Anyone who’s ever maintained a culinary herb garden is familiar with this problem: what does one do with all those herbs? Here’s how it usually goes. You decide to make something like a sauce gribiche, which requires four kinds of herbs, and by the time you’re done, you’ve spent $15 on a bunch of little plastic clamshells so you can have a tablespoon each of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. A couple of months later, you discover the remains of those herbs, reduced to foul slime, beneath the celery in the vegetable drawer. In disgust, you seek out the spinning seed racks at the supermarket or home and garden center and buy half a dozen packets of seeds, anticipating fresh herbs at tremendous savings, not to mention plenty of pesto and crisp fried sage leaves. A few years later, the rosemary and sage are the size of shrubs, the mint and marjoram have spread to half the garden, and your freezer is filled with tubs of pesto. What to do, short of clipping great bunches and abandoning them in the office coffee room with a “TAKE ME” note?
Consider preserving their aromas in spirits. Countries with a Mediterranean coast share a tradition of anise- or fennel-flavored spirits and liqueurs, scented with local herbs. My favorite comes from the Balearics, where monks and nuns have been collecting wild herbs to prepare a strong and allegedly medicinal tincture to mix with sweet anise liqueur for a drink called hierbas mallorquinas. Our first encounter with hierbas was in the dining room of friends who had recently returned from a trip to Spain. While in Barcelona, they visited a small shop called Caelum, in the Barri Gòtic, specializing in products made by nuns and monks. The tiny glasses of hierbas mallorquinas our friend poured glittered clear green and tasted of sweet fennel, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary. A year later, we sought out Caelum and returned with our own small bottle of hierbas. It didn’t last long, but a number of companies – most famously Túnel – produce it for retail distribution. According to Túnel, the seven herbs essential to hierbas are fennel, verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon leaf, orange leaf, and chamomile.
Túnel makes a special line – 14 Reserva – featuring fourteen herbs grown on the company’s family farms. The following recipe is inspired by that idea, and features all the herbs my husband has been growing in our back garden. The only one missing, in my opinion, is sweet cicely, which we aren’t growing right now but hope to have next year.
This is really a showcase for local herbs, so use what you’re growing in your garden. You can buy herbs, of course, but the point of this is to avoid costly herb shopping. Also, most of the really interesting stuff isn’t available in the market anyway. The recipe below sets forth the herbs from our garden (other than the citrus leaves); feel free to substitute whatever you have, in the proportions you like, as long as you include fennel, chamomile, and rosemary. A few caveats:
* Some herbs, like chives, dill, and Cuban oregano, are unsuitable in this liqueur. Consider whether you want the taste of the herb in your drink before adding it.
* Rosemary, cilantro, sage, and lavender are powerful herbs that can take over if you use too much. They are not out of place in hierbas (and rosemary is essential), but proceed with caution.
* For optimal results, the herbs and grain alcohol must infuse for at least a month. Stir or gently shake the mixture from time to time to redistribute the plant matter. After the first two weeks or so, the tincture will be bright green; with time, this brightness will fade to olive and eventually amber. This is normal.
A final note: true hierbas is distilled, not simply infused. Unless you have a still or rotovap, you’re not going to distill this. Once mixed, expect it to be slightly viscous from the sugar and cloudy, unless clarified, from herb sediment.
750 ml (1 bottle) grain alcohol, like Everclear (95% ABV (alcohol by volume))
1 head fennel, with flowers, stalks, and fronds
12 branches thyme
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks basil
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks mint
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks anise hyssop
6-inch rosemary branch
4 4-inch stalks of tarragon
12-inch stalk of lemon verbena
12-inch stalk of marjoram
2 12-inch stalks of lemon balm
12-inch branch of parsley
4 bay leaves
8 lime leaves
8 fig leaves
2 tbsp dried chamomile flowers or 1/4 c fresh
1/4 c Corsican mint leaves
4 inches of lemon zest (no pith)
1 tsp aniseed
4 juniper berries
1 tsp fennel seed
white granulated or superfine sugar
In a nonporous, nonreactive container, combine all the herbs and the grain alcohol. Press down on the herbs so the alcohol covers them completely. Seal tightly with a lid or, if your lid is not tight-sealing, cover with plastic wrap, secure with a band, and then cover with a lid,
Infuse for at least 30 days. If the plant matter still appears green, not brown, continue to infuse until all the chlorophyll has dissolved.
