In search of woodruff

It's an abundant, flavoursome and beautiful woodland plant with a long history in beer. Katie Taylor goes on the hunt

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Now is the perfect time to set out looking for Woodruff. Sending fragile stems scrambling across the cold earth in March, by April its healthy, leafy whorls and white pinprick blossoms will smother everything in its path. Pretty, but hostile. A carpet of earthly stars gazing upwards towards the early Spring clouds. Bright green canopies of leaves held close to the ground, sending fragrance into the damp air. Delicate, but a thug.

Green, hardy plants mean so much in the darker months of the year. Drying sweet woodruff brings the warm scent of late summer meadows indoors, but it’s the colour of the leaves that sends me into a heady spring-is-here frenzy. That green. That life-affirming, energy-surging, almost unnatural green, the colour of the scent of pine forests. It sings in scrubby parkland. It glows from the decomposing leaf litter on the gloomy forest floor.

Perhaps that’s why in Germany, Woodruff has been known for centuries as waldmeister – “Master of the Woods” and used for flavourings in drinks for just as long. The unglamorous name of “bedstraw” may be as functional as the plant itself – when dried, sweet woodruff deters moths and other crawlies and was used along with family member goosegrass as a mattress stuffer for centuries – but it shows that in Britain, we’ve long been overlooking this abundant source of everyday verdance. While we were stuffing it into our shoes and pillowcases, Germany’s pagan ancestors were steeping it in wine and ringing in the summer with it tingling on their tongues. As a modern beer drinker, you may have noticed that Berliner Weisse’s light sourness is complemented beautifully by a dash of woodruff syrup, especially if you’ve visited Berlin to try this classic style from the source. That emerald slurp is almost as important as the beer itself. Lightly herbal, like camomile, meadowsweet or hibiscus, some will tell you it has a vanilla aroma, which actually comes from its high levels of coumarin, the toxic chemical found naturally in Tonka beans and cinnamon. You might taste apple notes too, but most people simply describe it as “sweet”. In Germany, you’ll find woodruff jelly, ice cream, sherbet and boiled sweets. I’ve even seen a recipe for woodruff pannacotta. All bright green, of course.

But let’s get back to woodruff’s mystical roots. Pagan Beltane celebrations welcome May Day as the start of the new year, a recognition that the seasons really have kicked things up a notch; that life is suddenly everywhere and unstoppable after months of darkness. To a Pagan, it’s time to thank the wheel of life for continuing to turn, and to start planning for the busy months ahead. To a non-Pagan, Beltane is good for two things: big fires and May Wine. It’s a party, but unlike Christmas or New Year, there is no sensation of holding on while the season grates slowly and cumbersomely by. It’s a release. A relief. From here, it’s a luxurious slide through the Summer months until fruitful Autumn returns.

Where to find sweet woodruff

Woodruff can be found all over the UK, but you’ll be luckiest if you head out to the west of the country. It is particularly likely to be found under hedgerows in shady country lanes, and in woodland and scrubland. 

Note - it has a square stem, which you can feel between your fingers. If it has a round stem, it’s not woodruff and you should probably leave it alone.

What to do with sweet woodruff

Sweet Woodruff can be used to flavour all sorts of treats, but my favourite recipes are alcohol-based (or intended to be added to alcohol).

How to make woodruff syrup

A beer drinkers’ cocktail trolley essential. Once you’ve made this, you can add it to Berliner Weisse, or start adding it to other beers and calling yourself a mixologist. I like it in wheat beer and lager. Don’t tell anyone.

1kg caster sugar

2l water

3 lemons

120g fresh sweet woodruff

Green food colouring (optional - but it doesn’t go green on its own, so weigh up what’s important to you. You’ll hear no judgements from me.)

Rinse your foraged woodruff and pat it dry. Leave it to fully dry for a day or two. 

Add the water and the sugar to a big pan and bring up to a boil. Stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. This should take about 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat, then slice the lemons and add them to the pan. 

Bundle your sweet woodruff together so the tops are all facing one way and tie together. Add the woodruff to the pan so the leaves are submerged in the sugar water solution, but the stalks are sticking out. (If this seems an impossible task, feel free to de-leaf the stems and add the leaves straight into the pan, but this will take a little longer.)

Cover and leave it to steep for two days. Don’t leave it for any longer than this.

Strain your sweet woodruff syrup through a cheesecloth, fine sieve or a clean teatowel. This is where you add the colouring if you want to.

Bring the syrup to a boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer for about 10 minutes, or until its developed a thicker texture.

Bottle.

How to make May wine

You might not be a Pagan, but you should try German Maiwein or May Wine. Served like a punch – can I reach here and say Pimms is basically a Pagawn ritual wine? – it’s light, sparkling and delightful, with or without the religious connotations.

A handful of young sweet woodruff - wash it first or you’ll have Aphid wine

2 bottles of Riesling

1 bottle of Sekt or Champagne - this is a special occasion

Strawberries, oranges and apples

A pinch of fresh sweet woodruff flowers for garnish

(Optional ingredient number six – 2 tbsp sugar syrup, if you like things sweet)

Pour one of your bottles of Riesling (or white wine of your choice) into a bowl. Bind your woodruff into a bunch and add to the bowl o’ wine, making sure it’s submerged.

Leave for half an hour.

Take the sweet woodruff out and strain the wine into a punch bowl.

Add ice, and stir.

Pour in your second bottle of Reisling, your Sekt or champers and add chopped fruits to your taste.

Serve in big wine glasses and decorate with woodruff leaves and flowers. Optional extra: sing the Maiweinlied (May Wine Song).

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