I thought I'd try to get ahead of myself this week. Usually, I wake to seasonal produce as it appears in the shops, garden or hedgerows. I get infected by a wild enthusiasm for, say, nettle tops or asparagus, but by the time I get round to writing about it, the season is often on the wane. And by the time the recipe actually appears in print, the ingredient in question is but a distant memory. I caught the wild garlic the other week only by the skin of my teeth.
So, elderflower. It should be a week or two before those distinctive, lacy heads are festooning roadsides, gardens and derelict patches of land. It's a very easy-going small tree or shrub, is elderflower. It used to have a bit of a ropey reputation - some thought that witches liked to turn themselves into elder trees, although you wonder why they'd do that. In Shropshire, it was said that someone in the family would die if you burnt elder wood on the fire. And in Scotland it was said the elder grew only where blood had been spilled which, given that country's history, must mean it grew almost everywhere.
Anyway, "hence loathed Melancholy", as the poet Milton wrote. The elderflower brings a true taste of summer to the table - even if the flowers do smell of cat's pee - and its exquisite floral, grapey essence lightens any dish. Quite early in the history of this column, I teamed it with chicken, to some effect if the subsequent endorsements are anything to go by. I can't be sure if any of today's offerings will hit the spot so resoundingly, but I hope they do.
Elderflower and polenta cake
Don't ask me where this combination came from - I've no idea. There are plenty of recipes for cakes made with polenta flour, but I may be the first person who thought of combining it with elderflower. That's a rash statement, I know. Anyway, even if it isn't a Fort original, it's damned good. Serves four to six.
300g unsalted butter, softened
300g caster sugar
75g plain flour
225g fine ground polenta
Zest of 2 lemons
2 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp elderflower syrup
2 heads of elderflowers
Preheat oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Butter the inside of a cake tin, or even a deep-sided metal flan dish. Beat together the butter and sugar in a bowl until pale and light. Stir in the flour little by little. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the polenta, lemon zest, baking powder, salt and syrup. Tip into the cake tin. Bake for 45 minutes, until cooked - test by sticking a knife into the middle: if it comes out clean, it's cooked; if not, give it a little longer. Turn out on to a wire rack to cool. To serve, shake the elderflowers over the top - with a bit of luck, enough will fall off to dust the top like icing sugar. It's a bit mumsy, but it looks good.
I'd never thought of frittering elderflowers until I was making a TV series last summer, The Forager's Field Guide. I was persuaded to make fritters of all manner of leaves and flowers - burdock was really good, but elderflower was the best. I made a tempura batter rather than the usual variety - it's lighter and crispier, and you get more of the flavour of whatever it is you're battering. The secret is in the water: it should be very cold. Serves four.
For the batter
225ml iced water
140g plain flour
A pinch of salt
For the fritters
16 heads of elderflowers
First make the batter. Beat the egg, then add the water. Slowly sift the flour and salt into the egg mix, whisking to make sure there are no lumps.
Fill a wide, deep-ish pan with vegetable oil to come 2-3cm up the sides; heat almost to smoking point. Dip the elderflower heads into the batter and fry, a few at a time, until golden-brown. Drain on kitchen towel while you finish of the cooking, sprinkle with sugar and serve while still hot.
Like what my Granny used to make. A truly miraculous drink: the delicate flowers contain enough yeast to produce their own natural spritz. The murky, non-alcoholic fizz with its ineffable flavour of muscat was one of the haunting memories of my childhood.
36 elderflower heads
680g caster sugar
2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
4.5 litres water
Make sure there are as few insects as possible on your elderflowers. Put them in a clean bucket, along with the juice of the lemon, its rind without any pith, sugar and vinegar. Add the cold water and leave for at least 24 hours. You may have to stir it from time to time, to dissolve the sugar. Strain into sterilised bottles. Screw on the tops (or do whatever you have to do with the tops - I have some old-fashioned lemonade bottles with those flip-over caps). Leave for two weeks. Check the fizziness from time to time and let off any excess build-up: you don't want the precious bottles exploding like bombs.