Drinker’s Guide to Meadowsweet

IN

One of the prettiest and most fragrant of all hedgerow plants, meadowsweet’s creamy yellow clouds of tiny flowers are rich in honey, hay and almond scents. The old English name ‘courtship and marriage’ eloquently, if a little cynically, reflects how older specimens can develop bitter notes – making it a very well-rounded drinks ingredient with huge potential. It is one of the signature plants of our damp summers on the west coast of Scotland and every august brings troops of it frothing from ditches and wet machair, its sweet marzipan scents wafted by zepyhrs. Small wonder it is one of the 22 foraged island botanicals in The Botanist. You can read more of its history and folklore here.

The leaves of meadowsweet initially have a more challenging medicinal flavour, but with careful handling they also offer great possibilities. I used to be fairly dismissive of them until my friend Craig Grozier showed me how to temper them with creme fraiche (just blitz them through). Similarly, drinks legdend Danny Whelan uses both seeds and leaves to add vibrant bitter aromatics to negronis and other bittersweet and herbaceous cocktails.

The name meadowsweet is derived from its historical use as a flavouring in mead rather than the meadows that it so often lines. It is extensively used in herbalism for its antiseptic, digestive and pain killing properties and is a natural source of salicylic acid (asprin derived its name from the old binomial name for meadowsweet SPireum ulmaria). I know people who, while trecking in the Himalaya, were advised by sherpas to nibble a variety of meadowsweet to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness. It worked. I’ve heard it mooted that this means you can drink as much meadowsweet wine, mead, beer or cocktails as you like and you won’t get a hangover. Having tested this theory exhaustively, i’m sorry to report it isn’t true, though perhaps the hangovers might have been worse if i’d drunk something else…

Dried meadowsweet leaves can also be smoked as an aromatic and less addictive substitute for tobacco. For smokers, I pair meadowsweet roll-ups with meadowsweet mead for the full filipendula ulmaria experience.

 

Meadowsweet

Dried meadowsweet leaves can also be smoked as an aromatic and less addictive substitute for tobacco.

Season: April – November (Flowers July, August, September)

Identification: Oppositely paired oval, finely pleated leaflets with tiny pairs of leaves between & trifoliate end leaflets on a red stem. Messy “clouds” of small cream inflorescences

Edibile Parts: Leaves, roots, buds, flowers and seeds. Important note: All parts contain coumarin which is toxic if consumed in high dosage or on a regular basis. Dry rapidly and thoroughly then store carefully to ensure no mould develops as this can cause high levels of coumarin. Normal moderate consumption does not pose a risk to health.

UK Distribution: Very common, especially in the north and west.

Habitat: Moist hedgerows, water meadows, roadsides, riverbanks, ditches and coastal spring sites

Harvesting Notes: Pick flowers on sunny mornings for best flavour. Flowers retain their scent on drying – dry in paper bags to retain their pollen and natural yeasts

Drinks Uses:

  • Infuses very well into sugar solution for a light floral “champagne” see here for a recipe or use an elderflower champagne recipe, only using double (or more) the number of flowers. The resulting fizz makes a great mixer or is delicious drunk chilled on a summer’s day.
  • Infuses well into white spirits. Excellent for misting glasses. Makes a Zubrowka style vodka.
  • Hot infuse leaves into water for mead, then add flowers once cooled and mixed with honey.
  • Syrup: infuse into hot (but not quite boiling) water before adding equal parts sugar for simple syrup, or twice that of water volume for strong syrup.
  •  In cocktail bitters with other pungent hedgerow plants such as common hogweed, angelica, bog myrtle etc.
  • In vermouths and amari

Tasting Notes:

Sweetly aromatic on the nose (almond, hay, honey), especially from flowers. Bitter notes in the mouth (bitter almond, grass, germoline). Excellent background ingredient, highlighting and harmonising other flavours. Contains benzaldehyde (almond flavour) and, as a member of the rose family, small amounts of pinene, a compound also found in conifers (notably juniper) – more on this soon from chef Craig Grozier, a font of knowledge and inspiration in this area.

Works well with: Mead/honey, fruity drinks (try adding to sloe gin), bittersweet cocktails as a sweetener, aromatic, or bitter.

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