Amy Zavatto spent many a childhood summer day eating wild berries with her sisters, fetching fresh ingredients for dinner from the local farm stand, rummaging through her parents’ garden and exploring their acre of land on Shelter Island to her heart’s content.“So, beautiful, fresh food truly was a given,” she said during a recent interview, adding, “It’s impossible not to be drawn outside there.”
The same could not be said of her digs in Manhattan, where she moved in 1986. The culture shock she felt would be an understatement, she explained, until she moved to Staten Island 12 years ago. For the first time in a quarter century, she had a backyard. It was overgrown, but it was something. It was a start.
Slowly, Ms. Zavatto found herself getting back to nature, distinguishing the tangled weeds from what turned out to be delicious plants she combined with her cocktails—muddling them, pickling them, using some even as garnish—and recently compiled what she’s learned into her new how-to book, “Forager’s Cocktails.”
The Press: What made you decide to write “Foragers Cocktails”?
Amy Zavatto: Several years ago, I used to write a column for the Staten Island Advance on cocktails, and I found, more often than not, I was thoroughly inspired by things I found at my local green market—concord grapes, gooseberries, fresh chamomile, etc.—and I started coming up with different cocktails that employed these things. When my publisher approached me last year with the idea of doing a book based on fresh cocktails, the stars pretty much aligned.
Do you remember when you mixed fresh ingredients in a cocktail for the first time?
Zavatto: In the late aughts, I went to Tales of the Cocktail for the first time. It’s a huge spirits and cocktail conference that happens in New Orleans every July. It’s amazing! The best producers and bartenders in the industry from around the world get together and give seminars and demos on both spirits and cocktail history, as well as what’s really creative and exciting right now.
I remember going to a cocktail-pairing dinner at a restaurant called Iris, where Allen Katz—who is now the distiller and co-owner of one of New York’s best distilleries, New York Distilling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—was making all these amazing drinks for the meal. He was using fresh herbs and fruits, not just as garnishes but as ingredients in the drinks, and I remember being really blown away by how totally elevated in flavor those drinks were.
It was a true “A-ha!” moment. Allen wrote the foreword to my book, by the way. I was really honored that the person who kind of pointed me in this direction agreed to put some words down for “Forager’s Cocktails.” He’s a rock star and a really talented, lovely person.
Do you come out to the Hamptons often?
Zavatto: I spend pretty much every weekend at my house on the North Fork in Greenport, and often ride my bike over the ferry to see my dad and my sister, Linda, who still live on Shelter Island. This past Indian Summer, she and I had a banner beach plum picking session. That fruit is sitting in an enormous jar on my home bar infusing with some gin right now. It smells amazing.
I definitely love heading to the South Fork, too, especially in the off-season, when things quiet down. I’m also the drinks columnist for Hamptons magazine, so I definitely sneak over as much as I can to check out what’s new.
What is your favorite go-to winter beverage?
Zavatto: From the book, I really love the Wilds of Manhattan, because it’s a drink that can be made using pretty much entirely locally sourced ingredients. It’s a true New York cocktail in both creation and name. I love Rich Stabile’s whiskeys over at LiV, and both his Rough Rider bourbon and rye are great in this drink.
For vermouth, I go straight to Adam Ford’s spicy, savory, delicious Armadillo Cake, which is made using Long Island wine at its base. The bitters I whip up myself and the pièce de résistance, because it was truly the ingredient that inspired this little riff on the classic drink: Westhampton Beach-sourced brandied crab apples. I get them from my friend Ray Dowd’s yard there, and his better half, Isabel Vincent, taught me to preserve them.
For a non-book drink: Sazerac! I come from a long line of whiskey lovers, on both the Italian and Irish side of the family. It’s kind of in the blood.
Do you have any pointers for beginner foragers?
Zavatto: Yes! Start with your own backyard—that’s what I did. As long as you’re not spraying chemicals everywhere, get out there and see what you’ve got. Rose petals and rose hips are a great place to kick things off, because most people seem to have them or access to them. As long as they haven’t been sprayed, nab those petals once they’re on the turn.
Personally, my first exciting bit of foraging was with the sassafras saplings that grow everywhere in my backyard in Staten Island, where my husband and I live during the week. They used to be the bane of my existence, until one day I said, “You know, these actually smell kind of good. What is it and what can I do with it?” Then the floodgates opened.
I would also recommend hitting up a website like Wildman Steve Brill, an amazing, very experienced forager in New York City. And if you can get on one of his walks, do it.
Also, read anything by Marie Viljoen, who is not only a beautiful writer but just really knows her stuff, and try to do one of her wild food walks in New York City, too.