Ever since announcing the launch of our first ever birch spirit last week, we've been giddy with excitement, passion and wonder, spending our early mornings anticipating the ever-filling cartons of nature's purest refreshment.
In all this anticipation, we wanted to dive more into the wonderful world of Birch sap, so we spoke to the Master of Birch himself, Rupert, to tap into his wisdom and passion for this glorious tree.
Why is the Birch tree so important to you at the Buck & Birch?
I grew up in various parts of the Highlands and it can be a bit bleak sometimes. I always thought the Birch was a really striking tree. Beautiful and bright and light and elegant, yet also rugged and strong. It’s always been there . Reassuring I suppose in some ways. When we first started at the Buck & Birch, I was getting into tapping the trees for the first time. I’d tried some amazing sap wine many years before and said that 'one day' I’d try my hand at it. We actually waited till the sap run started before we assembled our first set of guests just so we could have it to serve. It just seemed like the most magical thing ever and it never failed to delight. I didn’t have anything to do with the naming of the Buck & Birch, but it seemed clear that it was to be a continuing theme in my life. It’s apt that it’s seen as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It was very much us being led by the seasons and the offerings thereafter that dictated which foot we set off on and I’m convinced that it will set us in good stead.
Over the last twelve years, I’ve discovered more and more of the flavour secrets of the birch too and it really has become a marker and a guide for us, which is a bit woo-woo, but also true. In the latter months, they stand they’re all beautiful against the bleakness and darkness of winter and it never gets old knowing the excitement of sap season will set us all off again.
How would you describe the flavour of the sap?
It’s about 1% sugars and 99% tree filtered water. But the most delicious and refreshing water ever. Maybe what you would imagine water tasting like if it had been invented by wood nymphs and fairies. Crystal clear and indescribably pure, it is so refreshing straight from the tree with back notes of forest floor and the stirrings of spring in the air.
But it has more to offer too. Reduced down by half it takes on notes of popcorn and a nuttiness. It’s this that I like to use for ferments like the primrose and birch sap wine.
And the syrup?
Reduced further.... like much, much further, 100 litres of sap will yield about one litre of the richest tasting syrup. Think maple meets soy sauce almost, super sweet but also savoury. The lower sugar content means that reducing it to the same concentration gives elevated amounts of the minerals too. This paired with scallops or razor clams, drizzled on porridge or made into caramel is about as luxury as it gets.
What is your favourite way to use it?
I don't know if there is a favourite way to use it. It's always a crowd pleaser whether it's freeze thawed sap as a palate cleanser, Birch sap and elderflower champagne as aperitif, syrup, as a dressing or glaze or in caramels as a petit four. It's funny, when we were doing our 12 course dining events, we would work for days on dishes to try and impress folks and on the night, often the most talked about thing was just the fresh raw sap served as table water. Slightly frustrating but again it taught us that less is more and that for all the fancy ‘cheffy’ stuff, Mother nature is the real artist and sometimes you've just got to get out of the way and let her do her own talking. It's pure, clear and perfectly formed. All you have to do is just not mess it up. There's a lot to be taken from that.
Does it harm the tree?
Deciduous trees store sugar in the roots over winter as a store of energy used to open their buds and produce leaves in spring so they can start to photosynthesise, grow and make more sugar to store for next year. They send this sugar up with the rising sap and it is this we are tapping into.
Choose trees that are about 30cm in diameter, drill into a clean piece of bark and when the tree is tapped, take all the sap from that tree for one season. You would be amazed just how little of the total you will be taking and rest assured that if the tree is healthy to begin with and old enough to be that big, any harm you will do to it will be offset by the fact that it will likely be dead of old age before any infections from tapping finish it off. It's near impossible to stem the flow and so I'd rather take 50 litres from one tree than 5 litres from ten trees. It's a matter of reducing potential sites of infection. And do not plug the hole after. This is counter to about 99% of all the advice online, but is in line with the only academic study I've ever seen on the matter. When you think about it if you cut yourself do you cram dirty pieces of wood in the wound or let it bleed, heal and cover itself over? Trees have inbuilt healing mechanisms like producing flows of antiseptic sap to flush out infection and bark to close over the wound site if given the time and opportunity.
As a best practice tapped trees can be given two years to recover before tapping again. There aren't really any shortage of trees anyway but I like to plant the odd one too. Just because you can't have too much of a good thing.