Summer Drinks from the Wild Side
By Lisa Nudo | Photo By Lisa Nudo 0
Editor’s note: Before embarking on a wild harvesting hike, pick up a book on wild edibles with good color pictures (such as Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden both by Wisconsin author Samuel Thayer), or better yet, hike with an experienced wildivore friend to ensure you only pick edible plants.
On sizzling summer evenings, my family has grown accustomed to my disappearing acts. Knowing when the wild is abundant, I will return with an improvised plastic and shoe-string blickey basket loaded with sun-drenched berries. My crimson-stained fingers (and lips) tell no lies; these sweet treats are irresistible, and the journey to obtain them is often like a quest.
Black caps (Rubus occidentalis), or wild black raspberries, inhabit my earliest childhood memories. Like Br’er Rabbit, I tunneled for hours in the briars, finally to emerge stained and full. Even today, the berry patch lures me in, further and deeper, literally and figuratively, lost in the brambles of thoughts while my hands work cooperatively with my scanning eyes. Lovingly I refer to this activity as “berry yoga,” as it requires mindfulness, efficiency, stretching, re-e-eaching and much contemplation. Despite emerging from the bush bitten, scratched and mining thorns from my fingers, I have gained quiet observations, healed broken hearts, quelled frustrations—and gathered dessert!
Black caps really shine when fresh, dressed in cream or yogurt and lightly topped with maple syrup. While summer blazes, try homemade ice cream or smoothies and revel in their rich, bold color. Berries freeze extremely well, preferably on sheet pans in a single layer so they don’t get crushed and clumped in the bag. My kids have always known gallon bags of berries residing in the freezer. Inevitably, they cannot resist raiding the stash on a hot afternoon, cooling their palates and carelessly leaving purple stains on the porch floor and their lips as evidence.
This time of year, in the name of efficiency and hydration, I try to have on hand refrigerated simple syrup for adding to chilled drinks. Heat equal parts water and honey or maple syrup (or cane sugar) until dissolved, then cool and store. When making berry lemonade, sumac lemonade or sun tea, the simple syrup mixes readily with cold water.
For a refreshing wild berry-ade, pick a pint of black caps and put into a pitcher, crush them a bit to release the juices, squeeze a couple lemons or limes into the pitcher, then add water and simple syrup to the desired sweetness. Try adding a few chopped wild mint leaves for fun.
Elder blossoms (at left) are in their glory now as well and make a delicately subtly sweet sun tea (above right)—the perfect companion to the blessed berry. Gather approximately 12 to 16 elder blossom cymes (or clusters) and cover with one gallon of water in a clear glass jar. Let sit in direct sun all day. Strain flowers, add any berries you have (one pint or more), simple syrup to taste, and fresh lemon juice (optional). If I’m really on my game, I freeze berries in ice cubes to dress up these beverages.
After tasting a visiting wildivore friend’s prickly pear mead, I was inspired to try preserving the sun’s essence in a honey-berry brandy cordial. Mmmmm… Meads require a year or more of aging for the best taste, but this cordial can be ready in a couple weeks (if you can wait that long). Fill a pint or quart jar with fruit, cover with brandy and optional honey. Wait at least a couple weeks if you can, shaking or mashing daily to infuse all the goodness into the brandy. Mix this with sparkling water, a lime wedge and some berry ice cubes – oh my!
All these suggestions are by no means limited to black caps. Blackberries and red raspberries will do; however, the wild black raspberry’s complex flavor reigns supreme.
On these cap gathering adventures, I often stop to taste the sumac (at right). That’s right—one must lick the staghorn sumac seed heads to test for doneness. This ephemeral refreshment can be elusive even to the experienced wildivore, and to me, periodically licking the seed heads is the only way to ensure sumac lemonade in my future. In these parts of Wisconsin in July, they are still blush in color, not the wine red of ripeness, and they lack any flavor with the lick test. However, in coming weeks a wonderful tartness will develop, and the trick is to harvest and consume sumac lemonade before rain washes the delicious acidic substance away. Or wait too long and grubs move into the seed heads (unsightly, but not harmful). The window of opportunity is small and some years just don’t pan out. But a successful sumac harvest and proper preparation is nothing short of fabulous!
Gather eight or so sumac seed head clusters and pack well into a large jar or pitcher. Cover with cold water (sumac is high in tannins, and hot water will make the drink bitter) and stir or shake a bit. Let sit for several hours. The infusion will turn slightly pink and delightfully tart. Strain through cheesecloth to remove hairs, add optional sweetener—cheers!
Get some string, punch holes in a shallow plastic container, strap it to your waist and head out on a berry hunt with your impromptu neo-blickey basket. Scout for future blackberries, lick some sumac, harvest a few mint leaves or elderberry flowers and head home. When the heat oppresses, raise a glass (with stained fingers, of course) of sweet summer bounty found on the wild side.