During lockdown Millie Egan found herself getting more acquainted with a plant that can be found all over Dublin — the elderflower.
“To me it’s a summer drink to have with something like sparkling water,” says Egan, an artist living in Castleknock, Dublin 15.
“Also there is the fact that there is such a short window to pick them at the beginning of summer. I think that matches with my excitement about summer,” she says.
Summer, for Egan, is normally a busy time.
Working as an artist means that she is normally travelling around creating installations for music festivals such as Body & Soul.
But Covid-19 meant that all major music festivals in Ireland were cancelled so Egan was left with an unexpected amount of free time.
Wanting to keep her hands busy, she has now turned to this seasonal flower to scratch that creative itch.
“The blooming of the elderflower matched up perfectly with me losing all my work for the summer,” she says.
With the unexpected free time, and the blooming elderflower, Egan decided that she would step up her cordial making hobby.
She took elderflowers from the banks of the River Liffey, to her kitchen where they were infused with water and made into a cordial. Recycled beer bottles were repurposed by Egan as a new home for the cordial and completed with a vintage label made on her grandmother’s typewriter.
Soon she found herself cycling around Dublin dropping off Mille’s Elderflower Cordial to paying customers.
Noms organic food store soon began selling her cordial on their shelves, and her batch for this season sold out.
“For such delicate things it is kind of amazing how much flavour comes out of them,” she says.
Making the Cordial
On dry mornings Egan heads out to Strawberry Beds in Oatlands at around 7am with a big basket.
From the end of May and throughout all of June, the elderflower, which is fully in bloom around the banks of the River Liffey.
Picking during dry weather is important because the flavorsome pollen is not washed away, she says.
Once picked, the elderflower is brought home where Egan starts preparing it for the cordial that she makes and later sells.
Bugs and stalks are removed from the elderflower while water and sugar boils in a pot at Egan’s kitchen.
There’s a considerable amount of sugar used so you can often be left with a sticky kitchen floor, Egan says.
Extracting the flavour from the Elderflower is a delicate process.
“I boil the water and take it off the heat. You add the flowers but you’re not adding anymore heat to it,” she says.
Think of it as if you are making tea, you’re just infusing the flower into it, Egan says.
The final step is adding lemon juice to the pot.
“Commercial brands use citric acid which extends the shelf life. I don’t use that. It seems to be a bit fresher if you just use lemon juice,” she says.
Bottling and Pedalling
The cordial is bottled in recycled glass beer bottles.
“It was great when I started making the cordial because I had a good stash [of bottles] gathered up,” says Egan.
Labels and glue are scrubbed off the glass before submerging them in hot water to sterilise them. Egan then adds her own homemade branding.
“I made the labels with my late grandmother’s typewriter that I inherited,” says Egan.
The vintage, rustic typeface of the label compliments the simplicity of the cordial inside the bottle. Each bottle is finished with a blue tartan cloth that is wrapped over the mouth of the bottle and secured with rope.
Egan began by posting the bottles on social media where friends would contact her expressing interest in the cordial.
“I had a little delivery service in my radius where I would mostly cycle the cordial to people in the Phoenix Park,” says Egan.
There’s a real kick out feeling like the park is your office, she says.
A friend of Egan’s works in Noms Organic Food shop in Phibsboro.
After gifting her a bottle, Egan’s friend told her manager in Noms about the cordial, and they began to sell it.
“They were super nice and supportive. Obviously I was just an amateur with no experience in the food selling industry,” says Egan.
The Importance of In Season
Elderflower cordial entered into Egan’s life when she began paying closer attention to seasonal flowers during her new free time.
“I wanted to tune into the seasonal plants a bit better and enjoy the things that were in bloom,” says Egan.
Egan was inspired by the artist David Hockney, who paints colourful, abstract paintings of nature which in turn made her notice the changing landscape and flowers of each passing season.
“In the last few years he just painted the same landscape where he lives in the UK again and again. I guess this made me tune into my surroundings a bit more” says Egan.
By using seasonal produce there is less waste, Egan says.
“I’m interested in circular systems so that the waste of one thing feeds into another thing so actually there is no waste,” she says.
But the elderflower cordial lasts only as long as the season does for Egan.
“It’s just a short term thing so I’m finished now for this year,” she says.
But this is not the end of cordials for this year, she says.
“The next thing now is there will be elderberries,” says Egan.
In fact, Egan has already begun to notice the elderberries begin to grow where she once picked the elderflowers.
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