I’ve always struggled with Elderflower, it’s good stuff don’t get me wrong- one of the best inductions for many a blossoming forager. The versatility of this deciduous shrub is quite astounding: flowers, berries and even the official host of the Jew’s ear fungi. That’s quite a claim to fame. Here’s my issue, and as pathetic as it may sound, many of you will concur: just like a moody teenager whose favourite band has gone mainstream, the elder has sold out. You only have to ask God (google) for recipes and the results are astounding, but for good reason, and I shouldn’t whinge: It’s damn fine shit.
Over the years, my loyalty has shifted towards Meadowsweet (just coming into season now), something that we have to thank for the birth of aspirin, the flavour is better, but then here I am raving about my favourite band to a small collection of enthusiasts.
So, there are many ways of using Elderflower, especially when it comes to making cordials, infusions and liqueurs. The methods we have are traditional, old school and out dated. No longer do we have to wait two weeks for our homemade version of St.Germain, two hours is sufficient using some of the ‘technology’ we have available to us in this day and age.
At Hunter Gather Cook, Wild cocktails & Wild Brewing are part of the job, so we’re always playing with new methods of getting the best flavours out of wild and getting them into our desired tipples. The age old method of mascerating such things as elderflower, Japanese knotweed and beech leaves is perfectly acceptable and still very relevant, but there is a new method that can be utilized by the wild cocktail afficiendo: sous vide.
Sous vide (meaning literally ‘under vacuum’ en Francais) was first developed in the 1799 by one Sir Benjamin Thompson (although air was the preferred heat transfer medium). It wasn’t utilised again until the 1970’s when it was rediscovered by industrial food preservation experts. Since then the likes of Adria, Heston and Keller have been enjoying its versatility in the Michelin star stakes. This is also damn fine shit. Clearly.
I have been very lucky with my education in mixology: My brother, the same fellow that taught me snaring, fires and shooting (although I always had the upper hand at fishing) now runs Bamboo, a creative drinks strategy agency, based in London and New York, that has got quite the head for such capers. Bartery with wild ingredients have gained me brief access to their drinks lab and wealth of knowledge. Maceration was used as standard in 80% proof to help draw out the flavours naturally as quickly as possible, but sous vide also got a look in.
When you start playing with sous vide and liquids another chapter opens: spirits, cordials, fruit juices and vinegars suddenly become fair game. Essentially what sous vide does is A) speeds up the whole process (allowing for plenty of room for experimentation) and B) It simplifies the entire process whilst removing any danger of losing any delicate flavours to the atmosphere. In simple terms, real simple terms, you simply heat some water to 40˚C, maintain the heat, pour your liquid into a ziplock bag, add whatever you want to infuse it with, suck the air out of the bag, seal and stick it in the 40˚ C water and leave for an hour or two.
What you end up with is a purest product you could hope for in the shortest amount of time. You can go crazy adding different flavours and messing about: Wild horseradish and ground ivy vodka for the perfect bloody mary; Beech leaf and yarrow gin; Sorrel vinegar; haribo cordial (seriously, don’t bother), It becomes quite addictive and no doubt could turn you into a Doc Brown lookalike with a massive drink problem, its all in the risk assessment. A word on alcohol selection- buy the cheap stuff, your’re going to flavour it anyway.
To accomplish sous vide, the essential component is to be able to heat the water that you put your ziplock of ingredients into and sustain it for a long period of time. You could put it in a pan of water and fiddle around with the hob, but then you would also have to make sure the bag was off the bottom of the pan. Ball ache…big time.
The other option is to fork out up to a grand on a waterbath (expect to pay at least £500 for a bottom end version). Spenny to say the least. Fortunately there is a way around having to stump up the dough: A deep fat fryer, basically a waterbath without a digital temperature adjustment.
A deep fat fryer will cost you no more than £30 the only other things you need are a couple of bamboo skewers, and a cooking thermometer. Fill it with water as opposed to the usual oil, place the thermometer in the water attached to the side of the cage and then fiddle with the heating dial until it keeps a constant 40˚C. Might be worth pointing out, the reason it is 40˚C is because any hotter than that and you run the risk ‘overcooking’ the infusion. The bamboo skewers are used just to lift the cage off the heating coil on the bottom, just in case the bag has any contact.
Pour your chosen spirit into a medium sized ziplock bag (double bag for safety) and chop or tear up your ingredients you want to infuse and add to the bag. At this point you must partially zip up the bag and suck out all the air, be wary: chugging on a bag full of vodka or gin can make you slightly lightheaded! Seal the bag and place into the ‘water bath’.
An hour and a half is, in my experience through a few botched timings, the perfect amount of time to get a solid infusion that isn’t over powering or lacking in scent and flavour (remember 70% of taste is smell). For the perfect wild cocktail, you don’t want to screw up your delicate infusion by chucking in a load of sugar…your not trying to make skittles vodka. Once you have your infusion you can always add a drop or two of sugar syrup when it comes to mixing up your desired drink.
The best way to truly enjoy your infusion is as a martini, straight up over ice or with the customary dash of vermouth.
So what else has been going on? I recently went out to Burgundy to see my good friend Mr Tom Kevill-Davies (also known as the Hungry Cyclist) to plot for next year: A week of cycling in the Burgundian vineyards, tasting fine wine, wild plants and fungi and even butchering a wild boar…whilst cruising around on a bicycle, chilling by the pool or plucking cherries straight out of the orchard.
Yes it going to be good. Be sure to check the website in the New Year to book. To see how the Hungry Cyclist lodge is being renovated by Tom and the amazing stuff he’s getting up to, visit http://lodge.thehungrycyclist.com/
We also have a new specialist course coming online next week: ‘Fish, Forage & Feast’, a day of learning how to fly fish on the gin-clear waters of Chalk Springs in Arundel, followed by a forage around the fishery and a series of taster dishes from all the fish you’re going to catch. Taking place on Saturday 28th of September, check here for more details.