How about we start with the sweet and move on to the bitter? Nothing would please me more than being able to send every one of you who commented a bag of my caramels, but I just can't swing it this year. (The postage alone is prohibitive!) But I do have three bags and they are going out to randomly selected Diane, Teresa and Jack. (I will email you separately to get your snail mail addresses.) Thank you to all for sharing your beautiful traditions and thoughts on celebrating at this time of year. I am very moved by how thoughtful and graceful you are and feel lucky that I am part of this ad hoc community.
And now, for the bitter. Or, actually, bitters—a new project of mine. I gathered a number of roots late this fall and decided to make a few different varieties of bitters. (If you'd like to learn more about how I got into foraging, here is I piece I wrote for a recent issue of Edible.) My witchy work is still in progress...
On the left is horseradish from our garden and I am using that to make fire cider, a vinegar tonic infused with lots of medicinal elements. More on that in another post. On the right is barberry root, whose vibrant yellow hue seems to signal its potency. The Japanese variety is an invasive plant in this area that also harbors Lyme-bearing ticks, so we are always trying to eradicate it from our properties. The plant has been used medicinally for centuries, and the bitter root is known to have many healing attributes, including, paradoxically, being effective against Lyme disease.
Another bittering agent, this one gathered from my garden, is these beautiful hops flowers. Traditionally used to flavor beer, hops can add floral, tropical, citric and, of course, bitter notes. Using them dried in my bitters is a bit of an experiment and we'll see if they don't overwhelm the mix.
Bitters can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, who steeped herbs in wine. The practice of making these herbal infusions was further developed during the Middle Ages, when distilled alcohol and pharmacological alchemy converged. Many of the various brands and styles of digestive bitters made today—Angostura, Peychaud's, etc—are derived from what were medicinal tonics. They are widely varying combinations of bitter roots, barks, leaves plus aromatic botanicals that add flavor as well as medicinal properties.
You're probably familiar with bitters as they are used in cocktails, to add complexity and a depth of flavor that stands as a counterpoint to sweetness. But I got very inspired after a visit to Jori Jayne Emde's site, where she sells her bitters with recommendations to use them in coffee, in sauces, in baked goods, on vegetables and with roasted meats. (Read more about her here. I would like to sit down with her for a long chat!)
I currently have three types of bitters steeping in 190-proof vodka: Rose-Citrus, with rose petals, pink peppercorns, sumac, lemongrass, rose geranium, candied citrus and cinchona bark; Maple-Fenugreek, with fenugreek, maple syrup, barberry root, fennel pollen, licorice root and bee pollen; and Warming Spice with vanilla bean, cacao nibs, star anise, raisins, cardamom, crystallized ginger, fresh angelica root (seen in the photo above - it's the purple one) and blackstrap molasses. They should be done in a week or two and I will share the results with you.
Until then, I wish you a beautiful holiday and an illuminating Winter Solstice today! Take time to mark this transition, giving thanks for the darkness and all it teaches us and welcoming in the light as slowly, slowly, the days begin to lengthen again. All my love xoxo