Strain the tincture through fine filters (such as a chinois, or several fine mesh tea filters stacked together) into a nonreactive clean container. The volume of the strained tincture will be greater than 750 ml, because the alcohol dehydrates the plant matter and adds water to the tincture. Measure the volume in ml. You should have nearly 900 ml. Do not add more grain alcohol to increase the volume; just note the amount so you can compute the ABV of the tincture.
Make a simple syrup of 500 ml water and 500g sugar by combining the two in a pot over medium heat and stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Measure the volume in ml and note the total volume so you can compute the sugar concentration in the syrup. Note: If you hated/are not good at maths or are lazy, you can skip the computation steps and just skip to the instructions to mix equal portions of tincture, syrup, and water.
C(a): 712.5/Total volume tincture
C(s): Total weight of sugar (in grams)/Total volume finished liquid sugar syrup
There are three formulations of hierbas: one sweet (dulces, about 30% sucrose by weight and 20% ABV), another dry (seques, about 10% sucrose by weight and 35% ABV), and another medium-dry (mesclades, about 20% sucrose by weight and 25% ABV), which once was simply a mixture of the sweet and dry. If you haven’t tasted hierbas mallorquinas before, it can be hard to know which option you will like the most, so start with the mesclades recipe set forth below, and decide whether you want to add more alcohol or more sugar.
For a medium-sweet liqueur, combine about 291 ml tincture with 324 ml sugar syrup and 395 ml water. Start with 300 ml water and taste; increase as necessary. Note: to be precise, you should compute the ABV of the finished tincture and the concentration of the sugar syrup before mixing so you can mix them correctly. If this is too much measuring for you, try equal proportions of water, syrup, and tincture (33% each by volume).
Once you have mixed your liqueur, you can decide whether to clarify or not. The sugar syrup captures and suspends the fine herb sediment present in the tincture, so it will be rather cloudy. This is normal. If it bothers you, clarify using hydrated gelatin finings and let the mixture stand in the freezer for up to two weeks before straining. Note: the hierbas used in the following candy recipe has been clarified. The advantage to not clarifying, though, is a more pronounced herbal flavor.
Hierbas wine gums
At Heston Blumenthal’s influential restaurant, The Fat Duck, the final phase of the tasting menu includes Whisk(e)y Wine Gums, an ingenious take on gummi candy that showcases the flavors of five different whisky (or, in the case of Tennessee, whiskey) producing regions, mounted onto a map of those regions. These have tremendous appeal for me, not just because I love whisk(e)y, but because I have a lifelong mania for gels. Given a choice between a gel- and non-gel formulation of any product, I will always choose the gel.
Different hydrocolloids yield different gel characteristics. Gelatin and certain pectins produce relatively soft, clear gels that melt at around body temperature and are responsible for the consistency of jelly, aspic, and ketchup. Using agar-agar makes for brittle gels like the almond jellies popular in Asia; gum arabic, firm, chewy gels like gummi bears. In the recipe below, developed from Blumenthal’s Whisk(e)y Gums recipe (Fat Duck Cookbook, 304-05), gelatin and agar combine for a soft but highly elastic gel that lets the hierbas shine.
15 g powdered gelatin
2 g powdered agar
30 ml hierbas
100 ml glucose syrup
55 g caster (superfine) sugar
1.4 g tartaric acid (substitute 2.5 g cream of tartar)
40 ml hierbas
35 ml hierbas
Combine the gelatin, agar, and 30 ml hierbas and wait 30 minutes to hydrate completely. Bag and seal in a chamber sealer. Drop into a 185F/85C circulator or in a pot of water on the stove at the same temperature.
Combine the glucose, sugar, tartaric acid, and 40 ml hierbas to hydrate completely. Bring to a simmer and then to a boil. When the mixture reaches 255F/124C, remove from the heat. Whisk in the hydrated gelatin mixture. The mixture will foam and appear opaque. Take the temperature, which should have dropped considerably. At 212F/100C, stir in the remaining hierbas. The mixture should become clear. Note: this entire mixing process should not take more than a minute or two.
Transfer immediately to small polycarbonate candy molds (to ensure easy unmolding, you can wipe a very thin film of neutral vegetable oil in each mold, but this may not be necessary). Cover and chill.
Unmold not more than 30 minutes before service (or unmold and keep refrigerated). These gums can be rather sticky from the glucose but are not brittle, so if you need to use the tip of a knife to unmold, any scars will self-repair. To prevent sticking to the plate, dust the base of the gums with caster sugar before unmolding.