Cheers! Mine is fresh from the hedgerow

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Any food writer who starts by telling you not to try one of their recipes has got to be sincere – sincere, honest, and blessed with a wit about as dry as a wine with a gravity of 1095. This is Mr Wright.

It only took a brief flicking through the pages and a random pause here and there for me to start laughing. So even if you’re teetotal, if the concept of how to turn the hedgerows into a drinks cabinet remotely interests you, you’ll love his new book – which I think may have been a factor in him forgetting my phone call.

“I was supposed to go to this gardening society meeting and give a talk once,” John Wright starts. “It had been in my diary for a year. On the morning of the meeting I remembered. But then I sat down and was having dinner when I got a phone call. I was there within 15 minutes – I suggested they had the raffle first,” he says, perhaps so I don’t feel bad.

The talk in question, for which the 62-year-old didn’t use notes – he never does – was in fact about another book which is coming out very soon, all about Latin names. Though we needn’t be too surprised to hear this, even though he was chucked out of Latin class at school, the Naming of the Shrew is inspired by his infatuation with fungi and his River Cottage books have paved the way for this venture he says.

John’s latest book, combines his two great passions, foraging and drinking. Booze is all about going out and foraging the fruits in our hedgerows, bringing them home and making some delicious tipples with them.

“I’m quite keen on home brewing, I’ve had a lot of disasters over the years, but I think that entitles me to write a book about it!” he says. “It was a book I was always going to have to write. And it was something River Cottage seemed to think I knew something about. But I had to do an awful lot of research.”

But as laid back and self-effacing as he is about it all, John really is the best man for the job. As those who have seen him on the River Cottage series over the years, he has a natural instinct when it comes to wild food. He also drew on the knowledge and expertise of others, speaking to hundreds of people over two years, from “Fred down the road” to craft brewers.

Virtually all the recipes are John’s and required a thorough testing process. Not something John’s complaining about. But, not being a “measuring sort of person”, compiling recipes didn’t feel natural to him. “I’m a bung it in and hope for the best, instinctive cook,” he says. “For example if I’m making raspberry vodka, I’ll get a handful of raspberries and add the sugar until it looks and feels right – and it always is.”

Booze is split up into four: infusions, wine, beer and cider. If you didn’t need a Government permit to distil spirits, they’d have their own section too John assures me.

The philosophy of the book encompasses fun. “And I want people to save a little money,” he adds. “In fact, actually quite a lot of money – for a serious boozer like me, thousands of pounds a year. It’s a serious matter.”

He starts to explain how home brewing your own beer, as per some of the recipes, can cost an unfathomably insignificant sum of 8p a pint for a 4.4 per cent ale.

“If you like beer, then you absolutely must brew your own,” he asserts, being serious now. “Things can go wrong, but most beers settle down with age.”

In the book, written in his usual down-to-earth manner, John has revived Swanage IPA, which hasn’t been brewed for a century. He says it’s the best brew in the book, Alistair Wallace told him about it.

“He can go on about beer all day, so it’s best to meet him when you’ve got nothing else on that day,” he says of his new acquaintance who is a member of the Dead Brewers Society which collects ancient and defunct recipes.

“He gave me a lot of recipes and this one’s just amazing,” he adds. “But you have to let it age. I’m not that sensitive to flavours, I’m a bit handicapped in that way, but I could really notice a difference.”

But John never used to like ale. He was, cue jaw drop, a lager drinker. “My mum used to give me an egg cup of Little Bricky as a child,” he explains. “It was like drinking molasses and lighter fuel, I used to think I was doing the manly thing by drinking it. But it was enough to put any child off for life. So then I wanted the milder flavours of lager, but finally overcame that.”

There are about 60 recipes in the book. For those who need a little persuasion to try it, the infusions section is the easiest to try.

“Peel the zest of an orange and drop it in some vodka,” he says. “Add a bit of sugar and leave it for a day or two and you’ll have a sort of Cointreau but better.”

