Will this liquid change how you drink water?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
For thousands of years, people across the northern hemisphere have toasted the onset of spring with birch water – a non-alcoholic delicacy that can only be tapped while the tree’s sap is rising, as it is over the next few weeks. Birch water, or sap, is not sticky like maple syrup; it’s closer in taste and texture to coconut water. It’s soft and refreshing with a slight leafiness on the finish, reminiscent of sweetened tea. (Like coconut water, it’s also often dubbed a “superfood” on account of its mineral content, but the jury’s still out on this.)
“We serve it instead of tap water during the spring,” says Niklas Ekstedt, chef-proprietor of Stockholm’s acclaimed Ekstedt restaurant. “It has a really pure flavour with a nice acidity to it and is best served with a little bit of ice. We often make a sorbet out of it too as it has a really natural taste, unlike maple which has quite a distinct flavour to it.”
Birkentree, from the Highlands of Scotland, is bottled specially for mixing with whisky. “It has a silky mouthfeel that coats your palate, and a hint of sweetness that really sings with a dram,” says Birkentree co-founder and herbalist Gabrielle Clamp. The sap is sourced from a sustainably managed forest in Perthshire run by Clamp’s forester husband Rob. The trees are tapped through a small hole that’s then “re-plugged” – they siphon off less than two per cent of the liquid the tree draws up each day, so, I’m told, it does the tree no harm. Birkentree is £7.95 for 100ml – almost as dear as whisky – so you won’t want to knock it back; but a judicious drop definitely brings something to a dram. (If you’re not strict about mixing with Scottish water, then Tapped’s cartons of Finnish sap are also worth a try; £2.40 for 250ml, ocado.com.)
Euforia birch saps from the Czech Republic are macerated with fruits to give them an extra “wash” of flavour and colour. The violet-hued Rybíz (£16) is steeped with blackcurrant; but it’s the raspberry-coloured Vinné Červené (£16, both basketpresswines.com) I liked most – kissed with St Laurent and Cabernet Franc grape skins, and a little natural fizz, it’s as refreshing as watermelon juice, with a slightly tannic finish.
Birch sap can also be fermented, for a rather stronger hit. Swedish brand Sav makes a range of drinks including a birch sap sparkling wine (£24.99, pictured top) and a botanical aperitif (£29.99; both scandikitchen.co.uk) – or “glögg” – that tastes like a bianco vermouth.
Sav’s founder, “eco-engineer” Peter Mosten, decided to try his hand at birch-sap wine after discovering a Swedish recipe in a book from 1785. “My first attempts to recreate it were terrible,” he laughs, “but I eventually found a way.” Each spring Mosten taps up to 250 trees (they’re then given a five-year rest). “It’s hard work, but being in the forest is marvellous,” he says. “There’s still snow on the ground but the sun is warm, and you know the days are getting longer, so it fills me with happiness.”