Foraging for spring tonics
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Last autumn we introduced readers to some of our favourite foraging ingredients and suggested a few beverages that can be made with them. Now that spring is underway a whole new range of flavours are unfurling, presenting yet more brewing and infusing opportunities.
The spring bounty may not be quite as weighty as autumn’s masses of fruits and berries, but there’s still plenty of choice to be had in the Somerset countryside. One obvious exception you won’t have trouble seeking out is the abundant nettle – a plant so tasty, versatile and good for you that it would be a cherished vegetable were it not a weed with a nasty sting.
Besides using it as food (nettle risotto is hard to beat) it can also be deployed in a large range of home made drinks. Nettle tea is a remarkably tasty tonic with lots of health benefits, most notably as a diuretic, and is as easy to make – simmer a cup full of leaves in two cups of water for 15 minutes before straining, adding sugar to taste – the only downside being the need to wear gloves to handle the leaves. Many country wine makers have nettles near the top of their list of fermentable plants, while brewers have used the leaves as a hop substitute for centuries. We enjoy brewing our own version of nettle beer (see the recipes), which is quick and easy to make, producing a light and refreshing drink.
Other weeds that have been used in place of hops for their bittering abilities include mugwort, woodruff, yarrow and even the humble dandelion. This scourge of gardens and lawns is a highly versatile plant, with leaves, flowers and roots all edible. As with nettles it can also be turned into a healthy tea and is paired up with burdock root for a fizzy drink classic. One of our favourite wines is made by using just the bright golden petals, traditionally picked on St George’s Day, which we ferment with chopped sultanas to boost its flower power with a bit of body. It’s also worth looking up one of the many recipes for dandelion syrup (essentially infusing flowers in water with sugar), which can be used instead of honey drizzled over desserts or dropped into cocktails.
There are plenty more flowers out in the wild that can be used to flavour drinks, with the most well known being the fragrant elderflower. This appears as spring gives way to summer and is used to make a popular, lightly alcoholic fizzy drink often referred to as ‘elderflower Champagne’. The same method can be used for other edible blooms such as gorse, meadowsweet and the aforementioned dandelion. In May the hawthorn will be in full flower (hence it receiving the name ‘mayflower’), turning many hedges a soft white colour. Although small, their dense masses means it doesn’t take long to pick enough to infuse in sweetened brandy, producing a deliciously fruity and floral liqueur.
One of the most popular wild liqueurs for DIY booze enthusiasts involves steeping young beech leaves in spirits, often referred to as ‘noyau’ due to its similar taste to nutty liqueurs of the same name. Instead of sweetening with sugar we like to introduce honey into the mix for a classic honey-nut combination – great in cocktails or gently sipped as an aperitif. Other booze-friendly tree leaves include oak and walnut, which have been used to flavour wines and meads for centuries, while more ambitious foragers have also been known to tap up the birch tree for sap to use in wine making.
One of our favourite wild flavours is spruce or pine. In spring, buds of new growth will be bursting open to reveal vibrant green tips of soft needles. These tips are packed full with vitamin C, so steeping a small handful in hot water produces a fine drink for the health conscious. They can also be eaten raw in salads or even pickled. Captain Cook was so impressed with their vitamin-enriching qualities that he added spruce tips to beer, serving it to his crew on long voyages to help ward off scurvy. You can still find beer today that has been flavoured with spruce tips, giving it an extra fresh, bitter twist.
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Our preferred use of spruce is for an infusion to pep up martinis and other cocktails, which uses fresh tips or older needles. Just a few drops of this bitter spirit evokes the essence of spring woodland, a perfect way to bring a touch of our great outdoors into your living room.
Snip a few spruce twigs from a tree, rinse and pat dry. Pluck the needles free, or snip off with scissors, and measure out around a tablespoon. Gently bruise with a pestle and mortar and scrape them into a sterilised jar. Bash up ½ teaspoon coriander seeds, two allspice berries and four juniper berries, adding them to the jar. Cover with 200ml vodka, seal, shake and set aside for two weeks, giving it a few more shakes in the meantime.
Filter through a muslin cloth or fine sieve and bottle. Just a few drops will spruce up a martini – which we recommend garnishing with a freshly picked spruce tip.