Then there’s John’s take on Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka. His is called Sweet Vernal Grass Vodka. “It’s the grass that makes meadows smell like meadows,” he informs me. “So you get the flavour of a spring meadow. You don’t have to drink it neat, you can mix it with apple juice.”

John’s also made amber vodka. “It’s the oldest drink in the world,” he says. “The main ingredient, amber, is 35 million years old. Fossilised tree resin. You can buy it online.”

How did he think this one up? “I met a man in Denmark,” he continues. “I went with River Cottage, I’m not sure why we went there but they paid for my flight. We met these Vikings – they were all blonde and Danish and had a boat which we went on to an island where there was a lovely nature reserve. We sat around drinking all these schnapps with various infusions and the most extraordinary one was the one infused with amber. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it! But I couldn’t leave it out.”

But of them all, John says you have to try the Pink Pint made with Rosa Rugosa or Japanese rose petals. “It’s the most fragrant of all roses,” he says. “And it’s a very vigorous plant – I don’t think you can walk down the street and not find it.

“You make a rose hip syrup, and then add the rose petals, these are the most important part, and then mix with two shots of vodka and some crushed raspberries, don’t ask me how many, then shake, shake, shake with some crushed ice, and add some soda water or lemonade, depending on how sweet your tooth is, and you get a pink pint.

“It’s the best summer drink you can imagine.”

The ever-knowledgeable John’s book wouldn’t be complete without a sloe gin recipe. “Using vodka is actually nicer because you don’t have to contend with the flavour of gin which can be overpowering,” he continues explaining that really, you should leave it three years before drinking it not three months.

“It improves with age, there’s no question about it and if you wait to drink the gin for three months, you start to get the flavour of the pip in the middle, which tastes like almond,” he says adding that he once tried a sloe gin that was 17 years old.

“It’s completely unlike anything you’ve ever tasted,” he says. “That’s nothing,” he adds when I gasp at the patience involved. “I went to the Fox and Hounds up the road for New Year and tried an elderberry wine that was made in 1979.”

John admits there were more mishaps than haps during the making of his book. “Most came from not paying attention, or being drunk a lot,” he laughs. “Actually, I never really get drunk, I’m just predominantly cheerful. I try to stop by lunchtime so I’m never hung over!” he’s joking again, of course, before moving on to the topic of wine.

“I have a bit of a problem with wines,” John, who made his own wine 30 years ago, says. “Ninety per cent of the wines people make themselves and give me are unbelievably disgusting.”

John was so cynical about wine in the book he got “a bit of a talking to” by his publisher. Then he starts reeling off the good ones which include blackberry, dandelion, elderberry and crab apple. There’s also a rice wine in there.

“Then you get weird ones like pea pod wine,” he adds. He’s been warming us up for Birch Sap Wine. “I’m incredibly rude about it,” he admits. “There are three pages devoted to it, but I say right from the beginning there’s no point in making it. But then, some people may like it.”

The cider section too, didn’t come easy. It all happened in 1969.

“I drank about five litres of rough cider and ended up sleeping slumped in a telephone box,” he recalls. “So I used to drink cider, but it was hard to get over that. I can drink a little but can’t really enjoy it.

“If you talk to a professional cider maker, they’ll pooh-pooh the idea of using dessert apples but all apples make cider in the end. You can always add sugar or apple juice if it’s too acidic. There are no real recipes in the cider section, more the process, much to the horror of my publisher. I’ve taken an experimental approach, pushed the boundaries,” he adds. “It’s been enormous fun. I hope I inspire people, I’ve definitely inspired myself. My wife said now this book’s finished we won’t have fermenting baskets in the house anymore, but I’ve got all these plans!”

River Cottage founder, broadcaster, writer, campaigner and great friend of John’s, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, introduces the book. And the blackberry whisky’s in there because of him.

“And he said he’d tried making Birch Sap Wine,” John says. “And it tasted exactly how I thought it would taste. Like watery paper. There’s no point in making Birch Sap Wine.”

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