I joined herbalist and forager Emily Han on an expedition into the Angeles National Forest to learn about little-utilized herbs and turn them into delicious booze.
"Foraging was my way of assimilating into Los Angeles," says Emily Han as we walk down off the main road and onto the Gabrielino Trail in Altadena. "It's how I keep connected."
It's Friday morning and we're hiking into the heart of the Angeles National forest. Han stops first at a pine tree. She pulls off a needle and chews it.
"Doesn't taste right," she says, grimacing. She tells me that the needles' flavor depends on the season. Sometimes they'll have a citrus kick, especially in the spring; other times, they're quite resiny. "All pines needles are edible, except those from the yew tree. You can gather the needles and make a syrup from it."
She decides to pass on the pine needles. There are many other things to collect.
Han is a woman who wears many hats. The 37-year-old Texan native is a recipe developer, a writer, an educator, and a herbalist. She recently came out with her first book, Wild Drinks & Cocktails, which contains recipes on concocting cocktails and infusions using plants you can forage from neighborhood trails.
For Han, nature comes, well, naturally. She moved to Los Angeles 13 years ago from the Lone Star State. Her parents were acupuncturists and the family always had a strong connection with the outdoors. "Growing up, my mom would show me basic plants and shrubs," she says. "I wasn't really into any of it until I moved here and started hiking. Then it became an obsession."
She tells me stories of wildcrafting cocktail parties with her friends and mushroom hunting hikes with her husband. (He can sometimes "smell out a mushroom," Han says.) She has certain remedies like "fire cider" and elderberry liqueur that she swears by for incoming colds.
"Everything I do has to do with food and herbs," she says. She boils it down to one term: wildcrafting. Wildcrafting is a holistic term for crafting from foraged goods. It's a word that embodies values of sustainability and only picking from places of abundance. "The rule of thumb is to not pick more than 20 percent of the shrub," she says. Han is particularly concerned about the sustainability of foraging, especially given the Californian drought. "By taking people foraging, or even not foraging, I can help them learn a little bit more about the drought," she says.
At one point, we spot a lonely plant called plantain—"like the banana," Han says.
"It's great for cuts or bruises. Just chew it, spit it out, and put it on the wound," she says.
I'm so thoroughly fascinated that I start to use her as a walking encyclopedia.
"What is this?" I ask, pointing to a very generic-looking weed.
"I don't know. I don't know much about grasses yet. I might tackle that topic next year," she says.
That's the interesting thing about Han: her curiosity is insatiable.
She is mostly self-taught—an impressive feat given that in drought-stricken Los Angeles, things are mostly brown and dusty green, and shrubs all look very much the same. (To the layman, of course.) I can barely keep up with the plant names, must less remember all their properties.
"Los Angeles is not as lush as other places," Han admits. "But once I learned how to identify plants, it added another level to the trails." For beginners, she suggests starting with one or two plants and learning basic botany terms so that you can search using specific keywords in databases. (She recommends Calflora.org.) "Also when you're in doubt, don't eat it," she warns.
Today we're making booze from the plants on the trail. She collects bright red toyon berries, a couple snippets of horehound, Californian sage, a bouquet of black sage, leaves of curly dock, a bit of mugwort, yerba santa, and elderberry flowers.
Elderberry flowers are Han's clear favorite. She consistently lights up at the sight of them. "This is an elderberry tree," she says, reaching up to touch a branch. "This one both has the berry and the flowers, which is rare during wintertime."
Los Angeles shrubs can be rather unpredictable in their bloom. Because of the constant sun, the parched land, and rather irregular heat spells, plants aren't particularly on schedule or necessarily attuned with the cycles.
"Right now in the winter we still have sages and sage brushes. We have lots of varieties of sages—black and white and purple," she says. "And bitter herbs like mugwort and horehound."
It's those herbs that make Californian plants especially conducive to cocktails and bitters-making. "Bitters have their origins in medicinal remedies," Han tells me. But they're even better, I soon find out, spiked with liquor.
Han's recipes are mostly derived through trial and error, though she picked up a lot from a brief apprenticeship with mixologist Matthew Biancaniello—known for his locavore approach to booze.
We find a rocky bench and Han begins fishing equipment out of her backpack. It's an elegant spread composed of a Boston shaker, a muddler, a pocketknife, a petite wooden cutting board, liqueurs in specialty glass bottles, and cocktail glasses made out of plastic. The combination is a bit surreal, considering that we are in the middle of the woods.
She gets to work—muddling and shaking—and within half an hour, makes one batch of bitters and two cocktails. In a mason jar, she adds sage, horehound leaves, and grapefruit peels to a touch of vodka. She swirls the bitters in the jar. "You let it sit for a week," she says. Then she moves onto the cocktails.
She does a sage concoction with spicy rye whiskey and grapefruit wedges. The result is marvelous. It's bright with an appropriate hint of musk. She then finishes with a pale green curly dock cocktail that has a bit of a savory aftertaste.
I ask her if she does this often—that is, make cocktails in the middle of the woods from wild shrubs. She nods sheepishly. "Sometimes," she says. "But I've actually been foraging less and less though because of the drought. That's why I like to make drinks. You don't need a whole lot."