It’s mid October and it just keeps snowing here in the high country at 11,000 feet in Colorado Rockies. You’d think foraging season were over, but it’s not.
Two days ago I awoke to a steady snow and found myself unable to focus on work. By noon it stopped but the wind kicked up; the way it whipped around the house inspired Gregg to curl up by the fire and swear he’d stay inside all day. I felt exactly the opposite, however: I needed to go outside.
It’s hunting season so the hand-me-down pink bell bottom cords and orange puffy vest were in order. It was hat and gloves weather too with all that wind.
The mining road was vacant and the snow plentiful. I reveled in getting fresh tracks as I hiked through 3”- 4” deep swaths of pow. At a switchback I clambered over the fallen tree trunk that obscures the footpath to the secret meadow, which I descended brushing snow off the low bushes as I went.
There were many non-producing low juniper shrubs en route but eventually I found the one I was looking for, which I’d spied a few days prior. It is the most fruitful creeping juniper shrub I’ve ever found, and despite the snow it was still laden with plump, blue berries.
Juniper “Berries” for Bizarre Beverages
The so-called berries of juniper (Juniperus sp.) are distinctive for their gin-like aroma, as they are its key ingredient. Some authors say they are mildly toxic and not to be consumed in quantity—but they’re so strong so I couldn’t imagine eating many in one sitting anyway. Instead, they do better as a seasoning, with common uses including sauerkraut, meats, and stews in addition to gin. If you don’t have a juniper forest nearby, then I suppose you could always pick up some imported ones from Cost Plus World Market!
There are 60 species of juniper (Juniperus) in North America according to Betty B. Derig and Margaret C. Fuller in Wild Berries of the West (2001). From tall tree to creeping shrub, the plant is ubiquitous, it’s most telling feature the gin-smelling blue berries. These “berries” are not actually berries at all but instead female cones that reach maturity in their second year.
Taste varies from species to species, as my friend, the talented taster/smeller/forager Butterpoweredbike points out. It also varies from plant to plant, which is why she is prone to field-tasting her finds prior to foraging them. Her favorite Juniperus species to date is communis, aka common juniper, which, as Derig and Fuller explain, is a creeping shrub with needle-like leaves rather than scales. J. communis is also my favorite, the one that lies on my secret footpath, and the only one I’ve ever foraged.
Over the past year I’ve turned several bottles of cheap vodka into gin with juniper “berries,” sometimes in combination with other botanicals. Commenter Ellen left this thought on my post regarding it: “Oh how cool. I’ve been meaning to do this. What I want to do is make a strong juniper-flavored syrup or tincture, to flavor soda. I love a good G&T, but sometimes I just want that wonderful flavor to quench my thirst. After a hot day in the sun, nothing is more refreshing, but it can make my head spin. So I wanted to flavor my tonic water with juniper for a non-alcoholic G&T soda for those days when head spinniness is not optimal.”
I’d wanted to make juniper syrup ever since.
Out on the snowy slope under blazing white peaks towering over the still autumn-colored valley, I gathered a ½ pint of the plump, blue “berries.” Then I tucked them into my backpack and my cold hands into my gloves, perched on the steep fallen trunk of a bristlecone tree, and let the wind buffet me, thinking how much I love winter. The clouds cleared to permit the sun’s rays and a bright blue sky for a meditative moment; when they blew back over again I returned home to simmer my berries.
For the syrup I added enough water to cover and heated on low for a bit, crushing the “berries” with my meat tenderizer as I went, then strained to extract the “essence” before adding an equal part sugar to the liquid (the 1:1 ratio of simple syrup) and voila—juniper cocktail syrup!
Lacking tonic or seltzer I tried the creation with the dregs of my homemade gin on crushed ice. Both Gregg and I found “gin and juniper liquor” to be sweet and good, albeit unusual. Then I tried to be adventurous and added some syrup to a glass of scotch whiskey and water over ice. That was a fail, especially since I’m no whiskey fan and Gregg wouldn’t touch it.
Anyway, juniper is good for flavoring things. It is in season right now where I live and quite possibly where you live too. The nice thing is that even in a national forest, a person can gather so little as to be considered “incidental use” but still have enough to flavor a dish or three.
Dandelions Under Snow
Other recent snow-forage we’ve found in the Colorado high country includes dandelions, currants, and gooseberries.
We found the dandion greens poking out of snow from grassy beds under willows along the same mining road. Some were as long as my arm!
I took a small bag and they almost wilted by the time I got home (perhaps in part because I stuffed my sweatshirt into the backpack on top of them) so I washed and ran them through the food processor immediately. The chopped greens smell exactly like a fresh mowed lawn—which, instead of off-putting, is a smell we treasure, as we don’t get much of it in these parts. To this I added finely chopped raw onions, oil, soy sauce, and tofu cubes for a batch of the cold marinated salad that has become my go-to dandelion recipe. Yum!
Currant & Gooseberry Vinaigrette
I had also hoped for and was tickled to find a few remaining spiny red hi-bush currants and spinier purple gooseberries dangling from their bare branches. I don’t care if Gregory Tilford says “Bad news—only a few species of currant are palatable” in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West (1997). Even sour things make for good flavoring.
Although both Ribes species bore berries that were by that point fairly fermented, and although the gooseberries stabbed me repeatedly, stained my fingers the color of blood, and induced itching, I gathered maybe 1/5 of a pint combined, then returned home to transform them into Currant & Gooseberry Vinaigrette.
To make the salad dressing, I washed and simmered the berries (without bothering to remove the mixed-in leaves and detritus) with just enough water to cover for a couple of minutes, crushing the berries with the meat tenderizer as I went. After cooking them down on low temperature, I strained, pressed out the juicy essence, sweetened that and mixed it with oil, vinegar, and finely chopped garlic. This I served on a green salad topped with tofu cubes, which turned hot pink upon salad dressing application. I guess Gregg must enjoy things that are hot pink, for while I found the color cause for skepticism, he declared it delicious nonetheless.
I imagine this berry vinaigrette technique would work well with many different kinds of berries. Last week I made a huckleberry vinaigrette to die for, and rose hips are next up.
It’s Just Frozen Water
Snow. It’s just frozen water. It’s not keeping me from my foraging—and I hope it won’t keep you from yours!