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Elderberry Liqueur and Finding the Pearl


"The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price...But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought."

                                    --Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Just at the end of elderberry season, I found my Great White Whale. It was right in front of my nose.

As with many wild things, you never see them if you're looking for them. You find glimmers and glimpses of the thing--hoof prints in the mud, stray feathers--but the thing itself is always just beyond your reach.

Yesterday, on my evening walk, I was almost to the lake when I saw a shape out of the corner of my eye. I stopped. To my left, the valley dropped away from the road to the floodplain and the river beyond. Not five feet away sat a red-tailed hawk on a fallen branch.

I've seen hawks before, usually perched up high on a telephone pole, or sometimes in flight. Living in the wilderness has some benefits, and I've learned to differentiate between different birds in flight--ducks, hawks, eagles, herons, vultures. But I had never seen a hawk sitting at my feet. I knew they were large birds, but to see one at this distance left me gasping for air.

It was so serene, perched against the green of the valley. Its head moved very slowly as it scanned the river bottom--for rabbits? Fieldmice? Everything about this animal was seamless. Huge, alert eyes; streamlined body; talons like razor sharp paring knives, flexed to grasp the branch. And yet I was most taken aback by how soft it looked. I felt the urge to touch it, to feel its wildness beneath my hand.

How this is an appropriate segue into talking about elderberries I'm not sure. I do know that we find the things we are not looking for, and that they seem to appear and disappear without spectacle, leaving us in the wake of something larger than ourselves.

I've spent the majority of my summer in the kitchen. I've tested recipes, tried some new things, and baked more biscuits than I care to admit. I've managed to miss the changing of the seasons in the process, and now that September is upon us, I've taken a step back. I've started my daily walks again, if for no other reason than to see the flowers bloom; to see the changing of the seasons in the signs around me.

It was on one of these walks that I found my first elderberry bush.

I've been looking for elderberries all season. My hurried forays into the wilderness were unsuccessful. I found poke and privet, but no elderberries, and I began to think that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree. That perhaps elderberries didn't grow here or that no one in these parts would ever bother to plant them to begin with.

This week, at the tail end of the elderberry season, I found it. It was only a quick jaunt down the street from our cabin. Its deeply purple berries jumped out at me as I walked by, looking for nothing in particular. Most of the fruit had already fallen or been eaten by passing birds, but there was enough left for one seeker of wild things, and I picked what I could.

Most often, when I come into possession of something special, I try to treat it as simply as possible. I prefer to eat oysters and figs in the raw, and I take good cheese without crackers or accompaniment. I decided that the best way to give the flavor of the elderberries their due was to make a simple liqueur from them.

Liqueur is made in the same way as an extract or tincture. The principal difference is that it is then made drinkable with the addition of sugar. However, a liqueur ultimately captures the essence of the thing in question, which is exactly what I wanted to do with my precious elderberries. There is a recipe in JOY for Elderberry Vinegar, which involves the same process of extraction, but the method given is questionable in my mind. JOY's recipe has you heat the vinegar with the berries until the berries burst. Then, you cool the mixture, strain it, and refrigerate it. Frankly, I don't think there's any reason to heat an infusion like this. To get the purest flavor, all you need to do is leave the infusion alone for a few weeks. I assume that the recipe involves heating in order to speed up the process, but why work harder for a final product that won't have the same pure flavor of a cold extracted infusion? In this case, laziness will get you better results.

Elderberry Liqueur or A Basic Recipe for Fruit Liqueur
Makes one quart

To give a recipe for liqueur belies how simple the process really is. It's little more than a ratio: About 1 pound of fruit per one quart vodka. Sometimes, if I have more fruit, I'll just fill the jar up all the way, but you don't have to. I use a decent vodka, but I try not to fuss too much over it. It is technically true that high-proof alcohol increases the rate of extraction, but people don't drink Everclear for the flavor.

I always use a quart Mason jar for infusions, as I don't particularly trust plastic in the presence of alcohol, and I suspect off-flavors might penetrate the infusion. Put the jar in a cool, dark place (a pantry is appropriate), and wait about a week. You can wait longer--I often do--but after a week or two, there is no more flavor to be extracted from the fruit. In essence, waiting longer doesn't necessarily improve the flavor of the liqueur.

At this point, you'll want to strain the liqueur. Depending on the fruit you use, this may take a long time. Be patient. Rig up a coffee filter. I use a Chemex, but you can do this by placing a coffee filter in a funnel and setting the funnel over a glass jar or bottle. If there's a lot of particulate matter in the infusion, the process will take several hours. Simply fill the filter, walk away, and leave it to drip, coming back to add more liquid as it drains into the jar. I usually change the filter once throughout the process.

Once strained, you can keep the infused vodka as-is, adding simple syrup to each individual drink as you make it. However, to make a true liqueur, you'll want to add sugar to the infused vodka itself. I usually make a simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water. For a quart of infused vodka, I use a simple syrup made of 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Heat the syrup gently to melt the sugar, and allow the syrup to come to room temperature before adding it to the vodka.

You're done! The process is almost painfully simple. I find that making infused vodka is a great way to use fruit that is difficult to use in other ways. Last year, I made a mulberry liqueur because the fruit was so fragile and perishable that no other application made sense. Of course, you can use almost any fruit for this.

Drink the liqueur straight-up as dessert or use it in cocktails--the simpler the better.

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