A Walk on the Wild Side

Foraging and Making Homemade Bitters

*Originally published in Edible San Luis Obispo, Harvest 2016

Even when I’m only out for a quick stroll in the neighborhood, I can’t resist the lure of any botanical within reach. Tempted by the honeysuckle bush around the corner, the wild fennel in the vacant lot, or the seemingly endless march of spikey lavender plants as I ascend the final hill, I always return home with a pocketful of souvenirs. My instinct to pluck doesn’t stop there; I cannot roast a chicken without at least one trip through the yard, snipping rosemary and thyme, grabbing handfuls of the chamomile growing wild under the roses, the last of the green beans, a bouquet of fennel fronds and, if no one is home, a few apples or persimmons pilfered from the neighbor’s tree.

We’ve long since evolved from our foraging ancestors who wandered the woodlands and forests scouring the landscape for edibles—roots and leaves, an unattended egg, a cluster of mushrooms—but we’re still hardwired to hunt and gather. A visit to the neighborhood grocery offers quick proof as people drift along the produce aisles, instinctually ferreting through the stacks of fruits and vegetables, casting about for the perfect specimens to throw into their baskets. We have a natural predisposition to uproot, burrow, and explore our environment, while extracting its treasures.

In recent years, foraging has gained mainstream momentum and while many advocates have taken to the great outdoors in pursuit of dinner, an even greater number have hit the trail in search of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, and flowers for a more noble purpose—to elevate cocktail hour.

Once ubiquitous, the art of handcrafting a proprietary blend of botanicals into a magic elixir with restorative powers, fell into near oblivion during those precipitous years between the enactment of the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and Prohibition. These potent potions contained bitterin—roots and barks—along with aromatics—fruits and flowers—that were macerated, added to a neutral alcoholic base, and left to sit until the ingredients married together into a bracing tonic. 

History may be murky in pinpointing the advent of bitters, but anthropologists have noted the use of similar elixirs in ancient Egypt and even more detailed accounts in Europe dating to the 12th century, which is when many physicians believed that herbs and other botanicals possessed medicinal properties. These mixtures were the predecessors of our modern day bitters.

Two of the most famous and easily recognized bitters got their start in the 19th century. The first was crafted by apothecary, Antoine Amèdee Peychaud, in New Orleans. His recipe, famously known as Peychaud’s Bitters, was reputed to alleviate hypertension and muscle spasms, but gained fame as a digestif (the bitterin in roots and bark accelerates the production of digestive juices, easing stomach discomfort and indigestion). Though beneficial, the concoction was so bitter that it was nearly impossible to swallow. Peychaud used his ingenuity in solving the dilemma by adding a few drops of bitters to cognac or brandy, which made the ‘medicine’ go down easy. It didn’t take long for his preparation to evolve into what is believed to be America’s first cocktail—the Sazerac. Served in an egg cup, or coquetier, the French word eventually gave way to the more easily pronounced, cocktail.

Off on another continent, Johann G.B. Siegert, a German who served as Surgeon General in Símon Bolívar’s Venezuelan army, was toiling away on his own creation—Angostura Bitters. He perfected his recipe in Cuidad Bolívar—the city formerly known as Angostura—and called his preparation, Amargo Aromatico, Spanish for aromatic bitters. His was a restorative tonic reported to reinvigorate the spirit while replenishing strength and vigor, which made it wildly popular among rebels, fighters, and even sailors. It was the latter who carried it with them aboard their ships, transporting it over the high seas and introducing it around the world. Not surprisingly, by 1850, Siegert was mass producing Angostura Bitters and selling it abroad.

It’s debatable as to why bitters fell out of favor, but it seemed there were decades during which the bottles of bitters behind any American bar were barely used. Their recent resurgence may have something to do with popular culture (Mad Men, anyone?) and a growing interest in classic cocktails, but it’s likely tied, too, to our willingness to embrace locally cultivated ingredients and an inclination to eat from the land with gusto. 

Though once a necessity for our ancestors, foraging has become a way for us to connect with nature and her wild edibles. It’s no wonder that it’s become a popular pastime, since a trek through the neighborhood or the forest can yield enough botanical treasures for a batch of homemade bitters and your own spin on the cocktail. That’s worth raising a glass and making a toast to taking a walk on the wild side.


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