Lynda Hallinan: Infuse (and lift) your spirits with foliage this autumn

Lynda Hallinan's peach leaf liqueur.
Sally Tagg/Foggydale Farm

Lynda Hallinan's peach leaf liqueur.

OPINION: Autumn: it turns out I've been doing it all wrong. For the past few weeks I've been dutifully raking up leaves to layer-upon-layer, à la Sara Lee pastry, in my compost heap when I could have been drowning them in drink.

I blame The National Library and The Waikato Times for this seasonal revelation. Had the former not archived the latter in its online repository, Papers Past, I would never have stumbled across an 1873 column headlined Facts for Farmers. One of those facts was particularly peachy. "The leaves of the peach, steeped in gin or whisky, communicate a flavour resembling that of noyeau," it read.

Noyeau, for those not yet in the know, is a ancient European liqueur made from blanched bitter almonds or apricot kernels steeped in barrels of whiskey then sweetened with sugar. It tastes like Italian amaretto, though that tends to be made with brandy as a base.

Lynda Hallinan with her peach leaf gin.
Sally Tagg/Foggydale Farm

Lynda Hallinan with her peach leaf gin.

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I'm already a fan of dousing damsons in gin, steeping summer raspberries in vodka, immersing cranberries in cognac and dunking dried apricots in whiskey, but I'd never thought that fruit tree foliage could also impart flavour.

Last year, my husband and I, along with a busload of other civil contractors and their wives, went to a bar in Houston, Texas, that boasts the world's largest collection of infused tequilas. El Big Bad, which describes itself as "a feisty gastro-cantina", has a floor-to-ceiling cabinet filled with large glass jars like the ones in which rabbit foetuses and other unmentionables were embalmed in our high school science laboratory.

El Big Bad's collection included tequila infused with dark chocolate, cranberry, melon and peach, plus more experimental concoctions such as beef jerky and chorizo.

Unlike craft beers, feijoa wines and fancy ciders, infused liqueurs are much easier to make and much less open to corruption by feral yeasts during the fermentation process, as few bugs can survive a disinfectant drench with top shelf spirits.

It took a week for my peach leaf gin, made from the last few dozen rust-spotted leaves still clinging to my 'Maycrest' tree, to develop a strong marzipan flavour. I was so chuffed that I was immediately prompted to pluck clean my 'Golden Queens' too, only this time I steeped the leaves in wine. (If only I'd picked them all before they'd started to fall, I could have halted the spread of leaf curl and brown rot fungal spores at the same time.)

Australian domestic doyenne Stephanie Alexander and Paris food blogger David Lebovitz have both published recipes for fortified peach-leaf ratafia or vin de pêche. Alexander uses white wine, while Lebovitz prefers a French red. But I reckon if you're making a truly frugal libation, why not just use chateau cardboard from Countdown?

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To make vin de peche, Lebovitz steeps 40-50 peach (or cherry) leaves in a bottle of red wine, adding 3 tablespoons cognac or brandy and 90g sugar. Strain after 10-14 days; he says it'll keep for up to a year in the fridge.

Alexander's version uses 60 leaves per bottle of white wine, plus a cinnamon stick, 2 cloves, 100g sugar and 1/2 cup vodka, eau-de-vie or brandy. Steep for 10 days, then strain and bottle. When serving, she suggests slipping in a teaspoon of peach liqueur per glass to enhance the flavour.

I chucked several hundred ratty looking peach leaves into a large Tupperware container, drained in an entire cask of white wine, added 1 cup sugar, 1 cup of vodka and a scattering of fresh cardamom. It's my spice du jour as I brought home a packet of green pods from India last month and I'm determined to use them all before pantry moths get a look-in.

Teetotallers can infuse peach leaves with rose petals, mint, lemon zest and manuka honey to make herbal teas or cordials, or try another of Alexander's tricks and infuse your next pot of custard with peach leaves for an almond-flavoured trifle.

Incidentally, peach foliage isn't the only greenery worth guzzling. In Ireland, the tender spring leaves of beech trees are steeped in gin to make a liqueur with "burnt toffee aromas and a pleasant woodiness", while kaffir lime leaves impart a zesty punch to vodka. Fresh fig leaves (cook in sugar syrup first) apparently make for a mellow liqueur, and why mulch your bay tree prunings when you could put down a batch of grassy-green Italian liquore alloro instead?

Garden maintenance has never been so appetising.

 - Sunday Star Times

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