An unlikely venue for authentic, the morning finds us climbing the mythical Hollywood Hills on a leisurely, two hour, up-hill forage in the heart of LA. We're starting at Mt. Lee walking the morning to relish a breathtaking view... the backside of the Hollywood sign framing the city below as it edges to greet the ocean. The culmination will be an afternoon imbibing handcrafted, herb-infused cocktails in a swank Hollywood bar. For us, the day has the makings of a exotic Hollywood dream.
Our host for this adventure, hipster forager and craft bartender Naomi Schimek led us through the Hollywood hills, her urban resource since moving to LA in 1998. As an LA native myself, I've hiked this famous trail, but this time I was awakening to a new appreciation for these hills.
Born and raised in rural Vermont, Naomi's ability to pluck from hills goes back to childhood summers spent with bread and cheese in pocket, disappearing to forage throughout the day, sucking red clover, eating berries, apples and other edibles from the countryside. Today, she was collecting what the mountains gifted for the week, providing the raw ingredients for her unique tinctures and custom liqueurs... that and "to look for the peace of mind nature provides."
For Naomi, LA provides the best of all worlds for the forager, a continual availability of seasonal spices, herbs and plants, ingredients for her passion, the handcrafted cocktail. On this cool morning, she was hunting wild mustard seed, horehound, bay laurel and wild fennel. As the sun warmed the hillside, she educated us on the local edibles, as the aroma of the chaparral and her herbal clippings enhanced the anticipation of mid-afternoon... yum... an invitation to taste test many of her creations.
Later, in the quiet of The Spare Room where Naomi is the Beverage Director, she shared her secrets for making some of the best handcrafted cocktails in town. The herbs, fruits and spices she gathers are used in the development of a "liquid spice rack" that infuses her drinks. The natural properties found in plants such as mustard and fennel, are slowly extracted by soaking in grain alcohol over 100 proof. Everclear is her favorite medium since it doesn't leave a residual aroma the way a typical vodka would. The result is a tincture, "an extraction that obviates texture and visual issues," that might not be desirable in a drink. The tinctures are measured carefully into cocktails with an eyedropper for precise control of their strong flavor, which includes cardamom, coriander and clove. To heighten sensory sensation, she often sprays the essence across the top of the glass with an atomizer for scent, or sprays the cocktail napkin.
Naomi's craft bartending skills are essentially self-taught, though well supported by voracious reading, scientific research and energetic experimentation. California plant identification is informed by her favorite go-to resource, the Fire Department Guides on brush clearing. Naomi's creations are made with ingredients that she grew herself, are from friend's gardens, from the weekly farmer's market, or are foraged from the those illustrious hills. She grows many favorites in her own garden, herbs mostly since she "has no time for vegetables, just herbs, because herbs are like cats."
Paralleling the locavore food movement, the craft bartender scene in LA has taken off in recent years. A tight knit community, the practitioners share recipes, ingredients, tips and spirit throughout dozens of locales. A "foremother" of the scene, Naomi starting using these alternative ingredients and inventing new drink sensations more than a dozen years ago as a personal hobby, that has now blossomed into expertise valued at the highest levels of the bar scene.
Naomi's other passion is creating unique liqueurs from her foraged ingredients. "Complexity breeds wonderful liqueurs" is her motto and she includes additional natural ingredients such as pink peppercorns, lovage, purple-flowering sage, angelica, coriander seed or lemon verbena for multi-dimensional flavors. Salt, sugar and alcohol act as mediums that extract the flavor properties, working as dehydrators. Naomi uses mathematical formulas to arrive at the ideal alcohol content for a liqueur of 80 proof, combining higher and lower alcohol content ingredients for the final, artistically determined, flavor.
The liqueur program at The Spare Room is a time-consuming process based on local harvest, making it "the best of last season's foraging." An art form to produce good clarity in liqueurs, Naomi's latest line-up includes Lemon Myrtle from fall 2011, Chester Blueberry Vanilla, Kumquat and Black Pepper, Mulberry and Golden State Limancello. Here's the low-down on Naomi's technique for making various extractions and a favorite recipe.
Naomi's creativity aligns with The Spare Room's ultra-chic, retro-vibe. For a sense of now, house recipes include the original beer cocktail Mountain Song made from fennel pollen infused Bols Genever, Benedictine, lager beer, lemon and black truffle salt. For a sense of sentiment, other house drinks are interpretive of famous bar classics such as the Mint Julep and the Moscow Mule. For a sense of continuity, Naomi uses 1950's Jell-O molds as ice sculpture to float in vintage silver punch bowls filled with delectable mixes.
Naomi's passion, research and experimentation is a reflection of man's universal desire to reconnect with the earth... think "Avatar". Let's ground ourselves and toast to this urban romance of the locavore movement.