I knew things were going well when I figured out how to make sassafras root beer in a hotel room! I’m not kidding. More about that in a moment.
First, the end of spring and the beginning of summer is an amazing time for foraging. The spring ephemerals are gone, because, well, they are ephemeral. But, all the summer plants start sending up their shoots and within the course of a few short weeks many of them are beginning to create flowers. The fields and the woods just explode as the trees leaf out, weeds shoot to waste high, and little ground-dwelling plants move in to every last square inch of suitable soil. It’s party time for eating smilax, nettle, milkweed shoots, curled dock, and a plethora of other hearty plants.
Now that it’s early June, most of the tender greens begin to transform into less desirable textures and the creation of flowers on many plants use up existing sugars and leave the leaves and roots tasting quite bitter or woody. In fact, some roots, like burdock, literally become wood on the flowering plants. The transition period from tender, succulent greens to tough, leathery leaves transpires in a blink of an eye.
Over the last two months, I’ve been fortunate enough to gather a number of plants in their prime states, including swamp saxifrage, bedstraw, solomon’s seal, solomon’s plume, chaga, wild parsnip, Japanese knotweed, beechnut leaves, live forever, mullein, queen anne’s lace, staghorn sumac, creeping Charlie, burdock, dandelion, partridgeberry, purple trillium, prenanthus, Indian cucumber, wood violet, eastern hemlock, sarsaparilla, white pine, black locust, wild grape, hopniss, garlic mustard, sweet fern, smilax, cat’s ear, sassafras, field pennycress, mulberry, plantain, stinging nettle, cattail and milkweed. I also drank some elderberry cordial that my partner made last year!
The most exciting event of the last two months was taking a week off from work to forage my way from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Farmington River in Connecticut to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. It was good to get a change of scenery and have a chance to collect plants at the more southern end of our northeastern region, such as sassafras, which brings me to the bootleg root beer. In order to maximize my available time hunting for plants in the woods rather than keeping a campsite dry through a series of big storms, I decided to stay at a hotel for two days in Pennsylvania. The rest of the trip was spent camping.
My trip was plagued with a common theme: finding dozens of unripe may apples. May apples are one of the most sacred plants in the foraging world and I have historical bad luck visiting them at the right time and right place to harvest the fruit, given that I have no access to good patches in my area. However, I did stumble upon some sassafras on my trip (which we don’t have here in Northern New England).
The root beer smell wafted through my car on the way back to the hotel, so I knew I had to find a way to make some root beer. I cheated a bit by buying some club soda in order to get the carbonation. I’ve done this before with wild ginger and sarsaparilla, but I prefer to make a bug using wild fermentation and create the carbonation over a period of several days. In a pinch, club soda or seltzer water will work fine if you decoct or infuse the flavor from your root into a small amount of liquid and add it to the purchased soda. The limiting factor in this case is that I had no way to simmer the sassafras, especially not for the 20 minutes that’s really required to get a good flavor. There was a microwave in the room, so I thought if I could acquire a coffee mug, I could simply heat water in the microwave periodically with the root in it. The problem is that I couldn’t find a coffee mug to save my life. I searched several stores on the way home and eventually gave up. I would have thought I’d be able to find a gift shop that sells mugs that say “Poconos” on it. Later, in the hotel room, I gazed over at the coffee maker sitting on the bureau and realized I had my solution. I cut up the roots and bark with my jackknife and put them in the filter holder. I ran some water through the system like you would for coffee and then after it had gone through once, I dumped the roots in the pot and left it on for about 30 minutes. It was perfect temperature to get a good infusion. I then used my hand to strain it after it was cool and dumped it into the club soda. I added the final touches with a few sugar packets from the coffee kit and I had my root beer! It tasted fantastic!
Now that I’m home, I’m enjoying a pizza topped with all wild edibles: plantain, stinging nettle, and dame’s rocket. I’m also sipping a delicious stinging nettle tea, which doubles as a great veggie broth since it has such a hearty, rich flavor. This weekend, my girlfriend and I plan to make stinging nettle pho. Pho is a famous Vietnamese dish where the broth is the star of the show. We’ve thought for a long time that nettle would be a great broth for the dish, but every year we forget to make it. This year we won’t forget. As a side, we plan to have stuffed wild grape leaves and if we can find some early season wild mushrooms, the more the merrier!