A romance can last a few hours or a few decades. Short ones can burn so brightly that they forever brand themselves inside your soul. Longer affairs are like slowly adding water to plaster of Paris – each drop of water solidifying the union of two separate entities until, in time, they become as solid as stone.
My long romance with plants started off as a brief affair, perhaps my first affair. As a young boy, I marveled a small crop of chickweed which had sprouted up in the wild spot at the bottom of our family garden in the two weeks that we were away on our summer holiday. A pure green matt, twinkling with tiny white flowers in the place that once played home to an epic battle between the tiny but brave Star Wars figures vs the Golitian Action Man.
My love affairs grew in number and magnitude over the years, flitting from plant to plant like the Errol Flynn of the botany world. Months obsessed with finding burdock, weeks with old tomes studying mugwort, hours spent sitting under a Scots pine feeling like the world had stopped just for us.
One such plant affair is my affair with wormwood and it is a dichotomous one, as it still burns as brightly as it did the first time first encountered it, making me giddy with delight in its company and yet it is as solid as Boron nitride – it is the plant equivalent of my Emma.
My first wild encounter with it was a holiday romance; I was in Northern Italy ascending a mountain known as Gran Paradiso in the Graian Alps. I was drawn in the direction of a rocky outcrop, I then saw the soft grey-green leaves billowing in the wind, it was as if the plant had called to me in an ethereal manner – sensing my presence and drawing me over. I plucked some leaves with the intention of infusing them in my own vermouth made from the plants I found in this appropriately named “Paradise”.
The trip also involved a lot of serious drinking, for research of course! Happy hours I spent in the vermouth bars of Turin, sipping homemade concoctions made from centuries-old recipes. I infused myself with the vermouth culture further, visiting the Carpano museum on the outskirts of Turin, and touring the Bava winery, home of the legendary Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. During the tour I quizzed them repeatedly for their methods; although guarded I did glean enough information about the process to make my own – guessing at the botanicals from the key ingredients I encountered.
When I finally did turn the plants and my experiences into a vermouth it was exquisite. I shared it with customers at a friend’s restaurant. Drinking it straight and as the famously bitter and sophisticated Negroni cocktail. We toasted the wormwood in the drinks and I held the image in my head of my first meeting with the plant, as strangers became friends, and a fireside wistful memory was formed.
I’ve sadly never encountered uncultivated wormwood in the UK. So, on my return from Italy, I quickly went out and bought my own plant and planted some in a spot in my garden that enjoys full sun, well-drained soil my garden. Each spring I have to treat it for a black fly aphid infestation otherwise the feathery leaves will dry out. I spray a little soapy water on them and it works. However, once the autumn comes, the equilibrium in the garden seems to created enough black fly-eating insects to keep them at bay.
I pick leaves throughout the year as and when they are needed. I never pick too much from one place and never over-pick. I left the plant unharvested for the first year until it had established.
Wormwood can be used fresh and dried in vermouth, gin, absinthe and other herbal drinks. Simply infuse in the spirit of your choosing, I recommend filtered vodka, leaving for a minimum of three days. Interesting fresh and dried wormwood have very different flavours. Fresh is not nearly so bitter and much of its floral notes are still noticeable.
After a recent bout of food poisoning, I also used a leaf in a tea blend along with some lemon balm, meadowsweet, and peppermint with a teaspoon of honey. Not sure if it helped but it did taste nice and the symptoms only lasted a day.
It has also been used to get rid of worms, hence the name. The great modern herbalist Thomas Bartram recommends making a tea and then injecting it up your arse. I think if I ever had to do this it might be the end of my holiday romance.
To really do absinthe justice you must try and get hold of the strongest spirit possible. In Italy, you could buy 90% proof neutral grain spirit off the shelf in Lidl for around 5 Euro. In the UK it is not so easy to come by – therefore, this recipe is not totally true to form and instead uses the Botanist gin as its base (but you could substitute filtered vodka). I just wanted to get more flavours into my absinthe, with that in mind you could also play about with this recipe. Essentially, you need the anethole flavour and some wormwood the rest just helps “dress the set”. In saying that, try not to go for anything else that has a strong or contrasting flavour you could ruin a good batch of absinthe by adding wild garlic for example.
1 x 70cl bottle of Botanist gin
2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp anise seeds
1 x Star anise
1 tsp dried wormwood
5 x fresh wormwood leaves
1 tsp sweet cicely seeds
One sealable jar
Something to filter your absinthe through
Place all the ingredients in the jar, cracking and crushing the harder botanicals and slapping the wormwood leaves in your hands. Pour over the botanist gin – keeping the bottle for later use. Seal the jar and bung it at the back of a cupboard for a few weeks to a month. Allow the taste to guide you. It is fine to keep dipping your finger in and tasting it, the alcohol will keep any nasty bugs at bay so don’t fear contamination.
As soon as you think it tastes good, filter back into the botanist bottle. Grab a time machine, head off to Paris and serve to 19th-century artists and creatives. Alternatively, if you can’t track down Doc Brown or Marty Mcfly, serve neat and slightly chilled.
Or to really do it justice, if you can locate an absinthe spoon and an absinthe fountain then allow fresh water to drip onto a sugar cube balancing on top of your shot glass half full of absinthe.