The first bounty of spring yields myriad opportunities for foraging. Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown lead us on the trail of the finest free ingredients nature has to offer at this time.
Blooms and blossoms are booming everywhere from the Highlands to the Jurassic Coast. Harvesting the best of these tender treasures can yield a wide range of traditional and new flavours for mixed drinks. This year, while we’re waiting for our seedlings to sprout another season of summer berries, fresh herbs, fruits, and veg, we’re out foraging for what nature replenishes without human intervention. For your first forage tote along a thick pair of leather garden gloves. Your foraging quest packs a mean sting!
A spiky shrub with bright yellow flowers, gorse blooms from January to June. Okay, it is rarely out of bloom, but March and April are when the flowers are at their best and most abundant. Though gorse is commonly associated with Cornish and Welsh coastal regions, it grows as far away as East Anglia and, increasingly, on the verges by motorway exits, including the one nearest to our house. Gorse blossoms are prized for their sweet coconut aroma and flavour. There are a few traditional gorse wines commercially available if you want to sample a taste before you commit to picking on a preferably very sunny day. A fragrant low-abv gorse wine can be made with equal measures of flower petals and water. Following the standard methods for making fruit and floral wines, we use 4 litres of flowers to 4 litres water sweetened with 1 kilo of caster sugar and 500gr of sultanas. The juice and zest of two lemons contribute the acid you need for fermentation. A sachet of white wine yeast fortified with a teaspoon of yeast nutrient will encourage your mixture to bubble into wine in a glass demijohn sealed with an airlock. This mixture needs at least six and even nine months to reach its glorious best. But while you wait, you can make headier gorse spirit.
To make gorse gin, vodka or white rum, infuse a 500ml measure of gorse blossoms into a 70cl bottle of your choice of spirits for three to five days, then strain to remove the flowers and re-bottle the spirit. If you want to turn this elixir into a liqueur, dilute and sweeten to taste with simple syrup. There are no ready sources for dried gorse flowers. This one is strictly DIY, and when you get out there, it quickly becomes obvious. Ever since our first foray into gorse, we’ve used “picking gorse” as a metaphor for donating blood. No gloves, wellies or leather trousers will keep you from being bloodied by gorse thorns. If you don’t want to suffer for the sake of your art, thankfully, there are lots of other blossoms and hedgerow flavours available at this time of year. The next one is a more delicate flower.
The name primrose comes from the Latin prima rosa meaning ‘first rose’. It is not a member of the rose family. However, it is among the first flowers of spring and generally continues to bloom into June. It was once prized for its medicinal value – roots for cough remedies as well as treating arthritis and rheumatism, the leaves and flowers for treating anxiety, insomnia and headaches. With so many uses, it was harvested to the point where it became a rather rare plant. Today, with the knowledge forgotten and people happy to find remedies at Boots, primroses and their close cousin the cowslip are proliferating in hedgerows and gardens once more.
Garnish, brew, press
Young primrose leaves and flowers are sweet and frequently used fresh for garnishes. They can also be brewed like a tea to produce a syrup or liqueur; and they can be pressed. Even when dry, primroses retain their colour, are shelf stable, and equally attractive. This is far simpler than the usual method of crystallising blossoms by dipping them in egg white and using a fine paintbrush to ensure they’re evenly covered in sugar before drying them in a dehydrator – although that is another option.
It’s also hawthorn flower and leaf season. This member of the rose family covers Britain, budding and blooming in April and May. The white blossoms have an odd, slightly fishy aroma when fresh. They use this to attract pollinators. Luckily, the aroma dissipates when the flowers are dried or otherwise processed. Just like the early spring beech leaves we discussed in a previous column, hawthorn leaves, buds and blossoms have a nutty flavour when infused into vodka or gin. The process is simple: fill a wide-mouthed jar loosely with buds, flowers, and leaves, then fill to cover them with spirit. You can use a fermentation weight to keep the botanicals down. Of course, no fermentation takes place in the alcohol, this is a simple maceration. The weight simply discourages oxidation by keeping the vegetal matter submerged. There is another age-old element to add to your repertoire that takes you to new heights of flavour.
A North American tradition, tapping maple trees takes place in the early spring when the days are warm and nights are cold. This encourages the tree sap to flow up from the roots during the day and descend again at night. A small hole in a tree can fill a few buckets with sap, sometimes called ‘maple water’. While sugar maples are uncommon in Europe, another tree produces equally delicious sap – birch. Naturally filtered through hardwood and sweetened by sugars from the trees, both maple and birch are unique waters to work with. They are also available online from a few producers. What to do with them? Carbonate them. Make them into dilute syrups (as opposed to concentrating them into classic pancake toppings). Even more daring, make them into maple stout and birch beer.
A desire to work with sustainable and natural ingredients in your year-round drinks menu can lead you down more than a few paths beyond the veg and herb garden, if you step into your wellies and go early spring foraging.