Welcome to the shrub club.
Eighteen years ago Tait Farm had a bumper crop of raspberries. "It was a pick-your-own situation," recalls Cindy Law, director of product and recipe development at the farm, "and no pickers came."
Overcome by thousands of berries, Law unearthed a recipe for a historic Colonial infusion using vinegar, honey and spices. The mixture, which sits for two to four weeks, provides a perfect solution for capturing the delicate flavors of seasonal fruit. Following in Martha Washington's footsteps, Law reintroduced the fruity, vinegary syrup known as shrub to Central Pennsylvania.
Philadelphians are blessed with being able to buy shrub from Tait's (quite possibly the only vendor in the country). Five flavors are available at the Pennsylvania General Store in Reading Terminal Market.
Law is quick to enumerate its many culinary uses: ginger shrub mixed with sweet potatoes, raspberry shrub lemonade, cranberry-maple whipped cream.
Shrub also stands in as a surprisingly good addition to cocktails. My discovery of the product coincided with a mournful realization I had recently while wandering the aisles of my favorite discount spirits shop: Knowing what I now know about ingredients in commercial mixes, I would likely never imbibe another whiskey sour again. Shrub saves the day. Tart and light, it offers an appealing alternative to heavy, artificial sour mixes.
City Tavern, which has done much to popularize shrubby goodness, called upon Tait's products for the last 14 years both behind the bar and in the kitchen. Customers can't get enough. "Serving a screwdriver or mimosa at a Sunday brunch? That is old news. Do a shrub, that's wonderful," says chef Walter Staib. ("And may I tell you about using it to deglaze cabbage rolls? Terrific!" he adds.)
Staib says the inclusion of an acidlike vinegar actually does more to quench thirst. He recommends mixing shrub with rum, whiskey, cognac or champagne. Adding 7Up or ginger ale gives fizz and eliminates the need for simple syrup. Staib reveals that a virgin raspberry shrub made with seltzer is Gov.Ed Rendell's favorite drink. In addition to politicians, the thirst-quencher might also appeal to sophisticated children.
The tang trend is starting to take hold. Mixologist Alexander Dartois will debut his Boys Gone Wild cocktail in mid-April at Valanni's spring relaunch. "We are in zee gayborhood, that is why we have zees title," explains the French-accented Dartois. "I wanted to do something different and I read an article about making cocktails using ingredients from the kitchen." Balsamic vinegar came to mind. It makes an appearance alongside blueberry vodka, strawberry liquor, white cranberry juice and champagne.
Introducing vinegar to mixed drinks may seem suspect, but the results are surprisingly refreshing and less cloyingly sweet. Shrub is one of the only pantry ingredients I can think of that can reasonably make an appearance in every course of a meal, from aperitif to salad to dessert. It pays homage to history, heralds spring and gives commercial mixes an inferiority complex.