Wildcrafting, Wild Drinks and Cocktails – an Interview with Emily Han

One of the coolest things about the Internet is the ability to forge friendships and communities with people who are madly passionate about similar or related topics to the ones you obsess about. Emily Han is one of those friends to Dana and I – someone we likely would not have met without the Internet (she is in California, we are in Toronto) but we’re thrilled to have connected with her over the last few years.

Emily is a passionate wildcrafter (more on that term in or interview; I had thought of her as a forager before learning the term from Emily). Her Instagram feed is a constant theme of inspiration and education for me. Emily appears to be on the constant prowl to bring wild ingredients into her kitchen and her new book, Wild Drinks and Cocktails.

Wildcrafting_Wild_Drinks_and_Cocktails_Emily_Han_Book_Review

The book is lovely. It takes a topic which outsides could see as daunting and makes it inviting and accessible. If the idea of finding wild ingredients to make beverages (alcoholic and not) is intimidating then fear not – many of the ingredients are accessible in your local health food or other store. You can experience many of her recipes before you head off to find the wild ingredients that will elevate your experience even further.

We sat down with Emily and asked her some questions (including a few we received from you on our Instagram feed) and Emily opened up about Wildcrafting, how to learn and what it means to her. The interview is also a great way to get a feel for how gifted she is for removing the mystery of her passion…wildcrafting..

At the start of the book you mention a term that’s new to me – ‘wildcrafting.’ Help everyone here understand what you mean by the term and how it’s similar or different to foraging?

Wildcrafting is a term that really resonated with me when I encountered it. I had become interested in wild food, and while studying books and websites on foraging, I kept seeking information on the ethics of foraging. I wanted to know how foraging could be practiced not just for the benefit of the forager, but with care for the ecosystem, the plant species, and other animals. I value compassion and sustainability and had always considered those things when it came to cultivated food and food systems, so it made sense to apply them to wild food, too.

I discovered that these topics were mostly being explored by those who called themselves wildcrafters. They were typically herbalists who gathered plants in the wild for medicine as well as food and crafts. (And thus began my journey into herbalism!) Now, I know many “foragers” do consider sustainability and “wildcrafters” are not automatically ethical. So my intention is not to say one is better than the other, and in fact I use both terms. But I think the word “wildcrafting” is really lovely. It implies that we can care for the places where we gather, and practice our craft seriously (while having a lot of fun, of course!) as opposed to just wandering and rummaging around. “Craft” also encompasses the act of making something from the plants we gather, whether it’s medicine or cocktails.

How can a newbie learn more about wildcrafting?

A great way to learn is with an experienced wildcrafter in your area so you can gain first-hand familiarity with your local flora and good wildcrafting practices. I would seek out local herbalists who might offer plant walks or apprenticeships, or be able to point you to someone who does.

That said, I began wildcrafting without an in-person mentor, and there are many good resources, such as LearningHerbs.com and HerbMentor.com (full disclosure: I am their Communications Director), as well as books, which you can see listed in the Resources section of my cookbook, or on my website (http://emilyhan.com).

Whatever you do, remember that you don’t need to learn everything right away; it’s a craft that you will build over time. Start with just one plant. It could be a dandelion growing out of  the sidewalk or a favorite apple tree. Use all your senses to touch it, smell it, taste it (once you’ve determined that it is indeed edible!), observe it, and understand the place in which it lives. Then get to know other dandelions or apple trees. Experiment with different ways to cook with this plant and get to know it well. Over the seasons, you’ll expand your repertoire and understand the place where you live in a deeper way.

You feature 6 different groups of beverages in the book:

– Teas, Juices and Lemonades
– Syrups, Squashes and Cordials
– Oxymels, Shrubs and Switchels
– Infusions, Bitters and Liqueurs
– Wines and Punches
– Fizzy Fermentations

There’s a bunch of terms that are new to me in that list. How have you learned about so many different types of beverages and how do you learn more?

A few things drive me to learn about different drinks. One, I love experimenting in the kitchen and trying new flavors. So if I have a big bowl of elderberries, I want to find many different ways to experience them!

Second, I love history (and I’m a former art librarian), so I’m always researching old books for drink ideas. As an herbalist, I’m also fascinated by recipes that may have originated as medicinal preparations. For example, years ago I learned about shrubs, which are vinegar-based drinks, and was inspired to research the history of drinking vinegar … which led me to switchels and oxymels, both of which have healthful properties. Drawing from both the culinary and medicinal worlds is a lot of fun and I enjoy tracing the links between the two when it comes to beverages like herbal bitters, root beers, and cordials (cor means “heart” in Latin and cordials were traditionally syrups that were good for the heart).

