The leaves are falling and the last of the summer fruits are hanging heavy. The autumn equinox is fast approaching. This is my favourite time of year. More than spring, this is when I feel energized. This turning inward time lifts my spirits and my thoughts grow clearer. And while it’s perhaps a bit too soon to start going full on pumpkin and woodsmoke, it’s a good time to honour what remains of the summer bounty with a seasonal libation. A wild soda makes for a perfect tipple to toast the Autumn equinox. I also make wild soda to coincide with lunar cycles, crafting full moon brews and allowing the ferment to sit out over night to collect some moon magic.
A wild soda or fermentation is simple to prepare and relies on a relationship between the plants, the maker and fate. As the maker, your role is rather small. You gather the herbs and fruit and add sweetened water. The rest is up to the plants, the wild yeast that lives on them and air. You can tinker with ingredients and come up with something of a base recipe, but nature can always throw you a wild card. Perhaps those elderberries feel like taking centre-stage this time. Enjoy your elderberry soda. Or maybe the yeast on the feral plums is feeling persnickety? Best add in a few green pinecones. And if the whole concoction rebels and decides not to co-operate, you’re only out what you harvested plus bit of water and some sugar. Deliver your failed experiment to the compost, say a quick prayer and try again. You can always use commercial yeast to foolproof your soda, but I haven’t tried that. Out of the dozens of wild ferments I’ve made I’ve only had to part with two. And one spectacular failure of a Douglas-fir soda actually turned into a rather delicious vinegar.
I follow Pascal Baudar’s method from his fabulous book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. It’s incredibly easy and as you play around with different combinations, you’ll come up with your own notes.
First, gather your herbs and fruits. I look for fruits with a good bloom on them—that’s wild yeast right there. This time of year, I use fresh-picked plums, autumn olive, elderberries, crabapples, hawthorn berries and rose hips. For herbs, I use whatever is fresh and fragrant—Queen Anne’s Lace, mint, chamomile, fennel, calendula blossoms, etc. I’m a bit loosey-goosey with amounts. The idea is to play and use what nature offers. Select plants for their magical and medicinal attributes as well as taste. A rule of thumb I somewhat follow is to have 2 cups of chopped fruit & herbs for each gallon of water.
Speaking of water…Ideally you want to use spring or well water to make your soda. BUT, I make often make do with boiled (and cooled) tap water because I’m not blessed with another water source nearby.
Sweetener. Pascal says you can use honey, though I notice that many of the brews he shares on Facebook are made with sugar. I have always used organic cane sugar, preferring to save my honey for other endeavours. Therefore, I can’t actually vouch for the effectiveness of honey in this “recipe”.
1/2 gallon of water
1 cup of yeasty fruit & herbs, chopped & cleaned
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
Clean your fermenting vessel thoroughly. I use a large pickle jar for my ferments, but you can buy proper gear at a wine making shop. I wash the jar with hot soap water, rinse and then “sterilize” with a fresh boiled water.
Chop your fruit and muddle your herbs. I don’t wash my fruit first. I pick my own and I’ve yet to come across a harvest that struck me as dirty. If you decide to wash your fruit, go easy. Don’t scrub off that lovely bloom or your ferment may not work. Place your plant matter in the bottom of the jar and add your sugar, mixing it all up.
Add water and stir. Make sure all the fruit is covered by water. Cover the vessel with a clean cotton cloth and secure with an elastic band. Set some place where you won’t spill it all over your kitchen (ask me how!).
Stir morning and night, every day until you start to see bubbles or bits of fruit moving around, unaided, in the jar. I’ve had fermentation start just after 24 hours. Sometimes it takes 3 days. It’s ready once you have some good bubble action and it smells nice.
Once you’re satisfied you have an active ferment, strain out the plant matter and bottle your brew in glass swing-top bottles or plastic pop or brewing bottles. Bottling creates the carbonation for your soda. It’s a good idea to taste the brew at this point. If it’s too sweet plan to let it to ferment in the bottles at room temperature longer. If it’s just right, let the bottles sit at room temperature to carbonate for 8-12 hours and then refrigerate. Refrigeration stops the fermenting process. If your ferment was very active, you’ll need less carbonation time. Check at 8 hours for sure.
While I use glass swing-top bottles, if you’re worried about exploding bottles (it’s never happened to me), plastic is the way to go. You can re-use and sterilize and old pop bottle. The nice thing about plastic is that you can test the carbonation by squeezing the outside of the bottle. If it feels hard and full, you’ve probably reached a good level of carbonation. If you’re using the swing-tops, you’ll want to test your carbonation carefully. Get a good grip on the cap and verrrry slowly release the clip. It’s called burping the ferment. If you go too quickly here you risk losing all your beautiful soda.
Once I’m at the ideal carbonation level, I taste again and sometimes add flavours. I’ll squeeze fresh lemon into the bottles or pop in a sprig of rosemary or fresh edible flowers. If you’re adding more plant matter, make sure you’re going to imbibe within the next 24 hours. Otherwise the wild soda keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks. If you find your refrigerated brew has lost a bit of bubble, add a dash of sugar and allow it to sit at room temperature (in it’s airtight bottle) for a few hours. Serve over ice.