2nd May 2013
Having grown up in and around the Chiltern Hills the vibrant, lime green leaves of the Beech Fagus sylvatica at this time of year have been a favourite nibble since childhood, and the incredible colour as the sunlight comes through the almost translucent leaves, on a day like today especially, is magical.
Easily recognised from its thick, parallel trunks with smooth metallic grey bark….often described by children as looking like elephant’s legs. In winter the large, coppery coloured, pointed, cigar shaped buds are distinctive. In Beech woodland the dense canopy and thick layer of leaf litter often suppresses most other plant growth so there is little ground cover.
Although is prefers chalky and limestone soils it can also be found on other rich loamy soils. In the Chilterns it was deliberately planted for making Windsor chairs. The wood’s strength and ability to bend well when steamed led to it being ideal to make the curved backs and legs of these chairs and supported the industry of bodgers dating back over three hundred years.
The leaves that have just emerged at the moment are thin and delicate and can be eaten straight off the tree, added to salads or sandwiches as you would lettuce. The have a pleasant, lemony taste. Within a few weeks however they start to darken and become tough and bitter.
Whilst they are at their best, if you have access to a plentiful supply, this drink dating back the bodgers in the Chilterns in the 18th and 19th century is definately worth trying.
Beech Leaf Noyau (adapted from Food for Free by Richard Maybe)
- Pack a kilner jar full of young beech leaves and then fill with gin pressing the leaves down all the time until the jar is completely full. Leave in a dark cupboard for at least two weeks.
- Strain off the gin into a measuring jug. For every 600ml gin take 350g of sugar and dissolve in 300ml of boiling water, add a dash of brandy (optional) then when cooled mix with the gin.
- Bottle into green or brown glass bottles.
It is important to not expose the liqueur to too much light or you will lose the vibrant green colour and it will turn brown. The resulting drink is thick and sweet with an unusual flavour and it is quite potent. A variation is to add a small sprig of Sweet Woodruff, which is often found growing in the same woodland.
SENIOR BUSHCRAFT INSTRUCTOR