Capturing a Taste of the Wild

An early lesson I learned when I began foraging was this: there is a difference between “you can eat it” and “you should eat it”. Depending on your tolerance for bitterness, hairiness, or astringency, there are some wild foods that are technically edible but also technically horrible. Conversely there are some incredible and unique ingredients to be found in the hedges, forests, and fields.

Putting aside the necessity of sustenance for survival, food must, above all, taste good. It is no good if something looks great if it tastes bad or, worse, tastes of nothing. The view, long held by certain food writers and critics, that wild foods offer little more than piles of stringy weeds to strew about a plate is changing. Foraging has entered the mainstream, which can only be a good thing. Any system of harvesting ingredients that depends entirely on the wild, on moving softly through the world, on being a part of things rather than controlling them, is to be encouraged. There are chefs and kitchens all over the world that are making delicious food with foraged things.

These foraged things do offer unique opportunities for flavour. Yes, pineapple weed tastes somewhat akin to its namesake, but really it tastes of itself; fruity and oddly tropical. Hogweed seeds, when still green, bring to mind burnt citrus, carrot, and cardamom, but somehow quite unlike any of them. Sometimes, capturing the flavour from these plants is a challenge. They can be lost in cooking, or the texture of the plant is a difficult one to deal with, and so on. Tinctures – infusing a flavour into an alcohol or vinegar solvent – have been used for centuries to produce drinks and medicines. It’s a useful and enjoyable method of capturing the flavours of otherwise difficult ingredients. It is also a way of preserving these flavours, so that the burn of summer or the gentle slowing of autumn may be enjoyed year-round.

Here in France there are many alcoholic beverages made this way. Spirits, often eau-de-vie, are infused with bitter gentian root. Red wine is fortified with a tincture of green walnuts to make vin de noix. Crème de cassis, an infusion of black currants and sugar in a neutral spirit, is served topped up with sparkling wine. It’s all rather lovely. And various more well-known drinks, such as gin and vermouth, are essentially the same; aromatic botanicals suspended in booze.

So, once you’ve safely identified your ingredients, you can play around with infusions to create some wild spirits, liqueurs, and cocktails. Bramble bourbon is a favourite in this house, and I have, only yesterday, made tinctures of cloveroot, yarrow, hogweed seeds, water mint, lemon balm, and pineapple weed. These I will use to fortify some white wine, a rough and wild vermouth. And a mix of all of these ingredients is now sitting in a jar of vodka in an experiment to make a wild ‘gin’. Cheers.

This article first appeared on Locavore Magazine’s website.