Recently Gather had the great pleasure of presenting a wildcrafted aperitif for Moonrise Creative’s first Eat Together Dinner. And it was such a magical occasion! Seeing the guests laughing and chatting together in the beautiful setting of field and forest—while sipping our sparkling summer elixir—nearly brought a tear to my eye. Really.
After all, this bittersweet, herbaceous and slightly floral herbal libation was the gratifying culmination of weeks spent infusing various Vancouver Island wild botanicals and aromatic herbs in Vancouver Island spirits.
The goal was to craft an entirely regional pre-dinner drink that would stimulate the taste buds and support digestion – while capturing the flavours and fragrances of our local ‘terroir’.
My plan was to begin with a herbal liqueur created in the great culinary and medicinal traditions of Chartreuse, Strega and Jagermeister – each a unique blend of plants, herbs, fruits, seeds, roots and even barks, growing in their regional landscapes. This was to be sweetened with Vancouver Island honey and blended with white wine (further infused with herbs) to become a Vermouth, Gather-style.
But there was one little problem—finding recipes to work from. The exact ingredients of many famous herbal liqueurs are shrouded in secrecy! Only one thing is certain, all are rooted in a long history of magic, alchemy and life-giving elixirs.
In France, Chartreuse, “the liqueur of health” is a blend of over 130 medicinal plants originating in the secret recipe of a medieval alchemist “with a great knowledge of herbs”. Strega is made from a secret blend of 70 herbs and plants in Italy by the Alberti family, but legend tells the witches in the nearby woods gifted them the recipe – hence it’s name Strega, Italian for witch.
Jagermeister, from Germany, yet another secret recipe, is made of 56 herbs, flowers roots and fruits. Its logo of a reindeer framed in the rays of the sun is a sacred pagan symbol often used to represent non-ordinary awareness – which a shot or two of this potent herbal liquor is sure to bring on!
But turns out, despite all the mysterious secrecy, creating herbal liqueurs and fortified wines is really simple. In fact our ancestors have been doing it since the beginning of time. From the ancient Egyptians to medieval monks, it all boils down to three basic steps: 1) harvest the seasonal bitter, aromatic and medicinal plants growing in your region 2) infuse them in hard alcohol and/or wine (to extract their flavours and medicinal components) 3) sweeten the final brew with syrup or honey.
So where to begin? Well, with the season of course. And for our Eat Together Aperitif that meant the glorious profusion of high summer. From fields to sea shores, I harvested the aromatic plants that grew in abundance in the August sun: frothy anise scented wild fennel, carroty Queen Anne’s Lace, resinous bitter Yarrow, savory woodsy Coastal Mugwort and magical wild Blue Vervain.
From the garden I picked Calendula, Lovage, Rose, Lemonbalm, Mint and a generous sprig of Wormwood (the signature bitter of Vermouth).
These herbs and plants are renowned for their digestive system enhancing, inflammation soothing, and immunity boosting powers. Aromatics like Fennel and bitters like Wormwood support the liver and digestive organs, while others like Rose, Mint, Lemonbalm, cool and revitalize our nervous systems. And plunged in their vodka bath, they were all, oh so beautiful to behold.
After tasting my results (which still needed a little work) Jennifer and I got to work on perfecting the drink that would be served on the “big night”. The first challenge was the ‘bittersweet’ – finding just the right balance of sweet top notes (Wild Fennel, Queen Anne Lace and Spearmint) and deep bitters (Yarrow and Wormwood).
Next came the delicate matter of layering in the supportive flavours, i.e. the herbaceous Coastal Mugwort, savoury Lovage and Lomatium seeds, the floral scents of Rose and Lavender. Too much of one could overpower the others, so we went carefully, adding and tasting, throughout the whole process.
After two days we took the vodka blend, strained it and swirled it all into big pot containing a bottle of warmed white wine. This we sweetened with honey (further infused in Lavender, Rose and Yarrow) and a dash of Elderberry syrup. This we dubbed “Wild Vermouth” and we served it straight up, chilled over ice, garnished with petals of Calendula, Fennel and Queen Anne’s Lace.
And it went down pretty good judging by the reception. So busy were we kept pouring refills, that we began to worry that our supply would run out!
So here is the recipe for our Wild Vermouth – but as we enter autumn remember to adapt the recipe to suit the season. Flavours and medicinal properties will change as the energy and vitality of summer blossoms and leaves moves into fall berries, seeds and roots.
Soon the Hawthorn and Rowan berries will ripen and the Wild Fennel will be bursting with intensely aromatic seeds. Roots like Licorice Fern, Oregon Grape and Dandelion will sweeten and surge with medicinal power. Edible blossoms like Chrysanthemums (known for their digestive properties) and Sea Asters will make their appearance. And all will offer a new panorama of seasonal flavours and healing magic to work with!
Gather’s Wild Vermouth
Ingredients (approximate! Use your own discretion)
- Two large sprigs each of Wormwood, Coastal Mugwort, Wild Blue Vervain
- 1/4 cup Yarrow Blossoms and leaves
- 1/4 cup Wild Fennel blossoms and fronds
- 1/4 cup Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms
- 1/3 cup Rose petals
- 1/3 cup of Calendula flowers
- Handful of Lavender buds
- 2 large sprigs of Wild Mint or Spearmint
- 1/4 cup of Elderberries or Elderberry Syrup (optional)
- A few pinches of macerated seeds (Lovage, Lomantium and Cardamom)
- A few rinds of Lemon peel
- One cup of honey (infused in your choice of herbs – or not)
- One 750 ml. bottle of vodka
- Two 750 ml. bottles of dry white wine
1) First “muddle” your plant material (crush and chop) and place in a large jar. Pour a bottle of hard alcohol over it all and submerge the contents. Tuck away in a cool dark place for a day. Taste. Add a little more of this or that if you wish to steep it for another day to further deepen the flavours. Or move on to step two.
2) Open the bottle of white wine and pour in a saucepan or pot. Gently warm, then add the infused booze to the wine mixture. Slowly mix in honey and taste as you go. This is your final chance to decide if you want to add more of a certain plant(s) as the wine sits on low heat for an hour so. (Don’t boil the alcohol away!) We added a tiny sprig more of wormwood and lavender and kept tasting until we liked the final result.
3) Cool the mixture and strain with a fine muslin bag or coffee filter (cheesecloth is too loose a weave to catch all of the particulate.) The result should be clear – and absolutely delicious! Pour into pretty clean bottles, chill and serve straight up over ice. Salut!
Note: Herbal liqueurs can contain medicinal ingredients best avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers and those with food sensitivities. Also make sure to check for contraindications if you are taking pharmaceutical medications.