How Much Difference Do Garnishes Make?


It is a verdant moment here, with lots of garden plants and weeds flowering, and the trees and ferns in full leaf, which means there is blatant opportunity for seasonal foraged garnishes.  I made half a dozen pretty, small, gin and tonics, for the sake of taking some pictures last night. Same gin, same tonic, same ice tray, just different decorations.  But by the time they had been sitting for an hour while I fussed about with the images they were almost like different drinks.

I had to keep sampling them all, of course, in the interests of science…

There was one plant I had picked a couple of days ago on the shore because I wanted to eat it in a salad – yellow sea radish flowers on wirey stalks. The others I grabbed fresh in a quick whip around the lawn and lane – pineapple weed, feral blackcurrant leaf, white clover, rose, the top of some rosebay willow herb shoots. I also picked a couple I didn’t use in the end – some horsetail because it is such a cool looking and historical plant, I thought I could make a cocktail umbrella out of it, or a stirrer. And a frond of rowan also because it looked good next to the other plants, but in the end I restricted myself to one thing per glass so I could really see what it was adding. 

Clover I knew I loved (you might notice there’s not much of that one left in the picture above…) The flower heads are fun bobbing in the top of your glass, and if you pick 8 or 10 of them you get a good noseful when you go to drink. They are fantastically floral, and smell of honey, no wonder the bees love them. But they added a subtle grass-green taste to the liquid too. Clover is in the pea family and there was that freshness there, the longer it sat the more even like cucumber it became. 

It’s an enjoyable experience having roses as garnish; you get the perfume when you go to drink (mine was like lychee) and the texture of petals against your lip. But they didn’t affect the flavour at all for me. 

With the sea radish, I wound the stalks around the glass. It’s a brassica like kale and broccoli and rocket so you get the four petalled flowers set like a cross fluttering about. I hadn’t ever noticed before that the flowers had a scent, I normally just eat them, or use them to decorate a salad, where they add a rocket-like small punch. But when they are all around the top of the glass like that, the smell is really noticeable – sweet like pot pourri, but also quite earthy, or very faintly of the seashore. I think they definitely added some salinity and a kind of vegetable lift to the contents of the glass too. I will definitely be using them on a gin and tonic again. On a brine-y martini they’d be amazing too.

The blackcurrant leaf I gave a slap to and the smells of the fruit really came off it. It was a little bit floral on the nose too. It flavoured the drink powerfully, coming through like a tomato vine by the end of the evening, which I liked. It was like a savoury blackcurrant experience when I’m used to eating it as a jam or sweet cordial.

Pineapple weed I thought would be ugly in the glass, but it floated ok. It also gets called wild chamomile and may weed. It smells just like pineapple, and I was getting daisy off it too, to which it’s related. It added a tropical note and lightened the gin and tonic, for me.  I sucked it after the drink was all gone and it was sweet and delicious.

Finally, rosebay willow herb, also known as fireweed.  I’ve previously messed about with the purple flowers later in the season but I didn’t realise the young leaves are edible as a vegetable too (a bit younger than the ones I picked). The pith out of the stalks is talked of as something of a sweet cucumber delicacy, I haven’t experienced that yet personally. But I can tell you that the shoot tip I used as a garnish had a massive impact. The aroma to me was of strawberries, a little bit tangy. The first sip of the gin and tonic was fruity, but behind it was massive depth, like tobacco or tannins kicking in. It was sweet as it finished with a taste I’d compare to an aloe vera juice I had out of a chinese supermarket once – not as fresh as cucumber. Altogether I had never tasted anything like it at all. I think it’d be a great negroni garnish, and I plan to play with it a lot more, it’s an incredible plant, and super common. It’s the heraldic plant of London apparently, after it sprung up in the bombed out houses after the blitz. More about the ID and all the ins and outs from the ever-reliable and inspiring Mark @GallowayWildFoods 

So look, I only set out to take some photographs last night. I believe in the freshness of picking your own ingredients. I like going out at dusk and being spontaneous about what a drink is going to turn out like; I’ve worked at The Botanist for 5 years now and it has become slightly habitual. But my experience is that absolutely garnishes make a difference to the whole drink, this was like a revelation! Try some for yourself at home and let us know your experience? There’s an excuse to try a new plant every time you have a gin and tonic; or the way round I do it which is finding an edible plant locally and then using it as an excuse to have a gin and tonic. Or two.

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