Last autumn I went island hopping around Scotland with a fellow plant fan, a herbalist from Brighton.
One of my most treasured memories of that trip was hiring a car and travelling across mainland Orkney. Both self confessed plant nerds we found ourselves jumping for joy with each flash of colour we saw from the car window. The predominate colours were the purple of rosebay willow herb and cream from the flowers of meadowsweet.
We stopped by the standing stones of Stenness and got picking, the meadowsweet was everywhere this “Queen of the ditch” was thriving on this island due to the wet weather conditions. It’s Ideal for the gardeners looking to grow something in that poorly drained corner of the garden. As we picked we both speculated as to the lineage of the plants we were harvesting. Did whoever put the stones here also have a thriving medicinal herb garden or perhaps they were brewers. We may never know, but what we did know is that this harvest would be used for both booze and medicine.
As Mark Williams points out there are many drinks uses for meadowsweet. The bittersweet flavour being perfect to add that little something to drink. He suggests infusing in vodka and this can be done either by half filling a kilner jar with flowers then topping up with filtered vodka, leaving for three days then straining through a muslin bag or using the same quantities and rapidly infusing with nitrous oxide in a cream whipper.
Once you have you meadowsweet vodka I’d suggest blending it with other flowered vodkas. My favourite has been creme de violet at a ratio of four:one (meadowsweet:violet). Then topping up with soda water for a refreshing summer drink. But spirits and cocktails are far from the traditional drinks that would have seen meadowsweet as a flavouring. Drinks like mead and ale were much more the happy homes for the aromas of meadowsweet.
Many recipes for meadowsweet ale include other herbs since the flavour can be considered too sweet. I’d suggest using any of the following (depending on what’s available), dandelion root, agrimony, yarrow, mugwort and heather.
Two simple recipes appear in Stephen Buhner’s brilliant, Sacred and Healing beer the first from Maude Grieve he has been adapted to become more of a molasses beer. Having brewed this I found that of the 20 people I gave a beer to 19 hated it and 1 (Mark Boyle) adored it I assume that he and Buhner must have similar tastes.
Molassess can be rather overpowering and therefore I’d suggest using dark malt extract as in the very simple recipe below.
- 13 litres water/23 pints
- 1kg/2.2lbs dark liquid malt extract
- 1kg/2.2lbs light dried malt extract
- 55g/2oz yarrow
- 2 whole flowering dandelions (scrubbed)
- 30g/1 (ish oz) dried meadowsweet flowers
- 55g/2oz heather flowers
- 1 packet Danstar Nottingham yeast
Bring the water to the boil and stir in the malt extract then add the yarrow and dandelions. After 40 minutes add the meadowsweet and the heather flowers and boil for a further 20 minutes. Strain into a fermentation barrel and allow to cool to 21°c/70°f before adding the yeast.
After a week to fourteen days, when you are sure that fermentation has ceased, prime and bottle. This may even be a beer that helps you rid your hangover before it has began (see below).