Gravlax with Elderberry and Vodka

Image of elder treeThe elder tree is a remarkable thing. It doesn’t look like much – it’s more of a weedy shrub or a shrubby weed than a tree – but it gives us fragrant elderflowers early in the season, and deliciously winey elderberries at this time of the year.

It features heavily in myth and folklore and according to Ria Loohuizen’s fascinating little book The Elder, farmers thought it would keep their cattle being struck by lightning and it was planted near homes and beehives to ward off evil spirits.

It was used in folk medicine, too, but a word of caution: pretty much every part of the elder contains toxins (less so in the flowers, for anyone worrying about their elderflower cordial) and eating large amounts of the raw berries can cause gastro-intestinal problems. The official advice is to use only fully ripe berries and that they should be cooked or dried to eradicate the toxins. I put mine in a dehydrator for four or five hours at 70C, but a very low oven will do the trick. Ria says you can use the European elder (Sambucus nigra) or the American elder (S. canadensis). Other varieties, the mountain and dwarf elders, are not edible.

Image of elderberry seafood seasoningI’d been longing for ours to ripen because I wanted to try them in a cure for gravlax. You’ve probably seen beetroot-cured salmon. Elderberries give a similar purple-pink tinge but with an appealingly fruity edge.

Seafood From Norway generously gave everyone who attended this year’s Guild of Food Writers awards a package which included elderberry seafood seasoning. It contained sea salt, dried elderberries, dried hibiscus flowers and pink peppercorns. I added it to my elderberry cure, but I’ve given a make-at-home recipe below.

Gravlax with Elderberry and Vodka

Image of gravlax with elderberry and vodka


1 side of good quality salmon, descaled and pin-boned

250g elderberries, stripped weight (about 12 heads)

175g rock salt or sea salt

225g Demerara sugar

1 tspn pink peppercorns

Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

1 tbsp dried hibiscus flowers, finely sliced (optional)

30g fresh dill, chopped


Image of elderberriesStrip the elderberries from their stems with the tines of a fork and dry until wrinkled but still a bit sticky (see intro). Trim the fish of any ragged edges and check it’s been properly pin-boned and de-scaled. Cut off the thinner tail part and use it for another recipe, as it is likely to dry out and toughen during the curing process.

Put the salt, sugar, lemon zest, peppercorns and hibiscus flowers (if using) in a bowl, add the dried elderberries and stir through. Pour in just enough vodka to make a sandy mixture and stir in the chopped dill. The mixture will already be turning pink by now.

Image of mixed cure

Take two long sheets of foil and lie them slightly overlapping. Top the foil with two sheets of overlapping clingfilm. (These pictures might help.) Put a third of the cure in the middle and spread it out to roughly the size of your salmon.

Lay the fish on top skin-side down and spread the rest of the mix on the flesh side, concentrating mostly in the middle where the fish is thickest.

Image of cure spread of salmon

Fold in the clingfilm as tightly as possible, followed by the foil, so you create a parcel. Put it in a tray big enough to lay it flat, put a board on top and weigh it down with a couple of tins from your storecupboard.

Leave it in the fridge for 48 hours, turning it halfway through and replacing the weight. At the end of the cure, unwrap the fish and discard the wrappings. Scrape off most of the cure, lightly wash the salmon and pat it dry. You can eat it now, or put it back in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out for another 24 hours.

To serve, slice thinly at a diagonal, as you would smoked salmon.

Image of gravlax, sliced

9 thoughts on “Gravlax with Elderberry and Vodka

    • Thanks, Lynn. I got a second opinion from Mike @eastcoastavocet and his missus, and they liked it, too. The slight fruitiness works surprisingly well with the fish and I love the colour.

  1. Linda – may I both agree and disagree ? If I can get hold of elderberries in Australia (perchance from Victoria ?) I would love to try your version of spiced salmon – wonderful! However I do believe you should advocate it as ‘spiced salmon’ ! To my way of thinking certain classic recipes have evolved from Europe: naturally we may change the recipe, naturally dishes may take on certain directions . . . . if the taste great wonderful ! But methinks the original’ name should no longer be attached to your variations ! . . . Oh, I have already argued that one out with JO who adds beetroot . . . . vodka at a pinch I may ‘take’ 🙂 . . . .

    • Hi Eha, I’m glad you like the recipe. There’s been quite a lot of hoo-ha over here about cultural misappropriation and the misnaming of recipes, after Jamie Oliver started selling a ‘jerk rice’ that offended Jamaicans. I take your point about messing with classics, but I would say that this still contains the classic ingredients – I have added to them. I called it gravlax in this case as a sort of tribute to Norwegian Seafood, who donated the original seasoning mix I incorporated into the recipe, and also so that people could easily identify the sort of recipe it is online. Spiced salmon? No, no spices involved, except for the peppercorns. Cured salmon? Perhaps. All the best, Linda.

  2. Oh Linda! I hang my head in shame – naturally I meant ‘cured’ salmon – my apologies!! Look, I love the dish which is actually Swedish in origin to the best of my knowledge: I first ‘made’ it in our family kitchen in Tallinn, Estonia as roughly a 4-year-old, so feel somewhat ‘proprietorial’ 🙂 ! Actually I almost did not ‘sound off’ as you correctly said ‘Gravlax with’ !!! We all have a right to have our views: mine is childishly simple – ‘don’t mess with classics’ and mix up the new generations ! The old ingredients may be involved but how does anyone have the right to add or subtract and still call it by the ‘old name’ ? Talking very generally here . . . . Thanks . . .

    • Please don’t apologise or think that I am in any way offended, Eha. I’m all in favour of a lively exchange of views and I think you make a very fair point. I can be a bit of a purist too so I understand where you’re coming from, Equally, recipes evolve. For instance, everyone puts anchovies in Caesar Salad these days and that’s become the accepted ‘classic’. But apparently Caesar Cardini, who is generally accepted to have invented it, objected to their use. I’m not suggesting that putting elderberries in a gravlax cure will become the international gold standard, but I think it’s an acceptable variation. We’ll have to agree to politely differ! Linda x

  3. I’m at a loss for words! This is a fantastic idea~! With the constant love affair our region has been in with the boons and treasures of the elder tree for the last couple of centuries and the many light elderflower sauces, airs and butters our regions chefs serve their freshwater fish with in the back of my mind, this one just gave me one of those “Of Course! This makes perfect sense” moments~ Thanks to the love-affair I just mentioned, we have a wide range of low to high voltage elderberry spirits available over here, so I would probably pick one of those instead of vodka (and make an event of the tasting/picking process before that~), but other than that, this fabulous recipe is saved and pinned to the top of my seafood-to-do list

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