Islander Zephir Plume is an adept of culinary arts and herbal medicine, a farmer, a forager, and a soon-to-be mama. On a recent midday afternoon at our splendid newly refurbished M.V. Museum, Plume spoke to an assembled crowd about her search for the wild roots, herbs, bark, and fruit that yield excellent bitters.
And what are bitters, you might ask. Bitters have two applications. One is as a medicinal picker-upper found in anti-parasitics such as quinine, and as a digestive aid, and laxative.
The second application entails the holy grail of taste treats. Bitters are a flavor agent. Although the word “bitter” suggests nothing you’d care to chew, drink, or swirl over your tongue, like any other supreme pleasure — sweet and bitter, light and shadow, joy and sorrow, beauty and decay — we need the full spectrum of all dualities to grasp the fullness of life. Consider this: Do you prefer the flat light of a grey sky over the ocean? Or sunshine twinkling through clouds creating dazzling ripples on the waves? Bitters in food and drink are like that — hybrid flavors make them sublime.
Bitters are made by infusing a neutral drink, often a spirit, with a number of aromatics, including spices, plants, roots, seeds, fruits, etc. Makers and users of bitters explain that they’re the spice rack of the cocktail world. Just as spice blends produce different flavor profiles, the bump-up occurs for bitters in drinks.
Plume shared her knowledge on how she makes bitters and delved into some of her favorite local ingredients. Yarrow is found in open fields and is native to our Island. Dandelion, bitter and sweet, was imported by colonists as a garden herb and now can be found in almost any open field — though we know it best as a lawn cover. Dandelion is a nutritious flower, high in vitamins A, C, and K, and it’s an antioxidant.
Another gift from the colonists is burdock, normally found on the edge of tree lines. Plume describes the taste as “earthy and bitter.” Rose petals, which are native to the northeast, are “a mild and bitter astringent with floral notes,” Plume said. Rose hips, the fruit of the rose plant, are “bright and crusty,” she said.
Then, there are blueberries — blueberries galore in our Vineyard summer. They’re native and can be found underfoot in many forests. “They add a fruity sweet note,” Plume said. And another favorite find of hers is American elderberry, which is native, abundant in wet areas, and also adds a fruity sweet note.
Plume describes how she makes tinctures from the bitters in their wild state, deploying an herb percolator, choosing flavors, steeping the spices, roots, and all else in jars of high-proof spirits. Then there’s waiting, straining, combining flavors, and sweetening.
The bitters-maker finds it advisable to only harvest herbs and fruits that can be found in abundance on the Island. It’s critical, of course, to take only plants that are non-toxic and can be used safely long-term. Of great interest was what Plume called “Foraging 101”.
“First, you’ve got to know your poisonous plants, know endangered plants, choose unpolluted areas, harvest only what you can use, where plants grow in abundance and, in that situation, only harvest a maximum of 20 percent,” Plume told the group.
And finally, “Ask permission before foraging on private property.” You would think this goes without saying, but one can only imagine a dinner party where people tell stories of herbal poachers caught behind the saltwater grotto.
Plume brought in a collection of her bottled bitters — small glass jars with a dropper attached to the cap, a “Dandy Bitters” label stamped on the side. Dandy Bitters is Plume’s bitters business under the Edible Wellness brand, which has served the Island since 2013. Bitters are consumed in small quantities, not to be confused with potable bitters like bitter liqueurs or Amari, which are sold by the ounce.
Bitters sit at the crossroads of health and wellness, and food and drink — a marriage of Plume’s passions. It won’t be long before she’s sharing her wisdom-in-the-wild with her newborn — a future cultivator, perhaps, who will follow her on her forays into Vineyard fields and forests for the perfect Island ingredients.