A Boost for Botanicals

 
A Boost for Botanicals
Tincture is added to a soda at The Ice Cream Bar. Allen Clapp

A swallow of sassafras, a nibble of nettles, or a thirst for thistles?

No, these aren’t requests on your latest doctor’s prescription, but some of the things you could be having in restaurants these days.

Botanicals are hot on menus.

Chamomile crème brûlée and herbed ricotta dumplings with nettles have graced the menu daily at Poppy in Seattle. Chef Jerry Traunfeld, who’s also the author of books including The Herbal Kitchen, says he uses botanicals like these because they’re delicious. Health benefits are simply a plus.

“In a fine dining restaurant [consumers] are not choosing things because they think the herbs are medicinal. I do believe they are good for you in a lot of ways, but I don't cook with them because of that reason. I cook with them because they taste good. It’s more about new flavors, interesting ingredients.” 

But it’s true that botanicals such as juniper and chamomile are almost elixirs.

Nettles, for example, Traunfeld says, are “historically served as a spring tonic, full of vitamins. When I eat a bowl of nettle soup I feel like I'm doing something that's really good for my body.”

At San Francisco’s The Ice Cream Bar, which opened in January, all soda flavors derive from botanicals.

“It's where people got flavor before artificial flavorings,” says owner Juliet Pries, who counts 24 house-made extracts (bergamot, rosewood, sassafras) and more than 75 tinctures lined up on the bar.

“It is novel but we're trying to do it very authentically. Soda fountains started in pharmacies, so a lot of the herbs they gave people were for digestion or improving mood.”

Pries makes no medicinal claims and most customers simply want something novel and tasty to drink. “But people who are interested might order something they know is good for them: ‘I'm getting a cold, so give me some ginger.’”

Her ‘soda jerks’ are all mixologists, blending traditional phosphates and lactarts with the artisan aesthetic of the progressive cocktail movement—minus alcohol.

The New Orleans Hangover combines mood-enhancing St. John's wort with chicory, coffee, saffron and ice cream. The Panacea includes cinchona tincture (cinchona bark is the natural source of the quinine in tonic water, originally for medicinal use) with juniper aromatic, and lime, which gives it a gin and tonic tang.

“In this farm-to-table movement, even the average consumer is becoming so aware and more adventurous in [his or her] palate,” says Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at The Hartman Group.

“Incorporating thyme into streusel toppings, stepping outside the lines a little bit. It increases the consumers' repertoire of things they get to choose from.”

Back in February, the Hartman Group ran a webinar, Looking Ahead: Ingredient Trends 2012, which highlighted ingredients for wellbeing, including a growing interest in botanicals for new flavor combinations and possible herbal benefits.

The Hartman Group forecast, based on menu tracking, food industry developments, and research with cutting-edge consumers, speaks to a five- or 10-year trend of botanicals on menus, according to Abbott.

Restaurants might serve dandelion leaves instead of regular greens, she says (dandelion is said to help with detoxification, as are burdock and milk thistle), or chamomile in desserts to replace the traditionally relaxing chamomile tea at the end of a meal. Abbott tips highly nutritious nettles as a spinach replacement. “It also helps with allergies,” she says.

But like Traunfeld, Abbott says: “It's much more about offering new, interesting, novel flavors. The health aspects are a by-product.”

By Tania Casselle