The exquisitely fermented nectar of billions of flowers
Story, recipe, and photo by Alexandra Hudson
Together we wander through our backyard gardens and out to the hills where the soft young leaves of springtime are emerging.
Young shoots of many edible plants offer refreshingly bright and sour flavors that can be beneficial to digestion as they stimulate the gallbladder to release digestive enzymes. The incorporation of these plants into spring dishes promotes levity following a wintertime of heavier eating.
With this in mind, let’s gather our favorite springtime sours and one enchanting local mint to weave a metheglin, an herbal-infused mead. A well-made mead is the exquisitely fermented nectar of billions of flowers. What else could be better to imbibe in the season of fertility!
Douglas fir and other local conifers like spruce and Monterey pine send out their pale new growth in the early spring. The light-green tips of these trees are high in vitamin C and possess a characteristic tartness that is best captured via cold infusion swiftly after harvesting.
Lemon balm grows rampantly in meadows and domestic gardens alike. When this bright mint emerges after winter dormancy, it brings an invigorating scent and playful affect. We use fresh lemon balm for our mead as drying the leaves causes the oils to dissipate swiftly. As with the fir tips, we court the gentle notes of the balm via cold infusion, as hot infusion can give a dark and murky taste.
Yerba buena, or “good herb,” is beloved for its many medicinal virtues. This precious little plant, with its heart-shaped leaves, grows as sprigs and vines across many California ecosystems, from coastal redwood forests to many home gardens. Like other mints, it spreads readily once it takes root.
Be mindful while harvesting wild plants.
Use prudence and gather away from the trail. Take only what you need, plucking from parts of the plant that minimally disturb its growth structure. I think of harvesting like giving a haircut: Make sure the plant looks just as good if not better after the work is done. Note whether the plant is vigorous enough to have a few leaves trimmed. Give back to the plant with your gratitude, which can be issued as a word of thanks, a splash of water, or another meaningful offering.
The process of making mead, a honey wine, can be incredibly complex or startlingly simple. The recipe at hand is the latter and is possible in a home kitchen with minimal equipment. All that is needed is a large pot, a very clean half gallon mason jar (or other jar with a lid and band), a slotted spoon, a measuring cup, a knife and cutting board, and a little bit of patience. The mead will need tending for the first few days, and you might begin to enjoy some in a little under two weeks.
Different varieties of wine yeast emphasize and mute specific flavors as the wine develops. For herbal meads I prefer the wine yeast variety 71B from the brand Lalvin, which can be purchased at Oak and Barrel in Berkeley. This strain maintains the nuanced sweetness of fruity flavors.
Mojito Country-Style Mead
This recipe is inspired by the wild fermented beverages of Pascal Baudar, a Belgian wildcrafter and wild foods chef. It’s adapted here to our Bay Area springtime ecology.
Makes ½ gallon mead
- 6 cups water
- 1½–2 cups honey
- Juice of 2 Eureka lemons
- ¼ teaspoon wine yeast
- 1 large handful Douglas fir tips (around 20)
- 8 sprigs lemon balm (1 large handful), cleaned
- 10 sprigs yerba buena (1 medium handful), cleaned
- 2 (½ gallon) mason jars with lids and rings
Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Stir in the honey, then cover and let cool until lukewarm. Add lemon juice and yeast. Stir well with a slotted spoon to incorporate yeast. Let sit for about 10 minutes for yeast to plump. Pour into a clean ½ gallon mason jar. Stir in fir tips, lemon balm, and yerba buena. Top the jar with a lid and twist on the ring only slightly. (Leaving the ring loose allows the mead to burp itself.) Label jar with the date and ingredients.
The mead will begin to bubble after a day or so as the yeast gorges on the honey sugars, and this bubbling will push the herbs up above the liquid. Right from the start, it’s important to stir the herbs down under the surface of the liquid a few times a day with a very clean metal spoon so they do not develop any mold, which can be detected visually or as an unappealing taste or scent. The flavors and medicinal values of the herbs will be mostly extracted within a few days of steeping, at which point they can be strained out and discarded. (I generally let the plant material extract in the drink for around 2 days before discarding.) Fish them out with a clean metal utensil, then pour the mead through a fine mesh sieve into the second (clean) mason jar and replace the lid.
The mead will continue to ferment until either the yeast has eaten all the sugars, or until the yeast has become exhausted on the sugars that are in the drink. When the bubbling appears to have stopped, taste the mead to see if it is the right level of sweetness for you. Add more honey until desired sweetness is achieved. When it’s just perfect, and bubbling has stopped, seal the lid tightly, store out of sunlight, and sip the nectar at your leisure.
Alexandra Hudson is a California-born clinical herbalist, wild foods chef, and holistic educator. She splits time with her family between Los Gatos and out in the Day Valley redwoods, where she tends to her land and offers classes and sessions to clients. For more information on Hudson’s practice and classes, visit alchemistress.world.