It is easy to be seduced by botanicals that flaunt aromatic leaves, flowers, and fruits above ground and to forget what lies below ground. Buried in the earth roots and rhizomes provide flavors that in some cases are underpin well known drinks like gin and vermouth, and in other cases are untapped by distillers. Although roots may seem to be a static component of a plant, like fruits and flowers the flavor of some roots can be optimal during seasonal harvest and they are best stored dried or pre-processed as ingredients for year-round production. Several aromatic roots and rhizomes with tropical origins don’t have harvest restricted by season and can be sourced as fresh ingredients year round.
Gentian is a familiar bittering agent in many aromatized wines and spirits served as aperitifs such as vermouth and Suze. Alongside its bitterness are earthy and vegetal tones. Several members of the Gentianaceae plant family are used in beverages, most commonly yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea). Growing wild, yellow gentian inhabits mountains of central and southern Europe. Yet it is amendable to being cultivated in lowland fields, which has been a saving grace as wild harvesting of yellow gentian’s roots were depleting its populations. When buying gentian it is important to check it comes from cultivated fields, or if wild harvested from a scheme that has a sustainable management plan in place. Wild yellow gentian is harvested in summer and autumn, in summer it is easier to find because of the tall flower spikes. If you grow yellow gentian once plants are at least three years old roots can be harvested and ideally dug up in autumn for optimal flavor. After cleaning soil from the roots they can be dried for storage and used as required.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is another botanical with earthy flavor. Native to Northern Europe it is cold hardy. Wild angelica has the same edible properties as cultivated angelica. However, angelica in cultivation has been selected for having greater concentration of flavor. It is used extensively in gin for the depth it adds. While angelica root tastes a little murky as a single note, it is useful in herbal blends.
In contrast orris derived from Dalmatian or Florentine iris (Iris pallida) has a perfumed note to its aroma, due to the presence of irone. It is also used for its perceived ability to fix other scents, making them linger for longer. Orris is an ingredient that takes several years to make after it has been harvested. Florentine iris rhizomes, horizontal underground stems, are dug up and peeled. They are left to dry in the sun, and then left to age for one to three years in order to develop the characteristic properties of orris.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has tough woody roots that are surprisingly sweet. Getting flavor out of them is best done with maceration before distilling. Liquorice is versatile flavor combining well with herbs and fruits. Perhaps its most surprising pairing comes from Iceland where it is frequently used in chocolate. Liquorice and chocolate is an incredibly robust combination, being delicious at either end of the scale from expensive hand-made chocolate bars to cheap supermarket candy.
Accompanying a tiny edge of bitterness turmeric (Curcuma longa) has excellent resinous flavor, in some ways a smoother tasting form of ginger. Infused after distillation utilizes its distinctive yellow color, but it makes its presence felt when distilled and concealed in clear liquid. As a dry ingredient turmeric is underwhelming, and in dried and powdered form as well as being messy in stills it is also often adulterated with other ingredients used to add bulk and color. There is no need to use it dried as turmeric rhizomes are available whole and fresh year round, and also keep well when frozen.
Galangal (Alpinia galanga) is another rhizome similar in taste to ginger, although it is less hot and has an edge of pine. Not having been subject to a hipster and health fanatic trend the way turmeric has been, galangal is a little harder to source. However it is used Southeast Asian cooking, in particular in Thailand, and suppliers of Southeast Asian ingredients can provide fresh galangal. In contrast African wild ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus) is an ingredient that needs to be grown in order to utilize its warm spicy flavor, as wild harvesting nearly made it extinct in the wild. A little goes a long way and it does well growing in pots outdoors in the summer. After it sheds leaves for seasonal dormancy is the time to collect its rhizomes keeping some to grow for the next year’s harvest.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is readily available fresh and, in common with turmeric and galangal, better used fresh than dried. It is hot in flavor and too often used in over-sweet liqueurs. It performs better with astringent fruit flavors such as rhubarb, and also in herbal distillations.
Turmeric, galangal, African wild ginger, and ginger are all members of the ginger family – Zingiberaceae. On the other hand Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense), like all members of the Aristolochiaceae family to which it belongs, contains aristolochic acid a proven carcinogen and nephrotoxin. Canadian ginger was used by colonial settlers for its peppery taste. But traditional uses are not always a good proxy for plants being safe to consume, and Canadian ginger has been found to be toxic and its use is prohibited by the FDA.
In theory sassafras (Sassafras albidum) root bark can be used as a flavoring if its extract has safrole, a known carcinogen, removed from it. In practice it is easier to leave this North American plant renowned for being the original flavor of root beer to home brewers.
On the other hand chocolate root (Geum rivale) offers a surprisingly spicy element. Its roots contain eugenol, one of the principal aromatics in cloves. Harvested in spring or autumn its fine roots are best processed straight away as drying them looses much of their flavor. Making sugar syrup with chocolate root and leaving the roots to macerate in the syrup for several weeks catches their flavor. This syrup is an excellent alternative to using caramel to sweeten vermouth. While chocolate root is native to the USA its introduced, and similar tasting, relative town avens (Geum urbanum) can also be found. As a plant that colonizes woodland to the detriment of native plants there is an environmental benefit to wild harvesting town avens as an ingredient. With both chocolate root and town avens it is critical to be familiar with the plant as a whole so that roots can be harvested with confidence, and without accidentally collecting roots from other plants.
Another introduced species worth digging up for its taste is dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). In some ways the archetypal weed dandelions grow in diverse habitats and are useful in many ways. Their central fleshy taproot is much easier to collect than the fine roots of chocolate root and town avens. Like orris, dandelion root should be dried before use. Raw the roots are full of latex and bitter. Slowly toasted dandelion roots have an almost nutty flavor with a palatable level of bitterness.
While gentian, angelica, and orris form a trinity of roots and rhizomes extensively relied on in distillations it is worth taking a broader perspective. Inspiration from kitchens and candy using some of the aromatic roots and rhizomes that are familiar in global cuisine as ingredients such as liquorice and members of the ginger family is an easy extension to make. Using aromatic roots from wild North American plants takes a little more work to harvest and is better suited to small scale production, but in return offers more unusual ingredients.