It seems that spring has finally and truly asserted itself down here in Virginia. The red buds and daffodils are out in force and I’m thinking about hooking the lawnmower battery up to the charger to see if I can get it to turn over.
A couple of weeks ago, I was faked out when a few gorgeous days reverted to bleak cold. That second hit of winter is a monster, and I should know better than to fall for that early taste of summer, but I’m so ready for warm weather, so excited to see things turn, that I get fooled every year.
So while I bide my time waiting for spring to finally arrive, I’m trying to keep my hands and mind busy. That’s how I recently found myself down at my tree line in the low pasture, figuring out which evergreens were which and looking for white pines.
I’d been reading The Wildcrafting Brewer, by Pascal Baudar, and I wanted to make something out of his new book because it oozes plenty. It feels bountiful and green in the way that acclaimed food writer Richard Olney’s menus do. Fixing up a batch of Baudar’s soda of pine needles and lemon was going to fix everything. Nothing, of course, smells better than a few sliced-up lemons.
While I watched the concoction begin to bubble, I’ll admit it sparked some pangs of jealousy. In California, Baudar, after all, has a year-round cornucopia of fruits and vegetables to use for his different brews. I’d chosen this particular recipe, in part, because I have pine trees and I can buy ripe lemons. So when I chatted with him, I had to ask if he thought living on the East Coast was detrimental to the sort of projects he undertakes and writes about in his book.
“The original book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, had a lot of ingredients that were specific to Southern California but you have to think of this book as a compilation of ideas and concepts that people can apply with their local plants,” he said. “A lot of the book is about food preservation techniques using wild plants, such as fermentation (wild food kimchi, hot sauces), making cheese with plant rennet, herbal meads, making your own vinegars and so on.”
He went on to point out that many of his ideas are “totally applicable anywhere, such as making your own salt, researching your local terroir for spice blends, cooking in clay, leaching acorns, making wild beers with local mugwort.”
Some of this sounds advanced—it isn’t, really, it just seems daunting when you first read it—but Baudar is quick to point out a few things that won’t intimidate beginners.
“Anyone can start right away and probably from their backyard. Right now, we have a lot of nettles showing up and making a nettles beer is a very traditional ferment. Someone living in Vermont can explore the idea of making a dandelion wine.”
The trick is, as with so many things, you have to start with something pretty straightforward.
Look for “basic ingredients which are super easy to identify,” he said. If it strikes you, and you want to dive deeper, he suggests you seek out books about local edible plants and take classes with wild food instructors.
But of course, you can still enjoy all this without foraging: “You can also go to the regular store or farmer’s market and get your ingredients there. Right now, my local store is selling a lot of blueberries for example.”
What he’s really showing us in this lushly illustrated and inspiring book is that fermentation is fun and accessible, and that it shouldn’t be feared. It would be shame to leave all this to the experts.
“I even have a recipe about making a root beer using herbal tea bags,” he said.
Dilettantism is one of my favorite things, and I pressed the subject a little.
“I think people should entertain the idea of creating their own fermented beverages,” he said, “even if those are simple ferments such as fruit sodas or herbal meads. Anyone can go to the store, get some organic ginger and make some ginger beer or soda. You don’t even have to add yeast, it’s already on the surface of the ginger.”
It goes almost without saying that your personal forays into soda making will likely be much more healthful than anything you can buy.
I was most inspired by Baudar’s astonishingly forward thinking. He makes me imagine a landscape into which I have seeded treats for future forages. Why not establish a berry bush, a stand of herbs, a garden of plants used in beer? I love the idea of a garden that isn’t confined to a grid.
“If you are foraging in nature,” he said, “I think it’s important to make sure you grow more plants than you’ll ever take.”
Unless, of course, what you take is invasive. Many of our invasive species are actually useful, and Baudar has good ideas about what to do with them.
Horehound, for instance, is a bitter mint popular in medieval beer recipes. It is invasive, and cities spray pesticides to kill it in parks.
“The city should teach people about the medicinal benefits of the plant for cold and flu (you’ll find it in cough drop Ricola) or as a traditional brewing ingredient.”
He lobbed a motto at me—“Make beer, don’t spray!”—and he’s right, but I’d hate to see anyone pass this book by because they felt overwhelmed by a sense of duty. Don’t feel overwhelmed by anything. Pick it up, play around, find some stuff you like.
After my fermentation of pine needles and lemons bubbled for a while I strained it into bottles. But before I capped them, I tasted the soda. I have to admit, I wasn’t all that impressed—it tasted like a Tom Collins left too long. Fortunately, the yeast wasn’t done and really got to work, again. Within a few days, I had a soda that rushed up the neck of the bottle, and vigorously bubbled with fine natural carbonation. The flavors had deepened and grown more complex. Cheers to that. Happy Spring.
Pine Needle Soda
By Pascal Baudar
If you’ve ever tasted some delicious pine needles, trust me, you’ll want to brew this soda. My favorite pines are pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, and white pine, but I’ve also made blends that included white fir and spruce. In fact, when I was teaching in Vermont, we made a similar soda using white pine needles and blue spruce tips. Note that ponderosa pine and white fir are not recommended for consumption if you’re pregnant.
My regular mix is usually composed of mostly pinyon pine needles (60 to 80 percent of the blend) and some white fir needles (20 percent) with one or two lemons. I make sure to cut the pine and fir needles with scissors so they can release their flavors quickly. I slice the lemons into five or six parts but, if you’re an experienced forager, you can use sumac or lemonade berries instead.
1-2 Lemons (cut in five or six pieces)
1-1.5 cups (225–335 g) Organic cane sugar or honey
5 grams Yeast (1 packet)
Fill around half of your (clean) container loosely with the ingredients, add some spring water and organic cane sugar or honey, then add the yeast and place a paper towel on top secured by a rubber band or a string.
Using a clean wooden spoon, stir the liquid three or four times a day until you get a nice fermentation going—this usually takes 2 to 3 days in Southern California.
Strain the liquid into recycled soda bottles and check the pressure after a day or so, then refrigerate for at least 8 hours before enjoying. With pine sodas, you can really judge by flavors; taste as you go along and stop the fermentation whenever you’re satisfied.
This recipe is from The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is printed with permission from the publisher.