumn game sauce, but by all means try it before it’s gone.