It’s not a question everyone asks themselves, but I bet most foragers do, ‘What does here taste like?’. Wild edibles represent a moment and place in time the way no other food (or drink) can. One bite of that wild mushroom, one sip of that flower-infused cordial, and the experience comes rushing back. You know exactly where you were, what you felt, whom you were with. You remember the smell of the sea, the angle of the sun, how wet your feet were. You’re connected to your food, the place where you found it, and the people you found it with.
Terroir is a term most commonly associated with wine. It refers to the flavor that comes from a specific place: its soil, climate, terrain, and weather. When you drink wine with a distinctive terroir, you’re tasting the flavor of the place where the grapes grew. Terroir is something that foragers think about every day.
I recently moved from New York City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s hard to imagine two American landscapes with more different terroirs. Which means, lucky me, I get to experiment with a whole new flavor palate. The Botanist having its own breadth and depth of place, you can’t do better than to choose it as the medium for tincturing your own local plants, capturing the individual flavor. This tincture can then become the basis for an entirely new and personal cocktail.
Robinia neomexicana (New Mexican locust) flowers have a naturally sweet, floral flavor and superb color. Thelesperma megapotamicum (Navajo tea) is a traditional medicinal herb, native to my new home. It’s barely tannic, slightly sweet, and non-caffeinated. I drink it by the quart, infused in water, and slightly more reservedly when infused in gin. The dried seeds of Heracleum maximum (cow parsnip) are savory, with undertones of celery and anise. It’s a tough one to describe, but when I bit into a seed, I knew I needed to capture that flavor in an adult beverage.
The first time I taste a new infusion, I sample it straight, or over a single cube of ice. I want to understand as much as possible about the flavors of the infused spirit before I start combining it with other things. Will the sweetness of New Mexican locust flowers play well with a different, but equally sweet flavor, like that of elderflower champagne? Or will it shine as the only wild ingredient in a simple combination with seltzer? Shall I mix Navajo tea (in tea form) with Navajo tea infused gin? (The answer is yes, by the way.) And what would best complement the unique flavor of cow parsnip? I recommend a smidge of bee balm (Monarda) syrup, which is warm, spicy, and sweet.
Wherever I go, I forage. It’s a continuing quest for un-buyable flavors and a desire to capture a piece of every new place and literally drink it in. Whether it’s Cape Town or Jerusalem, Islay, Okinawa, or Peoria, Illinois, there are flavors worth exploring. Even familiar plants taste different when they grow in different places… Never underestimate the importance of terroir.
So, what does ‘here’ taste like? Of course that depends on where you are at the moment. At the very least, it’s never boring, and it’s often delicious.
By our new guest author, Ellen Zachos