There’s more to trees than just wood – the bark, sap, fruit, seeds and roots are all useful. Yesterday evening I was out collecting leaves for a project I’ve been wanting to do for a few years.
For this I want to have the freshest young leaves possible, while they’re still soft so I’ve been going to my local woods on a regular basis, watching the buds open as we head into spring. If you leave it too late in the season, the leaves will turn waxy and then you have to wait another year. I love these seasonal things that you can only do at one time of year; like picking blackberries or slipping the bark off a twig to make a whistle.
These leaves are only a day or two old and on small, understory trees; the big mature beeches that seeded them take longer to come into leaf and, when they do, they’re to high up to easily collect. At first it can be hard to identify the ones you want because they not the characteristic waxy dark green and you can confuse young hazel for beech. To identify them, the beech has long brown cigar-shaped buds and lighter yellow-green leaves which are less serrated and more downy than the hazel. Once you see them together the difference is obvious and your eyes quickly become attuned to spotting the distinctive colour.
Picking is quick, relaxing and quite addictive, just thinking about the texture of the leaves, choosing the ones that look nicest and listening to the sounds of the woods. Following one tree to the next soon takes you away from the paths and it’s a nice way to get gently lost even in a small wood you know well.
So what’s it all for? Well, I’m making beech leaf noyau – a little-known country liqueur. It’s a bit like sloe gin except using leaves instead of fruit and then adding brandy and sugar later. Here’s the recipe I’m following, from this website. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going, meanwhile if you know any good seasonal recipes let me know in the comments.
A noyau is a cordial made from brandy, gin, cognac etc. This, however, is a classic British version, using young beech leaves.
1 bottle of gin (700ml)
225g white sugar
400ml young beech leaves
Only use very young beech leaves, freshly stripped from the stem. Add these to a bottle or glass jar (with a secure lid) until the vessel is half full. Add the bottle of gin then stopper the jar and store for 3 weeks before straining the alcohol off.
Meanwhile add the sugar and 300ml water to a pan and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and allow to cool before mixing with the flavoured gin and the brandy. Pour into bottles and store.
This makes an excellent mixer and can even be drunk neat. It’s well worth making and I guarantee that everyone you serve it to will go mad for it.