Foraging is a buzzword in the food & beverage industries at present, and London Cocktail Week 2018 saw a number of venues and brands hosting foraging workshops and dinners (read about The Botanist Gin’s one here). We went along to Jägermeister’s Urban Foraging expedition, hosted by bestselling author of Booze For Free, (the other) Andy Hamilton, to learn about what was out there for the drinking.
Jägermeister has a bit of a reputation as something you slam with a can of Red Bull on a night out. Whilst some may argue that Jägerbombs are the bee’s knees (they’re wrong), this combo does not do the herbal spirit justice. With a carefully guarded secret recipe including 56 herbs and spices, this is a liqueur that is both nuanced and the life of the party, which is why it makes perfect sense that they teamed up with foraging booze fiend, the self-proclaimed “the other” Andy Hamilton, to deliver a class on urban foraging.
We meet Andy at Big Chill Bar, Jägermeister’s HQ for London Cocktail Week before being taken on a short walk to Allen Gardens – a popular yet somewhat unkempt park off of Brick Lane. On the way, we stop at a huge fig tree on the side of the road. Andy opens up his backpack and pulls out a bottle of clear liquid, informing us that it’s time for a drink and talking us through the surprisingly simple process of making fig gin, which involves putting a small amount of fig leaf into a bottle of gin and leaving it to infuse. The result is gorgeously fragrant with a gentle sweetness.
First drink of the day seen-off, we take a right and arrive at Allen Gardens.
Now, we are no strangers to this park by any stretch of the imagination and associate it more with drinking cheap beers in the sun and trying not to step on used-up balloon canisters, than with a fruitful field of plenty. However, over the next two hours, Andy guides us around its outskirts, stopping every metre or so to point out a shrub that can be eaten or turned into booze (a man after our own hearts). Some we’ve heard of and others we never knew existed, however what they all have in common is that they are gloriously free and available to anyone who knows where to look.
So, without further ado, here’s a little bit of what we learned.
A Little Guide to Urban Foraging
All parts of the plant are edible: the leaves and flowers can be used in salads; the fruit is a good caper substitute and the roots can “apparently” be boiled and used as an egg white replacement. Andy hasn’t had much success with it yet but knows it can be done.
Similar to lovage, it was brought over to the UK by the Romans. It can be used as a herb and gives a light perfumed flavour when steamed over dishes such as mussels. The stems can be used like celery and the hard, black seeds, that Andy colourfully describes as looking “like rat shit”, are similar to black pepper.
Early season buds can be used instead of onions. They add fragrance to a dish and the seeds help regulate periods.
The smell is soft, somewhere between sage and lavender. It is slightly bitter to taste and can be used to season game (or in an IPA, as Andy has tried).
The “Achilles” herb that warriors would take into battle. If you chew it up and put it on a wound, it will promote healing. It also is said to help with colds and fever and the taste is a bit like dill.
One of the more well-known ones we came across, Andy warns us that it’s actually illegal to dig up roots in the UK without the permission of the landlord, so be careful.
Rather different in appearance and taste to the delicious, sweet entity that we slow-fry and eat with rice and beans, this has a bit of a mushroom-y taste to it. Whilst very lightly flavoured on its own, it becomes more than the some of its parts when used in a dish.
Quite different from those bright orange things you get in Tesco, these dainty, frothy wildflowers can be traced down to a tough, stringy root that is lightly aniseed-y and is best eaten when cooked (although even then it isn’t especially palatable).
This beauty is a wonderful spinach substitute that can be eaten raw or cooked. Flavourful enough without other spices, it has a mineral taste with a hint of fennel when steamed.
Whilst Andy’s tour has shown us that there are many exciting edible plants out in our local parks, there are a few sinister ones. Dog mercury – so called because it is poisonous to dogs – is one such. Whilst it may look lush and welcoming, it is one to stay clear of.
A favourite of experimental mixologists, tansy can be used as a palate cleanser and feels tingly on the tongue. Bitter and sage-like, it has an incredibly powerful taste and, if too much is eaten, it can give you convulsions.
Calmer all-round is the pretty little Salad Burnet, whose clean, cucumber-like flavour makes it perfect for salads.
Now, bear with us here. We’re not suggesting you go out and chew on any old stinging nettle – that would be unpleasant. However, if you pick early season, fresh young nettles, they won’t sting you. The seeds and flowers can be made into a tincture and work against stress and fatigue.
We’ve seen this all over London but never knew what it was. Like the fennel we’re accustomed to, it has a strong aniseed taste, although this one is also a bit numbing and has a hint of toothpaste about it.
Another medicinal plant, Hawthorne is good for high blood pressure and, (less medicinally) when the blossoms are added to vodka, Andy assures us the resulting liquid tastes like Turkish Delight.
A common plant, often seen around railways, Andy promises us that it is also “great in booze”. However, he adds that, like booze, it isn’t good for you in large quantities.
Other than having medicinal properties and being usable in everyday cooking, many of these and other such edible bits and bobs found around the UK can be used to make drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). Our walk through Allen Gardens is pleasantly punctuated by frequent stops for cups of whatever is in the endless supply of bottles Andy seems to keep in his rucksack. A central theme of these is, well, vodka, which seems to be the base for most of Andy’s concoctions.
He explains that there is a lot of experimentation, trial and error with creating the drinks and that it’s possible for anyone with an interest to try their hand at it at home.
One real success is his Before the Fall Wine, which was created in a similar manner to mulled wine. He took some rather unappetising plonk that someone had left at his house and simmered it in a saucepan before adding ingredients including walnut leaf, hogweed seeds, herb bennet, fig leaves. These are then removed when they impart enough taste to the liquid (you’ll have to keep on tasting during the steeping process) and sugar is added at the end to balance the flavour (read Andy’s full recipe here). The result is truly delicious, and we can’t believe it was made from bad wine and picked foliage!
Entirely sold on the wonders of foraging, we leave Andy’s workshop feeling ready to give wild booze-making a go. Whilst we may not be able to make our own Jägermeister, the day has given us a true appreciation for what’s out there ready for the picking.