I've never had much to do with vodka. It famously doesn't taste of anything, and because I was a cabinet maker for 30 years the smell always reminds me of hard work. I can tell you with some authority that vodka and French polish are barely distinguishable by smell alone, except that French polish is the sweeter. I suspect that neat vodka is, like Marmite, something one has to be born to. For most of us, it needs to be mixed or flavoured.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Susanne sent me a particularly intriguing parcel containing a small piece of grass, complete with roots, a packet of seeds, a small bottle of slightly coloured liquid with a leaf in it and list of instructions. The bottle contained a vodka-based grass infusion called żubrówka and the remaining contents were the wherewithal to make it myself. I've planted the grass and have the seeds in the freezer – apparently an aid to germination. But being an impatient fellow, I've been exploring other ways of making the stuff.
The species Susanne sent me is bison grass. The Latin name, Hierochloe odorata, means "sweet-smelling holy grass", from its being strewn around church doorways on saints' days. It does exist wild in the UK but only in isolated locations in Scotland, so I started to look for alternatives. The aromatic compound in bison grass is called coumarin. It has a vanilla-like odour familiar to many as the smell of newly mown hay. This gave a clue as to where I might look: hay-meadows. Sweet vernal grass is the main originator of this smell as it too contains coumarin. I'm terrible at identifying grasses and a root through Kingcombe meadows nature reserve – a place very familiar to me from the fungus forays I lead there every year – produced nothing.
Undaunted, I looked to other plants. I knew that meadowsweet contained coumarin, but it's rather late in the season for this plant. Nevertheless, I managed to find several in flower and duly collected some blossoms. Another group of plants containing coumarin are the bedstraws. Chief among these is woodruff, but lady's bedstraw is a more accessible plant, common in many hedgerows. A long walk – followed, after my back started complaining, by a suspicious-looking hedgerow kerb-crawl – produced nothing except hedge bedstraw, which doesn't smell of anything nice at all. Lady's bedstraw was in high flower until very recently and I eventually found some growing near the pavement on someone's lawn. I consider things to be fair foraging game if you can reach them from a public right of way, so I grabbed a handful and took it home.
The wonderful smell of lady's bedstraw (not as sickly as meadowsweet) becomes stronger with drying. When you dry it, do so carefully – mould can convert the coumarin to a toxic compound. In fact, I should say more toxic, as coumarin itself is a poison – though, assuming you are in good health, it'll only harm you in considerably larger doses than you could obtain from our present project and over a longish period of time. It is, however, seriously poisonous to rats, being a chemical precursor of warfarin, so if you're a rat don't go near the stuff.
As in the manufacture of true bison-grass żubrówka, infuse your chosen plant for a few days in vodka until, as Susanne puts it, the mixture turns the colour of a healthy mid-stream urine sample, then remove all plant material and bottle the liquor. I suggest filling the jar loosely one half full of dried plant, perhaps less for the more potent meadowsweet. If you have some bison grass then half a dozen leaves the full length of a litre bottle will do the trick. When the brewing is finished, remove them all from the żubrówka save one, which is left for decoration. Having completed my experiments I must say that, despite my misgivings, meadowsweet came out on top, tasting remarkably like Susanne's brew. "Sickly" is evidently best.
Neat shots of any of these vodka-based drinks are a little too much for me, but a mix with apple juice is both traditional and open to another foraging enterprise. Crabapples and wildings (hedgerow apple trees that have grown from discarded pips) are just coming into ripeness now. Use a juicer or a press, add sugar (they can be incredibly tart) and mix with ice and your żubrówka to taste. The result is highly refreshing drink with a complex flavour that will have people puzzling over what you've handed them.
Finally, I have it on authority that a hangover from vodka can be avoided by eating small pieces of lard as you drink. I think I'd rather have the hangover.