Tasting the Sky: A Mermaid Tonic
In the heavy spring rains of coastal Oregon, sometimes it seems like it’s raining so hard the sky itself might start to seep downwards. You can almost picture it, can’t you? Heavy, water-pregnant azure droplets like chalcedony falling heavily onto ferns, soaking into mosses. Rivulets forming, little rivers of sky pooling together to form bright blue puddles. Imagine you could take a gulp of that sky-water, holding in it the ozone of a thunderstorm and the brightness of a bluebird day, accented by the herbaceous flavors of the forest it picked up on its journey to you.
Water is healing. Listening to water, getting in water, drinking water. But it’s even more healing when you infuse it with fortifying and flavorful ingredients and even add a little of that stunning sky blue color, naturally. This drink holds the magic of the forest and the color of the sky. It’s the perfect pick-me-up tonic for a mermaid (or just someone nursing a hangover.) And it owes its color, flavor, and restorative qualities to a few fascinating ingredients.
There’s a very sweet treasure lurking among the mosses in the Pacific Northwest coastal rainforests… 3000 times sweeter than sucrose, in fact. I’m talking about licorice ferns, the evergreen epiphytes that grow on rock outcroppings and tree branches all winter in the coastal regions. Their rhizomes taste intensely sweet and licorice-y, making them one of the more unusual sources of flavor and sweetness in this region. Licorice ferns die off during the summer heat and then re-appear when the winter rains arrive and they grace the forest with their bright green fronds.
Licorice Fern’s scientific name is Polypodium glycolrrhiza, which comes from the Latin roots for ‘many feet’ and ‘sweet root.’ An apt name indeed for a sprawling rhizomatic root system that has a strong sweet anise flavor. The glucose in their rhizome plays an important role, too: it acts as an antifreeze, protecting the fern from damage by winter cold and enabling it to stay green and happy all winter. The sweet flavor also comes from ostadin, which is the steroidal compound 3000 times sweeter than sucrose.
These sweet rhizomes have been used by local tribes as a remedy for sore throats and colds, as a sweetener, and even an appetite stimulant. Different species of ferns in the same genus have been used in European folk medicine as well. You can gather your own in the winter and early spring of the Pacific Northwest. Just make sure you are 100% positive on your ID, and only take a small section of the root-like rhizome growing under the mat of moss. If you take too much, you could kill the plant. (Take note, too: in some areas it is illegal to forage licorice fern. Check your local laws before heading into the forest.)
A little note on safety: licorice ferns are known to contain an enzyme called thiaminase, which is known to deplete the Vitamin B complex that our bodies require to be healthy. A small amount will not pose a problem, but large amounts taken over a long period of time can be dangerous. It is believed that these effects might be counteracted by cooking or boiling, so it’s best to boil your fern rhizomes first to be safe and you should not make it a regular part of your diet. Anyone deficient in Vitamin B should avoid this herb as a general precaution. It’s a wonderful little occasional treat for those that eat an adequate diet full of B vitamins, though! Plus the other special ingredient adds a big boost of Vitamin B to help even things out.
As far as that beautiful aqua color in concerned, the secret is algae. Blue algae to be more specific. It’s usually marketed as E3 Live Blue Majik, which are high quality supplements made from a certain kind of spirulina-like algae. They can be a little expensive, but a little goes a long ways in adding stunning color and mineral goodness to a drink or cocktail. Blue-Green Algae is a nutrient powerhouse, full of protein, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. It has a strong mineral/sea flavor so you need to be careful to use it in small amounts or combine it with strong flavors that can mask it.
While algae might be in the spotlight as a trendy food ingredient right now, this is not the first time it has been used for its nutrition. Known as Dihe in Chad, a potent spirulina there is a rich source of protein, iron, and betacarotene and adds these valuable minerals to poor diets. Dihe is dried into thin biscuits and made into a bitter sauce. Tecuitlatl is the name of another example of spirulina being used as a healthy addition to diets, this time in the culture of the Aztec Empire. At this time it was added to tortillas and other dishes for its rich nutritional benefits and striking color. Fans of spirulina and algae claim that it gives them energy, elevates their mood, makes their immune systems stronger, and fight a number of other ailments from acne to cancer to aging. E3 Live hasn’t been on the market long enough to have long term scientific studies investigating its claims to health, but similar studies for spirulina look promising.
We combine these special ingredients with some other healthy additions as well: lemon juice and pear juice for flavor and brightness, and plenty of ginger to clarify the mind and soothe digestive upset. This leaves us with a beautiful blue drink that tastes amazing and makes you feel good; I think we can all get on board with that!
1 ripe pear
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 c. water
2” section licorice fern rhizome
A chunk of ginger about the size of your pinkie finger, chopped
ice and sparkling water, to serve
1 capsule (or 1/2 tsp.) blue spirulina algae
Bring the water to the saucepan and add the licorice fern rhizome, washed and sliced. Cook for 20 minutes over a simmer, then let the infusion cool. You can also add wild ginger roots or leaves at this point if you prefer the wildcrafted flavor over store bought ginger! Taste it - how strong does it taste to you? Licorice fern flavor and can vary dramatically so while one might taste very strongly of sweet licorice, some taste only mildly sweet and a little bitter. Decide how much of that flavor you want to come through, and all that amount to the blender with the licorice fern pieces included.
Cut the pear into sections and core it. Squeeze the fresh lemon juice. Slice the ginger into slices and add the pear, ginger, lemon juice, and licorice root tea to the blender. Mix well. (Alternatively, you could use a juicer for this step if you have one.)
Strain the puree through a coffee filter or very fine strainer. Add 1 capsule blue algae and mix well to remove any lumps. If you’d like to add a little sweetener to your drink, now is the time to also stir in a spoonful of honey or other natural sweetener.
Pour the mixture over crushed ice and top the glass with sparkling water to serve. Sip and allow the nourishment of the rainforest and ocean to fill your body with goodness!
A note: I prefer to drink this drink un-sweetened, as the licorice fern and pear juice both add a nice amount of sweetness and I like my drinks on the tart side. Be sure to taste the blend before you stir any honey in there and see if you like it that way too.
Notes on ingredients: If you don’t have access to licorice fern rhizomes, a couple of drops of anise extract will do in a pinch. If you don’t have blue-green algae, you can substitute spirulina or just leave it out entirely. You’ll be missing the beautiful color and health benefits of this addition, but the rest of the drink will still taste great and offer lots of benefits.
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