Foraging Elderflower With Emily Han
Last summer I signed up for a guided group tour that would explore the hills of Griffith Park with hopes of learning how to identify edible plants. Foraging was something I never associated with Los Angeles, especially in a somewhat urban setting, but shortly after we headed down the trail we were already discovering edible treasures like pink peppercorns, sage, stinging nettles...and elderflower!
There was something incredibly thrilling about tasting things off a hiking trail I had climbed many times before. And the excitement continued after our exploration, as I started noticing these same plants all around town and occasionally plucked bright pink peppercorns to put into glass vials for myself and friends.
My guide was Emily Han, who is an exceptional teacher and knowledgable herbalist. Her walking tours are incredibly informative and I really appreciate her gentile approach to keeping nature in balance while taking from it: Never take more than you need and always make sure there are plenty berries and blooms left for the birds and for future foraging.
Right now it's the peak of elderflower season and Emily was gracious enough to let me come out on a solo exploration trip with her. I wanted to know more about how she got into herbalism and what her creative process as a writer was like. Of course in perfect fashion of her recently released book (Wild Drinks & Cocktails), she had all the makings for an elderflower gin refresher in her backpack that we got to enjoy under the cool shade of a gorgeous oak tree together. Bonus - she's sharing the recipe with you below!
So let's get back on the trail and learn more about the lovely Emily Han...
Who: Emily Han
What: Writer, recipe developer, educator & herbalist
Where: Los Angeles, CA
How did foraging and herbalism became your passion – was there a particular moment when you knew this was something to take further than just a hobby?
I trained and worked as an art librarian, which I assumed I would do for the rest of my life. Then I got laid off. I took my severance pay and boarded a plane to Cornwall, where I spent a couple weeks walking in nature, communing with wild plants, and visiting farms and food artisans. Although I didn’t know what form it would take, I felt that these were the seeds of my new life and career. When I came back to Los Angeles, I became more serious about turning my food blogging hobby into work as a professional recipe developer. Over the years, my work evolved as I spent an increasing amount of time outdoors and learned more about foraging and herbalism. I became especially fascinated by drinks and cocktails – a delightful intersection of traditional herbal remedies and modern culinary culture. Wanting to empower other people to connect with nature and make their own food/drinks/medicine drives my work now as a writer and teacher.
Tell us a little about "wildcrafting" - we love this term and want to know a little more about the meaning of it.
From a young age, I was interested in the ethics of what we eat, from the perspective of people as well as animals and plants. So when I became interested in foraging, I looked for teachers who approached wild food from a similar mindset. That led me to herbalists who used the term “wildcrafting” for the practice of gathering uncultivated plants and making food and medicine. (And thus also led to my studies in herbalism.) Whereas “foraging” kind of implies rummaging around, “wildcrafting” involves developing your relationship with plants and places and considering their long-term health. I also like that wild-crafting encompasses making and creativity.
How do you stay inspired to keep your projects fresh & exciting?
I draw inspiration from many places, including the garden, farmers’ market, international grocery stores, and travel. But most important is my morning walk or hike. This daily practice nourishes my sense of wonder, cultivates my awareness of nature, and throughout the seasons leads me to wonderful wild plants. Plus, researchers have found that walking improves creativity!
What's one of your most memorable discoveries while out in the wild foraging?
I’ll never forget finding my first elder tree in Los Angeles. I had fallen in love with elderflower drinks when I lived in England, and it was a flavor I missed after I moved to California. Then one day I was hiking and came upon an elder tree covered in fragrant blooms. Those flowers became a bridge between my old and new life, making me feel more at home in LA. Luckily they grow all over SoCal, so I get to make elderflower and elderberry drinks every year now.
You have a cocktail and beverage book out! What was one of the most important lessons you learned in the process - any challenges or great rewards that have changed the way you tackle work and creative tasks now that you've completed it?
When I began the cookbook process, I thought of Wild Drinks & Cocktails as MY book, and of course I wanted it to be perfect. I tend to judge myself very harshly, and there were many moments of doubt and panic as I created the recipes, manuscript, and photos. As I worked with recipe testers, editors, designers, marketers, and now readers, I discovered that the book is actually the work of MANY people, and perfection is relative. Even though a book seems like a finite project, it’s part of my (and others’) larger body of work in process, and now it has a life of its own in peoples’ kitchens. It’s helped me learn to let go.
Everyone needs a little creative break, where do you go to recharge?
My favorite recharge activity is tidepooling along the coast with my husband – experiencing the smell of salt and the sound of waves, discovering the miraculous worlds that exist at the edge of land and sea. I can spend hours marveling at the colors and textures of seaweed and rocks and observing the creatures there, from anemones to chitons and sea slugs. Every time I go to the tidepools, I think to myself, “This is the best day of my life!” whether I’ve been there for ten minutes or five hours. It’s such an immersive experience and a refresh in perspective.
What's next?! Any dream projects or collaborations in the works?
I’m developing ideas for the next book, and in the meantime I’m having a wonderful time on my Wild Drinks & Cocktailsbook tour – meeting, teaching, and collaborating with foragers, growers, drink makers, and creatives around the country. I’ve had a lot of interest in online classes, so I’m working towards being able to offer that, as well.
Recipe: Elderberry Cocktail
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce elderberry syrup (below)
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
Lemon twist and/or elderflowers, for garnish
Combine the gin, elderberry syrup, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with a splash of club soda and garnish with a lemon twist and/or elderflowers.
Makes about 1 cup
1 cup fresh elderberries or 1/2 cup dried
1 cup water
About 1 cup sugar or honey
Combine the elderberries and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and crush the berries with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer; discard the solids.
Measure the liquid. Combine it with an equal amount of sugar or honey in a saucepan. Simmer over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar or honey. Remove from the heat and let cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Be sure to snag a copy of Emily's book Wild Drinks & Cocktails so you can get your own wildcraft on...and keep tabs on what she's up to (more recipes!) over on her website as well as a look behind the scenes on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook!
Recipe reprinted from Wild Drinks & Cocktails by Emily Han, with permission from Fair Winds Press, copyright 2015