Infuse your cocktail hour with edible flowers, fruits and nuts
It’s been a wet summer but there’s plenty of produce to infuse spirits with and capture sun for the dark days
Nocino is an Italian liqueur made from green, unripe walnuts steeped in spirit for several months. Photograph: Richard Johnston
While I’d love to gleefully claim that my garden has been awash with a glut of tasty, home-grown, organic produce all summer long, the truth is that it ain’t so. Yes, there are still bucket-loads of delicious new potatoes waiting to be dug out of the damp earth when they are as fresh and flavoursome as can be. There’s plenty of cabbage, kale, beetroot and lettuce too, as well as other leafy treasures to add layers of flavour to a salad bowl. These include the tart, ruby-stained leaves of red-veined sorrel, celery-flavoured lovage, and peppery nasturtium leaves.
But my onions are only so-so, one of the apple trees has succumbed to canker, while the tomato plants have spent most of the summer shivering. And they’re in a glasshouse.
Truth be told, it’s been a tough season for the country’s kitchen gardeners, with yields well below what could normally be expected; all as a result of a dry, cold spring followed by a cool, wet summer. Which is not to say there isn’t still plenty of produce to be hoarded for the cold, grey winter days ahead. In fact, with a summer as bad as this one, there’s even more reason to do so.
Freezing, pickling, fermenting and dehydrating aside, you can use the flavours and colours of edible flowers, fruit, leaves and nuts to infuse alcoholic spirits – vodka and gin are both excellent candidates, with vodka being the more neutral flavoured of the two. This is an excellent way of capturing the tastes and smells of summer and early autumn.
An example is the Italian liqueur known as Nocino, which is made from green, unripened walnuts, still soft enough inside their leathery green husks to be easily sliced and quartered.
In Italy, the unripe nuts – which look like oval chestnuts – are typically picked in late May/early June, but in Ireland (thanks in part to this year’s cool, wet summer), they are only just at that stage now.
The other great boon of harvesting walnuts before they’ve ripened is that you’ll beat the squirrels to them. Last week I stood beneath a venerable specimen of Juglans regia that grows just outside the wonderful palm house in the National Botanic Gardens while fragments of unripe walnuts rained down upon my head, courtesy of a greedy grey squirrel hidden high up in its branches which was busily devouring them.
Seconds later the squirrel raced down the tree and away, two more green walnuts held firmly in its mouth (so much, I thought, for ‘low maintenance’ forest gardening).
Walnuts aside, other garden produce that can be easily used to infuse either vodka or gin (sometimes even whiskey or rum) includes strawberries, raspberries, plums, pears, damsons, peaches, blackcurrants, blackberries, rhubarb, gooseberries, elderberries and even peas or chillies.
Suitable flowers include rose petals (I confess to having a bit of a rose crush at the moment) as well as the golden umbels of fennel (Foenicuulm), sweet scented lilac (Syringa), elderflower (Sambucus), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and lavender (Lavandula).
Herbs include sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), mint (Mentha), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), scented geranium (Pelargonium), culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), thyme (Thymus) and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla).
Typically, the method is quite simple; depending on the particular recipe, you add a certain quantity of the flower/ herb/ fruit/ nut to a certain quantity of spirit, put the mixture into an immaculately clean Kilner jar, seal it, and then wait. How long? That depends on the ingredients used. Very strong flavoured ingredients such as chillies are best left in for only a day or two. A rose-petal or lavender flower-infused gin, meanwhile, should be strained within days, as the petals discolour and decay.
But something like the walnut-flavoured Nocino needs much more time – several months – before its flavours mature. To make Nocino, you’ll also need a handful of other ingredients. For each litre of vodka, add 30 or so unripe walnuts, 1lb (453g) of sugar, half a dozen cloves, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a piece of vanilla pod as long as your index finger, and the zest of an unwaxed organic lemon.
Sugar is a vital ingredient in sloe gin (another infusion that needs several months before it’s ready to strain and drink) to counteract the fruit’s essential bitterness.
Whatever garden ingredient you use, the resulting infusions will be rich in flavour and deeply soaked in the seasonal scents of a summer or autumn day. Compared to homemade beers or wines, they’re also surprisingly easy and quick to make. You don’t, for example, have to worry about exploding bottles, or complex home-brewing terms such as “specific gravity” (don’t ask). Use these garden infusions in cocktails (lavender Martini anyone?), puddings or as an aperitif. On a winter day, they’ll remind you of sunnier times.
On the internet there are many recipes using garden produce to make spirit-based infusions. Books include Booze: River Cottage Handbook No.12 by John Wright, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart and Wild Cocktails from the Midnight Apothecary by Lottie Muir.