There is a remarkable Polish speciality called Żubrówka, also known as bison grass vodka. Bison grass (Hierochloe odorata), or holy grass as it is also known, is a bit thin on the ground in Britain, being confined to a few Scottish islands and parts of the Lake District, but we have something which is just as good sweet vernal grass. This is the stuff that gives hay its aroma and vodka captures it perfectly and permanently.
Sweet vernal grass is fairly easy to spot with its relatively narrow and dark flower heads and distinctive smell when rubbed. Another clue is the fine hairs which appear where the tiny leaves join the stem. Pick in May or June when in flower. Żubrówka is traditionally bottled with a blade or two of the grass; I do the same but I got carried away with the one in the picture and left all the blades in. Looks good though.
An alternative is to use creamy blooms of meadowsweet, which adorn roadsides and damp meadows from the Channel Islands to the Isle of Skye. They appear in summer and linger until November. Their intense, slightly antiseptic smell can be overpowering close up and despite the best efforts of foragers they have found but small use in the kitchen except in the making of drinks, meadowsweet sparkling wine (made to the same recipe as sparkling elderflower) being one.
Both sweet vernal grass and meadowsweet contain the highly aromatic and (slightly) toxic chemical coumarin. The tiny quantities involved are harmless more harmless than the vodka certainly and it is chiefly this that gives us the flavour.
- Yield: 500 ml
- A handful of sweet vernal grass (or meadowsweet blooms)
- Sugar, to taste (optional)
- About 500 ml vodka (a good one)
- Cut the grass to length to fit into a 500 ml Kilner jar (or loosely pack meadowsweet flowers). Top up with vodka and close the lid.
- Store in a dark cupboard, shaking once a day. This takes a week to infuse properly (meadowsweet needs only a day). Add a little sugar to sweeten if you like. Strain and bottle. It is ready immediately.