Foraging is all the rage these days. Many of the country’s hippest restaurants and cafés are paying foragers top dollar for ingredients sourced from local land. It’s not just chefs who are keen to show off their dedication to all things local though. Wine makers may be reluctant to look beyond the grape, but other drinks producers, led by gin distillers and brewers, are on the hunt for ever more unusual ingredients with which to pep-up their products.
Foraging expert Andy Hamilton is well placed to explain the current craze for foraged ingredients – the Bristol-based author has written several books on the subject and even conducts ‘gin safaris’ within the region to point people in the way of the ingredients growing in their natural habitat. Somewhat aptly, we met Andy at Bath’s Canary Gin Bar to find out why he thinks drinks makers are embracing their wild side.
“There’s been a whole generation that has enjoyed good food – and now drinks are improving too. When I was growing up, an avocado was seen as exotic, but to this generation, they’re about as exotic as driving a Japanese car,” Andy tells us. Foraging, he believes, is a natural way of seeking out new flavours to replace those imports that were once so unfamiliar and also “a reaction against huge multinational companies taking over.” “Using foraged ingredients,” he says, “is a great sign of the ingenuity and creativity of human beings.”
As to why gin and beer producers are at the forefront of foraging for flavour, Andy has a simple explanation: “Gin and beer are in our blood – in more ways than one – they are part of our cultural DNA.” If we are naturally disposed to get creative with gin and beer, there’s also a more scientific explanation as to why many foraged ingredients can improve those drink’s qualities, and that’s down to the bitterness that many of them possess. As Andy explains: “Try adding bitter to something sweet and it will be long, lingering and satisfying rather than short lived and disappointing. When you are brewing a beer or making a cocktail or spirit then you want the last taste to linger, you want the drinker to have what I call a “taste memory”. This then triggers something that has them coming back for more.”
In Widcombe, Sue Mullett is the owner of Bath Botanics, a small shop and distillery producing gins, fruit gins and herbal elixirs – it was these elixirs that first got her excited about the opportunities for producing alcoholic drinks. A former gardener with a love of plants, she went back to university to study for a degree in herbal medicine before putting it to good use by making prescribed tinctures, many of which featured bitter flavours. In order for them to work, people needed to take them over a long period of time, which became something of a challenge in our sweet-toothed society. “Sweet is not good” she tells me “people have lost the ability to enjoy bitter things.”
So instead she decided to use these functional ingredients in something more palatable and began distilling gin. Among the products in her shop are an elixir made from echinacea (a plant used to boost the immune system) and a delicious ‘winter warmer’, which is made from a combination of her No.1 Gin and elderberry syrup.
No.1 Gin is made with nine botanicals that include juniper, coriander and angelica seed, and also contains the less familiar lime flower, which Sue again appreciates for its medicinal properties. “It’s considered to be a natural relaxant. In most French cafés you’ll find a tea called ‘tilleul’, which is made from lime flowers. Mine come from a big old lime tree near where I live. I pick and freeze as many as I can in June.”
Besides the goodness contained in these wild plants, Sue also points to another important consideration for using naturally sourced ingredients – whether foraged or bought – and that’s to ensure they’re free from chemicals. “As part of the distillation or infusing process, any chemicals will be extracted and concentrated in alcohol.” As is often the case, nature knows best.