I also find inspiration in traditional drinks from around the world, with a strong nod to Arabic and Persian cuisines, which I love, as well as European liqueurs and fortified wines. I live in LA where we have a ton of international grocery stores, from Mexican to Russian to Korean and so many more… one of my hobbies is perusing the aisles to learn about new (to me) ingredients and drinks.

If I am an inexperienced wildcrafter, can I still use your book? Are there ways to substitute wild ingredients with something I can buy at a store or grow?

Oh, yes! It was very important to me to make the book accessible, with ingredients that can be widely found or easily substituted with their dried counterparts, garden plants, or store-bought ingredients. For example, you might not be able to find oranges while urban foraging like I do in Southern California, but you can probably get them at the store. Meanwhile, I rarely find wild blackberries, but I know lots of folks are overrun with them them!

Another example is the recipe for Sage Oxymel, a vinegar-and-honey concoction, that I often make with wild sage that grows near my home. If you don’t have access to wild sage, you can easily use common sage from your garden or even dried sage from the store. Or experiment with something different like rosemary or bee balm.

One of my absolute favorite recipes is the Hawthorn and Rose Elixir, which is equally delicious whether you make it with fresh hawthorn berries and rose petals that you gather yourself, or dried ones that you buy from herb purveyors. And when it comes to roses, you don’t even need to use wild ones – the cultivated roses in your yard (or your neighbor’s…just ask permission) are fine as long as they smell good and haven’t been sprayed with chemicals.

My real goal of the book is that you’ll be inspired by the techniques and make the recipes your own using the fruits, flowers, herbs, and spices that are interesting and available to YOU.

One of our readers (hi Meghan!) passed a question to us from Instagram to ask you, “What has been her biggest failure and unlikeliest success (while foraging, recipe testing, etc.)?”

My biggest failures occurred early in my foraging endeavors when I’d over-harvest something and it would go to waste. Foraging can be exciting, from the thrill of free food to the satisfying physical act of plucking fruits or picking leaves. But we need to consider how much we can reasonably use, and remember not to be greedy when wild animals may benefit from the plant, or we’re possibly preventing it from reproducing.

Those times I faced a pile of rotten apples or moldy berries made me feel so terrible that I, one, vowed to forage responsibly, and two, learned to make processing a priority. I realized that wildcrafting doesn’t stop when you gather the plant. It extends to when you get home and, even if you’re tired from a long day outdoors, you get to work making sure it won’t go to waste. Preserving skills come in handy here!

As for an unlikely success, I have to say creating this book was a feat I wasn’t sure could be done! Because of my publisher’s schedule, I had two months from the day I signed the contract to the day the manuscript was due, and then a week after that to shoot the photos in our tiny one-bedroom apartment. Somehow I pulled it off with the support of my amazing husband Gregory, and the friends and family who encouraged me from afar while I went under house arrest for two months. Having a team of about 40 volunteer recipe testers was also invaluable; I’d test each recipe myself a few times, and then send it out for feedback. Writing a book can be a really solitary endeavor, yet it reminds you how much you appreciate other people.

Another reader on Instagram (hi Ashely!) wants to know, “Where did you get you ideas? Traditional recipes, family hand-downs, recommendations, trial and error?”

First and foremost, I’m inspired by the ingredients I find around me, whether growing wild or at my farmers’ market. Sometimes it’s the flavor that sparks an idea, other times the color or texture. I might base a recipe on something I’ve tasted before, or a memory from childhood, or just some inkling of what would taste good. With wild ingredients, I might think about whether it can be used like another similar ingredient – for example, “these wild berries are really sour … maybe I can use them like cranberries.” I also like flipping through The Flavor Bible for ideas.

As I mentioned above, I’m always scouring historical resources and global traditions for drink ideas. Sometimes in those old books you find actual lists of ingredients and instructions to experiment with, and other times all you get is a vague description! That’s where trial and error really comes into play. My goal is often to find that sweet spot between healthful and delicious.

My cocktail recipes frequently start with a component I’ve made, such as a pine needle-infused syrup. Then I think about what spirits it might complement (in this case rye whiskey), and whether there are classic cocktail recipes that could be given a twist with this ingredient (like an Old-Fashioned). When I’m designing a cocktail recipe, or any recipe for that matter, I like to keep things fairly simple so that that anyone can approach it, not feel intimidated, and be successful.

Once I have an idea for a recipe, I write a rough draft and give it a try. Sometimes the recipe works right off the bat, and other times it takes a lot of revisions to get right, or I might eventually scrap the idea. All the while I’m taking detailed notes to make sure I can reproduce the recipe if it does turn out well!

We hope you enjoyed meeting Emily and hope you’ll check out Wild Drinks and Cocktails!