Drinking the Forest: Developing a Taste for Foraged Cocktails
Marie Viljoen, the author of the new book ‘Forage, Harvest, Feast,’ offers some advice for using wild ingredients in mixed drinks.
Everybody has a summer drink. Mine is teaberry soda, which I make from leaves foraged in the woods behind my house in Maine. (Don’t judge.) Sometimes I enliven my soda with rum. Or vodka. Or tequila. Actually, I tend to enliven it quite a bit.
Part of the appeal is that teaberry soda is my version of Marcel Proust’s madeleine—an evocative flavor from my past. My grandmother was an avid consumer of Clark’s Teaberry Gum, and always kept a pack in her purse. My reward for not being an idiot in her presence was having a stick handed to me.
I revisit my past with every glass. Clark’s Teaberry has been sadly discontinued, although I recently saw an 80-year-old pack for sale on eBay for $99, so it’s also a flavor I can’t find elsewhere, and certainly not in bars. Today, teaberry is part of my private palette. It adds a new color to my drinking.
Which is also the idea behind a new cookbook, Forage, Harvest, Feast, which was just published. It’s by Marie Viljoen, the South-African-born, Brooklyn-dwelling author of the popular 66 Square Feet, a blog and cookbook of the same name, in which she writes about gardening on her small city terrace, as well as finding local food in unexpected places.
Viljoen is not a crusader who wants us to live off the land and eat gravel and twigs. She just wants us to get out of our flavor lane, and expose ourselves to things both new and extraordinary. “My work with wild foods is born from an appetite for new flavors, and the thrill of discovery” she writes. “New flavors are thrilling.”
Her cookbook has a lot to like—it’s lavishly illustrated with colorful photos, and many of the recipes sound delicious, perhaps because some veer toward the Harry-Potterish (“Mugwort spicebush poached pears,” “Quickweed griddle cakes”). But—and this is key —she also features about four dozen drink recipes.
“I love cocktails, I really do,” she told me during a recent phone call. “Bartenders are creative, but they have a standard repertoire to work with. Introducing botanicals is a quick way to give a drink some new life.”
Viljoen is certainly not the first to set off into the woods with beverages in mind. Other books suggesting how to forage for cocktails have come out in recent years—including Wild Drinks & Cocktails, Wild Cocktails from the Midnight Apothecary and Wildcrafted Cocktails.
But Viljoen takes us deeper into the woods, with drinks involving some ingredients that get scant attention in other books, like bayberry, sheep sorrel, ground elder, and sweetfern. In all, 36 ingredients get their own chapters, with tips on finding and cultivating, followed by recipes for food and drinks. It’s skewed toward the Northeast, where she’s based, but residents of all regions will find familiar ingredients or their relatives.
Her cocktail recipes evolved fairly haphazardly. “My process was just drinking,” she says. “My husband and I have a cocktail every evening.” She would find a flavor that seemed to go well with a spirit, and then try different variations and techniques—often starting out a bit heavy-handedly, she admitted, and then dialing it back until it was just right.
The drink recipes generally call for infusions or fermentations. Infusing is simply a matter of collecting leaves or roots, then steeping them in a spirit of some sort—alcohol is, after all, a nearly universal solvent. “It’s like a palette of flavors—you can go in so many different directions from one infusion,” she says. Among her suggestions: a fir-infused vodka (quarter cup of needles put in three cups of vodka; let sit for one to four weeks) and a wisteria gin (five ounces of flowers, infused with four cups of gin with a half-cup of sugar infused for two weeks).
For serviceberries, and some other plants, she mixes them with sugar and allows the concoction to ferment for a few weeks before straining. The serviceberry syrup then goes into her August cocktail, made with white rum and black cherry juice.
Viljoen is well aware that foraging isn’t without risk—you really should know what you’re picking, as nature doesn’t always have your best interest in mind. The foraging world was reminded of that last month when another book, Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen by blogger and Instagram star Johnna Holmgren, was recalled by its publisher. Experienced foragers pointed out that some recipes were potentially hazardous—like raw wild mushrooms dipped in chocolate. (Wild mushrooms should always be cooked. “I leave mushrooms aside, “Viljoen says. “They can be problematic.”)
“This is a cookbook, not a field guide,” she notes, and encourages readers to expand their field identification skills with other sources. She also points out that you can forage without actually being a forager—many farmers’ markets host vendors selling what they’ve found that week or grow on their property.
Among the little-known plants that fascinated her was sweetfern—a shrub that’s actually not a fern (although looks a bit like one) and is related to the bayberry. She first came upon it some years ago in Pennsylvania—when its leaves are crushed it has pungent, resiny-menthol kind of aroma. “The smell got to me,” she says. “It was so aromatic and evocative and summery. I started reading.”
She was surprised by the lack of information on its culinary uses. “It was just tea, tea, tea!” she says. “Tea is so boring.”
After experimenting, she ended up including sweetfern in more than a dozen recipes, using the leaves in salt and compound butter, and tucked in parchment with scallops. And—this is key—infusing it in bourbon.
This caught my attention because, first of all…bourbon. And also, because we have a nearly endless supply of sweetfern growing along a dirt track near our house. I, too, had marveled at its aroma for years, grabbing fistfuls for huffing as I walked by, and was mystified that nobody online seemed to be putting it to good use.
I’ve been infusing it since I got her book. Sweetfern doesn’t have enough body to make vodka more interesting, and it sparred jarringly with the botanicals in the gin I used. But bourbon? It harmonizes nicely, giving it a faint echo of a Chartreuse-like herbaceousness. Like teaberry, it’s at once familiar and not.
Which is what foraging can bring to your bar. “It’s elderberry season and sumac season,” Viljoen told me a week ago. “I’d go find myself some ripe elderberries and make a syrup or ferment it and mix up a drink called the Bug Slayer. It’s super good.”
If I’m not here when you arrive, I’ll be out in the woods. The liquor cabinet is open.