Respect your elders

Elderberry wine recalls the England of Larkin and Amis père

Growing up in the postwar England immortalised by Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, I rarely encountered grapes or their divine by-product. But something called wine was familiar in our family, and autumn seldom approached without the gallon jars of sugared elderberry juice congregating around the brown enamel stove, our mother waiting for the day when the frenzied bubbling would dwindle to a whisper and the dark red liquid could be decanted into bottles. For three weeks the kitchen was filled with the yeasty scent of fermentation, and it is this scent that comes to mind with Keats's "Ode to Autumn".

The elder is one of the most useful of bushes. It grows wild in our hedgerows, and produces the fragrant flowers which are at their headiest on midsummer nights - exhaling a perfume wonderfully evoked in Act II of Die Meistersinger. Steeped in water thickened with sugar and citric acid, these flowers make the delicate cordial that provides our children with their apprenticeship in benign excess. The dark red berries are almost sugarless, but rich in tannin and pectin. If you boil them, strain off the juice, add sugar and reduce it, the result is a jelly that keeps for years and which adds a delicate crimson halo to the taste of pork or lamb.

However, it is for its wine that the elderberry has been most esteemed by the English. Plum, redcurrant, apple and gooseberry make excellent fruit wines, still sold commercially in Austria. But none compares with elderberry wine which, because of its quota of tannin, will mature for several years in bottle, acquiring its own, splenetic English nose and finish.

The sugar is not provided by the fruit, but must be added to the initial must of water and bruised berries, three pounds to the gallon - to use the fine old language that Brussels forbids - if you want the result to be dry. Although there are yeasts on the skins, they cause only a slow fermentation, and therefore risk producing vinegar. Best, therefore, to stir in a quantity of brewer's yeast, which will cause the stalks of clustered berries to rise to the surface.

When enough colour has been leeched from the berries, the fizzing, frothing, fuming torrent should be poured from the bucket into the jars, each sealed with a one-way valve to permit the escape of carbon dioxide while forbidding the inflow of oxygen. And the patter of the bubbles will soothe your autumn evenings until bottling time at the start of winter.

We would keep the wine for two years, occasionally visiting it in the cellar under the kitchen and holding it to the light to admire the black deposit. When at last the wine was opened, we would take a glass after supper, much as our ancestors took their claret. And the resulting mixture of appreciative grunts and monosyllabic praise was the most interesting wine-talk that I have ever heard.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies