Talking to some twitter friends a couple of months ago reminded me that for the last several years I’d intended to make beech leaf gin – also called noyau – but had never got round to it. Our exchange of tweets was the nudge I needed to get going. Late spring or early summer is the time to make this drink, and on Exmoor we have a plethora of beech trees... tall beech hedges are a distinctive feature of this lovely area.
There are several recipes around; I used the one in Richard Mabey’s book Food for Free (an excellent read, by the way, as is his Flora Britannica).
You’ll need a large jar, which you pack about nine-tenths full of beech leaves. Pick the leaves when they’re young, soft and that delicious lime green colour. This year the leaves on the beech tree in our garden were at that stage in mid May (but everything’s been a little later than usual). I think some arriving guests were slightly bemused to discover me peering into the tree and snipping off small twigs into a colander. Make sure the leaves are clean, dry and free of bits and insects.
When you’ve packed the leaves into the jar, pour in enough gin to cover them completely. You need to keep pressing the leaves down while you’re doing this, so that there are no air bubbles. We didn’t have quite enough gin to cover the leaves, so I also used the remains of a bottle of Dutch genever (similar, but this was vintage stuff so our friends in Holland may not have approved) and a bit of vodka.
Leave the mixture to steep for about two weeks. Then strain off the gin, which will have taken some colour from the leaves. Add about 350g (three quarters of a pound) of sugar, dissolved in 284ml (half a pint) of boiling water, to every 568ml (1 pint) of gin. Add a dash of brandy, mix it all up well and bottle when it is cold.
I left the resulting concoction to mature for a couple of weeks before trying it, and can report that it’s rather good - makes a great after dinner drink. It has a unique flavour, which I found slightly nutty (Mabey describes it as ‘a thickish, sweet spirit, mild and slightly oily to taste, like sake, but devastating in its effects!’). Definitely worth having a go.