Driftless Terroir: Local Spices Propel Us Toward ‘Juicy’ New Traditions

by Keith Burrows

Here in the Driftless Area, we have the good fortune to have access to a variety of locally produced foods. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and, of course, dairy products can all be locally sourced. There is one thing that can be hard to find locally, though: spices. And it’s not that we don’t cook with plenty of spices around here. The Cornish miners who settled in Mineral Point brought with them a taste for saffron bread; a tradition that has survived enough so that you can still buy saffron at Ivey’s Pharmacy on High Street, or saffron bread at the Red Rooster. From spicy brown mustard on brats to hot chili peppers in burritos, to the warm, fragrant spices in Swedish meatballs — we love spice. But we don’t generally grow or forage many of them.

One spice you can easily harvest locally is sumac. I find a lot of people believe sumac to be poisonous; but this is true only of a particular species and in late summer when you would harvest the berries it is impossible to confuse the staghorn sumac with the poisonous kind. If the berries form red cones then they are safe to eat. Poisonous sumac has berries that turn from green to white in late summer. The plants themselves are also easy to distinguish with a little experience. Perhaps because of this mistaken belief, sumac does not seem to have made its way into the pantries of many local cooks.

Leslie was walking in the woods near Mineral Point and came across a cluster of prickly ash shrubs loaded with Szechuan peppercorns. She and Keith went back later in the year to harvest them, and delivered them to Melissa so she could make a full batch of the chocolates.

This winter I read in this very column about another spice that can be found locally: the Szechuan pepper. (See Driftless Terroir: Wild Szechuan Peppercorns and Our Taste of Place, by Erin Crooks-Lynch, February 2018.) I was, frankly, a little shocked. Szechuan peppers, if you are not familiar with them, cause a distinct numbing, tingling sensation. This effect, which is similar to the heat of a pepper in some ways, but without the associated pain, has long been one of my favorite parts of Szechuan cooking in dishes like Mapo Tofu. How had I not know they grew wild in Wisconsin?

I contacted Erin Crooks Lynch of Enos Farms (the writer of the article) and she gave me some tips for finding the peppers, which (as she explained in her article) are not actually peppers or peppercorns, rather they are the fruit of the prickly ash, and part of the citrus family. She also extended an invitation to come foraging for them on her farm later that year, and she even gave me a jar of the peppers they had harvested last year.

The flavor of the wild Szechuan peppers was quite different than what I was used to from those imported from Asia. The initial burst of taste was strongly, but pleasantly, floral, and that was followed by an earthy, orange flavor. The taste was great, but after a few seconds I begin to wonder whether these peppers did not have the numbing effect. It took half a minute or so but, sure enough, then I begin to feel the telltale tingling on my lips that lasted (from a single pepper) over five minutes. The tingling, by the way, is believed to be caused by a molecule called hydroxy alpha sanshool, an alcohol found in the fruit that bears a chemical resemblance to capsaicin, the molecule that provides the heat in chili peppers.

Keith read Erin’s articles on local Szechuan peppercorns and sumac and inspired Melissa to create a new autumn chocolate.

A few months after that first taste, I was still obsessing over Szechuan peppers. I happened to bring the subject up with Melissa Langholff, the chocolatier at Sjölinds in Mount Horeb, and she said she had been looking for more local flavors to incorporate into her chocolates; she thought Szechuan peppers might be a good fit so I gave her some of the peppers from Erin. After some testing in the kitchen, Melissa figured out that the floral orange flavor of the Szechuan peppers went really well with the earthy lemon flavor of sumac — that other wonderful local spice. She says that, when combined with the tartness of the sumac, the Szechuan pepper flavor becomes wonderfully juicy. I have tasted the bars myself now, and I’d say anyone who likes the combination of chocolate and orange will love these, but there is a complexity and subtleness that elevates it beyond that traditional combination.

Around the same time Melissa was developing her recipe, my partner, Leslie, was walking in the woods near Mineral Point and came across a cluster of prickly ash shrubs, loaded with Szechuan peppers. We went back later in the year to harvest them, and delivered them to Sjölinds so they could make a full batch of the chocolates. Their Sumac & Szechuan bars are available at either of their Mount Horeb locations. Melissa says she loves how the flavor came out and she is intending to make the bars an autumn tradition.

In a neat bookend to this story, Enos Farms’ Erin Crooks Lynch and her husband, Jeremy, were able to feature Sjölinds truffles flavored with Szechuan peppers as a surprise dessert at their annual Harvest Moon dinner in September. In less than a year’s time, Erin’s article in this column went from an idea to a brand new product that represents the local character of the Driftless, and to her own table. How awesome is that?

I’m convinced that this isn’t the end of the story, or at least it need not be. If I didn’t know about the Szechuan peppers growing down the street from me until last year, what else am I missing? If you know about other great local spices or if you have a favorite use for sumac or Szechuan peppers, drop me a line: I’d love to hear about it.

Keith Burrows is a scientist with Cardinal Glass and lives in Mineral Point. He and Leslie Damaso publish the popular Driftless Appetite blog at www.driftlessappetite.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, write us at info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.