A touch of sparkle in a glass

The Spread Eagle Hotel's head chef Martin Hadden
The Spread Eagle Hotel's head chef Martin Hadden

What better way to spend a summer evening than sitting in the garden with a glass of champagne?

And Martin Hadden, executive chef for the Historic Sussex Hotel group, has shared a special recipe for elderflower champagne which he has been making over the last few weeks at The Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst.

There is only a small window in the calendar to make this very special summer drink and Martin can be found searching the hedgerows through June and July every year collecting elderflowers.

“We hold ‘foraging dinners’ every year at The Spread Eagle and I make the champagne for them as well as keeping a few bottles for Christmas,” he said.

“It’s great fun to make and is ready from start to finish in two weeks.

“Used straight away it is a floral, slightly sweet, sparkling fizz, but later it becomes crystal clear, loses its prominent floral smell and becomes more alcoholic.

“I have used this recipe for a number of years. I have doctored and changed the original to make the drink even better.

“There is no added yeast. The flowers are not scalded or sterilised, which leaves the wild yeasts naturally present on the blooms to do the fermentation for you.

“Pick nice young flower heads, where the flowers have not yet started to drop petals or turn brown. You’ll get pollen on you, but don’t worry – it doesn’t stain. Use the flowers promptly or the aroma will change.

“Wild yeast gives the best results but it isn’t 100 per cent reliable. If fermentation doesn’t start in ten days – the tiny bubbles stage – then add a tiny pinch of yeast to each bottle. Leave to stand for five minutes, then give it a gentle shake. There’s no need to use fancy yeast because we’re not trying to produce a high-alcohol drink: bread yeast is fine, as is general purpose beer or wine yeast.

Ingredients (makes one gallon):

Seven or eight heads of elderflower

Two lemons

500g sugar

Two tablespoons of cider vinegar

Enough plastic fizzy drinks bottles to hold the elderflower champagne (plastic bottles are better than glass because you can give them a squeeze to see how much pressure has built up, and if you forget them for a few days they won’t explode!)

Method:

Put 1 gallon of water in a large lidded saucepan, warm to 60C. Add the elderflower heads and two sliced lemons. Put the lid on, then leave it for 24-36 hours. Strain the liquid through a clean cloth or sieve.

Add 500g of sugar and two tablespoons of cider vinegar, and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

Pour into fizzy drinks bottles. Put the tops on to keep fruit flies out, but don’t screw them on tight yet – just stand the bottles in a corner and keep an eye on them. After a few days they will start to make tiny bubbles as the wild yeasts get to work on the sugar.

After one or two weeks the bubbles will gradually slow down. When they look like they have pretty much stopped, screw the lids down and put the bottles somewhere fairly cool. Give them another few days to generate enough gas to carbonate themselves, and you’re set – just refrigerate the bottle before you need it, and serve over ice with lemon.

The elderflower champagne is still ‘live’ and continuing to ferment, so the longer it is stored the more alcoholic and drier it will become. It will be too dry for most tastes after three months.

The trick with this method is to keep checking the pressure in the bottles, particularly for the first few weeks. Just give each bottle a good squeeze – if you can’t squeeze the sides in at all, then the pressure is getting too high. When this happens very gently loosen the cap until you hear gas releasing, and wait until the noise dies down before tightening up again.