The gangster, as is vogue, really likes bitter stuff: raddichio, chicory, grapefruit, hops, Campari, Cynar, crushed aspirin, what have you. Underberg, a German digestive made from, among other things, gentian roots has been, in flush times, a staple of my house. But, at five or six bucks for a box of three adorable single-serving glass bottles, this thistly ambrosia has become (perhaps fortunately as drinking herbal extracts to excess is a prescription for headache) mostly an occasional indulgence. A few years ago, when the stuff was a common sight not only in my liquor cabinet, but also in these bizarre bandoliers that hung in bars all around town, I paused in the garden to taste an herb that had always eluded me: Rue, Ruta graveolens, and I rue not that day. It occurred to me that it had a burnt asphalt and aggressive green quality, not unlike that of Underberg. So I cut some branches of it and drowned it in Everclear.
I want to write of the history of rue, its names and significances and the significance of its name, but I’m doing this shit for free so you’ll just have to accept what I read on the internet. Ruta apparently just means rue, because it’s been around Europe that long. The graveolens part means “heavily scented.” There is common internet agreement that the word rue as in regret comes from some folk association with the herb itself. As you can imagine, the internet is all over the place on what, exactly, this association is. I’m not going to feed into the internet superstition machine, not that I’m not curious. Let me postulate that it has something to do with the fact that rue has long been, and still apparently is, considered an abortifacient. And this nutty Ukrainian song (oh my god, you’ve got to hear it performed) seems to support that theory. (Maybe it really is an abortifacient, here’s a you tube video where a crazy guy explains the danger of using rue that he apparently sells to induce labor. Whoa! You mean women been trying to cure pregnancy since they’ve been getting pregnant? Who’d have thunk?)
Let’s move along…. Infusing booze is not difficult. Put the flavor in the booze and let it sit for a few weeks or months, strain. After 4 months, I strained the Everclear from the rue, cut it with water to about 40% alcohol, and added sugar until it didn’t burn the throat too much. Then I capped it and set it in the basement to mature for a few months. This was pretty good. Not as complex, floral and aromatic as Underberg, but not bad. One problem was that I got to the Rue late in the season, when the flowers had all set seed and the stems were all twiggy. The flavor was woody and somewhat harsh. This year I got to it earlier, probably back in May or June, and it’s definitely improved. I used the yellow flowers along with leaves, in the hopes that they would impart a little sweetness from their nectar. And they may well have, but tasting something as subtle as the nectar of tiny flowers through pure grain alcohol and the powerful bitterness of rue leaves is for a palate more refined than mine.
It turns out that, surprise, I haven’t discovered anything new. They’ve been making Grappa alla Ruta in the Vicenza region of Italy for a long time and it seems to go for $30-$50 a liter. Good luck finding it locally.
Outside of its pregnancy-ending properties, rue is apparently used medicinally in parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. It may settle the stomach from overindulgence, which is what virtually all bitter liqueurs are intended to do, and in my experience they’re pretty effective for this purpose. But, as you can imagine, a lot of folk pharmacopeia credit the herb with an entire range of healing properties. There is at least one (well, the one I stumbled across) recorded case of a little old Taiwanese woman drinking too much rue tea for her heart condition and being admitted to the hospital for acute renal failure. But she was 78, and on other medication, and so forth. I’m just saying, just because it’s an herb, don’t think it’s harmless. Rue is also known to cause blisters on skin exposed to first the herb, then sunlight. That’s called phytophotodermatitis ya’ll. Also, it just makes some people real sick. But a Gangster ain’t scared. Wait, what’s this study? “Immobilization effect of Ruta graveolens L. on human sperm: A new hope for male contraception,” nope still not scared. A little excited actually. Ladies, men, avoid this stuff if you want babies. Come to think of it, maybe you should just avoid it altogether. This shit is too dangerous for gen pop.
Can you cook with it? Most people on the internet complain that rue stinks (because they’re a bunch of crybabies). The only people who talk about it are woo-woo herbalists who seem to figure it can cure everything from flatulence to diabetes. Have you ever noticed that every herb, spice and mineral seems to have the power of an entire pharmacy? Here’s a tweet from so long ago that the bit-link is no longer active: Lamb roasted with rue, garlic and honey. Sounds good to me.
Here’s a recipe for a rue and plum sauce: “Pound together the black pepper, cumin seeds, lovage (or celery) seeds and rue (or rosemary) in a mortar. Add the damsons and pound until smooth. Now work in the white wine, honey, vinegar and liquamen (fermented fish intestines, also known as garum). Then mix with a little of the stock. Turn the mixture into a pan then beat in the remaining meat stock. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced and thickened. Pour over the meat and serve.” Now that recipe, according to a local woo-woo, could raise the dead.