Foraging in the wild can civilize the cocktail hour
It’s probably the most complimentary, endearing epitaph that has ever been written about someone, although it wasn’t written as an epitaph.
In recalling an Edwardian outing into the Congo in the early part of the 20th century, one adventurer described her friend as someone who, “always imposed civilization in the most contradictory of circumstances … .”
The woman being described was Lady Idina Sackville, an aristocrat and descendant of one of England’s oldest families. Sackville had plunged into the Jazz Age head first, divorced her first husband, deserted her children, went through a parade of lovers, was involved with the murder of another husband, became a crown member of Kenya’s decadent Happy Valley set and generally spread chaos everywhere she went. One, however, cannot overlook the fact she went roughly into the primitive Congo, yet devised a way to bring ice for cocktails.
For all her other faults, that act could bring consideration for sainthood.
Southeast Texas in 2016 is probably a lot less primitive than the Congo of 1920, but there are still times when the electricity fails, the air conditioner breaks down or someone posing friendship insists on going camping. All three are “the most contradictory of circumstances.”
Still, many people seem destined to journey back to the wild, embrace nature, forgo plush comforts and deny that civilization has blessedly evolved. Many of these people feel it is their calling to drag oblivious friends and family back to the primordial swamp with them.
One can grit one’s teeth and put up with the bugs and lack of temperature control, the muscle-knotting sleeping arrangements, the stink of smoke and even the gritty over- or under-cooked mystery foods from the campfire, but must one truly devolve to the point of passing a bottle around at 5 p.m. and calling it cocktail hour?
To the rescue for just such moments comes Dr. Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, who could well be Texas’ best hope for imposing civilization when it’s most needed.
Merriwether, the singular name he is best known by, is a natural forager, writer and teacher. He has a blog, www.foragingtexas.com, and a book called “Idiot’s Guides: Foraging.” He regularly teaches classes in the area, usually at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center with a book-signing there April 17. Oh, and he also has a day job in the energy industry.
It was to Merriwether this challenge was presented: Suppose someone were lost in the wild with only ice and liquor (this is a situation of desperation not destitution), what might one do to salvage cocktail hour?
“It’s funny to have this come right now,” Merriwether said. “Foraging is becoming kind of a new, popular thing. A lot of people other than those you would normally think of as foragers are really getting into it. Even Rémy Martin (a French cognac firm founded in the 1700s) has been contacting foragers all over the United States and wanting to have them attend a big demo where they come up with ideas for using foraged plants in alcoholic drinks.”
And with that, Merriwether dashed through a list of nearly a dozen wild or semi-wild plants in the area that would make anyone the star mixologist of the apocalyptic campground.
First on his list was the bottlebrush tree, a common landscape plant with long, bushy red flowers in mid-spring.
“The leaves have a very, very mint, almost menthol, flavor, so you can take these and muddle them before adding the alcohol,” he said. “You could do the same with the flower, but the leaves do a better job of retaining the flavor, and the bottlebrush is an evergreen, so the leaves are available all year long.”
The leaves and flowers also can be used to infuse liquors such as gin, vodka or even Tequila. The flowers should be used right away, but to get the most out of the leaves for infusing, let them dry for a couple of weeks, allowing the cell walls to break down.
Bee balm, found on roadsides all over this part of the state, is another wild plant that makes an excellent muddler, Merriwether said. The young leaves and flowers of bee balm, also known as wild oregano and horsemint, bring a herbal-citrusy flavor and a little sweetness to alcohols.
Although spring reawakens the fancy in young people’s hearts for white liquors, some people do hold on to their darks a bit longer. For them, Merriwether suggests foraging for horehound, although it’s more commonly found the nearer one gets to the Texas Hill Country. He describes the flavor as “when root beer and licorice mate.” As a result, the flavor goes excellently with rum or bourbon.
The leaves can be muddled fresh or dried, and then made into a tea. Because of the bitterness of the tea, it can be used much like bottled bitters are used in cocktails. Mix with soda and the alcohol of choice, and the Ritz will have nothing on the backwoods.
“Horehound is not new to drinking,” he said. “Centuries ago around here, it was used for making beer instead of using hops.”
It’s also medicinal. Mix the tea, honey and the rum in a small glass, and you also have cough medicine.
Turk’s cap, that red flower abundant in spring, makes a colorful sweetener to almost any cocktail. Picked early in the morning, the flowers are full of nectar. Muddle just a few of these in the evening, and the drink picks up a slightly sweet honeysuckle taste. The flowers also add a reddish color, like pink lemonade.
