Bartenders' guide to foraging: Herb bennet
Words by forager, Sarah Watson
Photography by Sarah Watson
The roots of herb bennet have a warm aroma of clove, a tropical spice often associated with Christmas – they're ideal for flavouring wintry liqueurs, cocktails and mulled drinks.
Common names: Herb bennet, clove root, wood avens
Latin name: Geum urbanum
Plant family: Rose (Rosaceae)
Edible part: Root used in drinks, in moderation.
Also known as 'clove root', herb bennet roots have a gentle, earthy clove-like taste and scent, with a hint of cinnamon. Herb bennet contains eugenol, the main substance which gives cloves, the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum a native Indonesian plant, their powerful, aromatic spiciness. Eugenol is also found in nutmeg, cinnamon and bay.
Native to temperate Europe, Western Asia and North West Africa, herb bennet has escaped from cultivation and naturalised in New Zealand and some parts of North America. In medieval times, the plant was thought to ward off evil spirits and was also widely used in herbal medicine and ales. The roots were once dried to scent linen and deter clothes moths, and the edible, but not very flavoursome, leaves were cultivated as food in Europe in the 16th century.
The root was considered a tonic and was infused in wine and medicinal liqueurs. The 17th century English herbalist, Culpeper wrote: "The root in the spring-time steeped in wine doth give it a delicate flavour and taste and being drunk fasting every morning comforteth the heart and is a good preservative against the plague or any other poison."
More recently, herb bennet root has been used in Cambridge Distillery's Anty Gin, combined with essence of wood ants and other botanicals, including nettle.
Common and widespread in much of Europe, herb bennet prefers rather damp places, rich soils and dappled shade. Although it can grow in more open places, it is often found at deciduous woodland edges, clearings and paths, under hedges, and in shady areas of gardens.
Herb bennet is a perennial, hairy, straggly herb with thin, wiry stems that can grow up to 60cm tall. The larger, toothed rounded leaves on the lower plant are usually three-lobed at the end, like strawberry leaves, with several pairs of smaller leaflets beneath. As pictured above, they grow in a circular 'rosette' at the base of the plant.
Higher up the plant, the leaves are more pointed than rounded, and often smaller with a single leaflet. As a hardy plant, the leaves stand up to lower winter temperatures. The fine, fibrous roots are up to 20cm long and grow from a rhizome – an underground plant stem.
Blooming from spring until autumn in Britain, the flower is small (up to 1.5cm across) and yellow with five, rounded petals held above five triangular green sepals (pictured above). It matures to a spiky, green head of hairy seeds with red hooks (pictured below) which stick to passing animals and people. The flowers provide nectar for bees and other insects, and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of rare butterfly, the grizzled skipper.
The rich, spicy flavour of clove root pairs well with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, star anise, ginger and bay, as well as oranges, apples, pears, beetroot and pumpkin. To preserve its delicate aromatics, the physicians of old recommended drying the roots carefully, storing them whole, and chopping or powdering them, just before use.
Infuse the fresh or dried roots of herb bennet in a neutral spirit to make a clove-flavoured liqueur for cocktails, or use them to spice up fruity liqueurs like sloe, plum, cherry, elderberry, crab apple or quince. Try using them to flavour rum, brandy, bitters, or vermouths and other aromatised wines. Infuse the roots for two days to two weeks, depending on the strength of flavour required.
To add mild spiciness to mulled cider, wine or a hot gin cocktail, add whole root balls while heating. For a stronger flavour, add a clove root-infused liqueur or syrup.
To make a smoky-brown, clove-flavoured syrup, gently simmer a good handful of cleaned, chopped and bruised roots in a rich sugar syrup for 20 minutes. Leave to cool and steep, then strain through muslin cloth into a sterilised bottle and store in the fridge. Use clove root syrup in place of honey and nutmeg in a seasonal Hot Buttered Rum Cocktail.
Forager Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods suggests dehydrating, grinding and sieving the leftover sugary roots to make a sweet powder for the rim of cocktail glasses.
Foraging herb bennet:
Be aware that it's illegal to uproot wild plants without permission from the landowner, however herb bennet is an easy plant to grow and often found in gardens as a 'weed'. Take care not to pull up all the plants in one area as they won't be able to regenerate.
• Gather roots after the plant has set seed, in winter or early spring - rosettes of lower leaves may be visible all year-round. Physicians used to say March was the best time to harvest them.
• Be careful not to confuse the leaves or flowers of herb bennet with those of buttercups, which are poisonous raw, releasing an irritant if crushed.
• Avoid gathering from areas that may have been sprayed with weedkillers, or could be polluted, like old industrial sites and busy roads.
• Dig or pull up the shallow roots and cut off the stem and leaves.
• Roots can be very muddy and need thorough cleaning. They benefit from soaking and rubbing between fingers to tease off mud, grit and leaf litter, followed by several rinses – it can be messy!
• Dehydrate root balls carefully at a low temperature, then store whole in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
When foraging, always use good field guides to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them - if in doubt, leave it out. Be aware that foraging may not be permitted in some protected areas or parks.
For more information on foraging see Sarah's website: WildFeast.co.uk