The Health Benefits of Elderberry – with Carmel Berry Co.
Before I met Katie Reneker, I didn’t know what an elderberry looked like – let alone did I know of its medicinal properties or delicious flavor. But on a hot February day in Carmel Valley, the proprietor of Carmel Berry Company expanded my horizons. There, on a sunny slope that is home to some salt-of-the-earth folks, I spent a beautiful February day falling in love with this land all over again.
Elderberries are higher in antioxidants than blueberries – full of vitamin C and anti-viral, anti-inflammatory properties. This means that taking elderberry syrup (either from the berry or the flower) can shorten the length of a flu by several days, according to studies. These berries contain flavonoids, whose antioxidant properties combat free radicals. Some studies have shown that free radicals and the cell damage they can cause is the precursor to cancer. Free radicals also contribute to the signs of aging. Therefore, some studies have shown that consuming natural foods high in antioxidants, such as elderberries, may actually help decrease the occurrence of precancerous cells.
Katie and her husband Ben discovered the healing properties of elderberries while searching for a more holistic approach to treating the flu. A young mother of two little boys, Katie sought an alternative to expensive syrups sold at local grocery and health stores. As the native Coloradan soon noticed that elderberry plants grow all over Carmel Valley, she began experimenting at home.
In short time, friends, neighbors and others in the community opened their yards to Katie and her family, to forage for elderberries. Through this foraging-by-invite, she has grown not only her knowledge of gardening and harvesting, but a network of local friendships as well. In fact, the syrups she has concocted are often traded for access to local elderberries and flowers.
The Renekers planted their own elderberry patch two years ago, which accounts for roughly one quarter of the berries they use to produce the syrup. The 70 plants are trimmed back each year, but will ultimately yield around five pounds of berries each, during peak season. Harvest season runs from early summer through the fall, as Carmel Valley receives plenty of sun and weather favorable to berry growth.
Katie has obtained a Cottage Food Operator license, which allows her to produce the syrups in her home, and distribute to the public. They are sold in local stores such as as Zearly (a local children’s clothing store), The Wharf Marketplace, Quail & Olive (a local olive oil tasting room), Earthbound Farm Stand, Carmel Belle (a local restaurant using organic produce grown locally), and Da Giovanni.
The syrups are bottled in beautiful apothecary-style bottles, each with its own small batch number handwritten on the back label. After giving me a tour of the berry patch, Katie treated me to a taste of the elderberry and elderflower syrups, which she served several ways.
First, we enjoyed a light spinach salad with a drizzle of the berry syrup mixed with olive oil from the Quail & Olive (I have a hard time leaving their tasting room, and will never look at olive oil in the grocery store the same way again). Alongside our light lunch, Katie served an elderberry spritzer, which consisted of about two or three teaspoons’ worth of the syrup in sparkling water. As the temperature climbed on an unusually warm winter day, we relaxed on the back deck, overlooking the beautiful green hills of Carmel Valley. The grand finale was a glass of champagne, flavored with a light pouring of elderberry syrup, which gave it a beautiful garnet color. The perfect cocktail for Valentine’s Day!
The Renekers try to live (and work) as off-grid as possible, utilizing a 6,000-gallon water tank, which they plan to pipe up to the berry patch this year. And just in time, too – with all the rain we’ve been receiving this winter, Katie noted that it only took about four days for the tank to fill completely. They also utilize solar panels, offsetting their energy consumption. This is a family after my own heart.
Future plans for Carmel Berry Company include expanding the berry operation to several acres. Katie also attends conferences and seminars to round out her growing expertise in organic farming. On the heels of last month’s EcoFarm Conference held annually at Asilomar Conference Grounds, she is taking an organic farming class geared toward young entrepreneurs. The class is held through Hartnell College in Salinas.
Whether you’re looking for a more holistic approach to treating colds and the flu, or you simply enjoy a light, bright and flavorful treat – keep an eye out for Carmel Berry Co.’s elderberry syrups. With proprietors and health enthusiasts like the Renekers, we can feel good about knowing that what we put into our bodies is healthy, and is made with sustainability in mind. Last but certainly not least, it is great to support our local community, while encouraging the next generation of agricultural and culinary entrepreneurs.
For more information, visit www.carmelberry.com.