In the fall, Turk’s cap berries turn a reddish orange when ripe and have a taste like tart apples. They can be crushed and added directly to a cocktail or used fresh or dehydrated as infusers for both white alcohols and light rums or bourbons.
Any plant that can be made into a good tea also can be used to bring new flavors to drinks by combining an ounce or two of the tea with alcohol, shaking, then pouring over ice and topping with soda. Or, if one tea is especially tasty, create your own back-to-nature Long Island Tea.
Plants dried to make teas easily can be converted to infuse liquors. One very common and often maligned plant in the area is golden rod. Its leaves, when dried, produce a rich, black licorice and anise flavor.
Another infuser tea is made from leaves of the Yaupon holly, a native Texas plant. These need to be harvested and left to dry for several weeks before using, but they have a slightly sweet flavor with a lot of tasty undertones. Just don’t eat the berries. While drinking too many cocktails can make you sick in a few hours, eating the berries can do the same within minutes.
And what’s for dessert?
Anyone foraging for cocktails must not forget to bring home some fruits for their labor.
Blackberries, found in abundance before summer sets in, can be used fresh to add a tart sweetness to a drink, or slightly crushed and added to a jar of dark or white alcohol to let infuse. Strain and enjoy.
“In my humble opinion, what’s even better than blackberries, and just as common, is the mulberry,” Merriwether said. “It’s among my favorites. It looks like a blackberry but it doesn’t have the bitterness. Just be sure to pick the ones that are flat black. No green ones.”
He also suggests harvesting fresh loquats, which may have been created just for the cocktail. The fruit, which ripen in spring, are sweet and tangy and, sliced, bring that flavor to a drink. The fruit also can be used as an excellent infuser.
Loquat seeds also can be used to make an amaretto-flavored drink that’s hard to match. Add five to seven chopped loquat seeds to a liter of 90-proof or more alcohol, Merriwether suggests. Most any liquor will do. Let that soak for about six months, shaking every few weeks. Strain and then add about one cup of water and one cup sugar, mix well and then sip over ice, or add a little soda.
Finally, an untold number of plants add not just flavor, but a little flair to the cocktail in the wild. Merriwether mentioned several but among the more dramatic is the root of the curled dock or yellow dock plant. It’s shaped “like a big white carrot.” Trimmed and sliced, it can be used like a swizzle stick, which has the same effect of adding bitters to the drink.
Another is the root of the agarita, also a plant more common to the Hill Country than the coast, but not foreign to these parts. It, too, can be trimmed to make a swizzle stick and works as a bittering agent.
Oh, and since the agarita has a number of components that help with nausea, “You also have your hangover cure,” Merriwether said.
Another fine example of imposing civilization in the most contradictory of circumstances.
The story of Idina Sackville is the subject of “The Bolter,” by Frances Osborne (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009)
Turk’s Cap Martini
(An adaption of the classic Bee’s Knees Martini)
1 ounce Hendrick’s Gin
1 ounce Bombay Sapphire Gin
1 ounce American Honey Liqueur
1 ounce Turk’s cap simple syrup (recipe follows)
Scant 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
Wild Texas honey
Place a martini glass in the freezer and let chill. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add all the ingredients with about ¼ teaspoon honey and shake vigorously. Rim the martini glass with a line of honey and then strain in the contents of the cocktail shaker.
Turk’s Cap Simple Syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
¼ cup fresh Turk’s cap flowers
(picked early in the morning)
Combine the sugar and water in a medium pan. Heat on medium until the sugar dissolves. Add the flowers and stir until they have withered and the water has a pinkish hue. Do not boil. Set aside and let cool. This makes about 1 cup and can be stored in the refrigerator for about a month. You may strain before storing, or for stronger flavor, leave the flowers in and just strain the syrup you plan to use.
Bee Balm Mojito
(Adapted from a basil mojito recipe by Ouisie’s Table Restaurant in Houston)
Makes two servings
10 Fresh bee balm leaves, medium size plus 2 sprigs
4 teaspoons granulated sugar
¼ cup fresh lime juice
½ cup white rum
Place 10 bee balm leaves in a large cocktail shaker with the sugar and lime juice. Muddle the mixture until the leaves are well crushed. Add the rum with several ice cubes, then shake vigorously. Strain into two lowball cocktail glasses, add ice cubes and top with club soda. Garnish with bee balm sprigs.