I have to thank, Kiva Rose, our host for the August Herbwifery Forum blog party, for introducing me to the delights of mixing herbs with honey and encouraging my alcohol purchasing to include brandy as well as vodka.
Three years ago Kiva talked about making elderberry elixir. I experimented. It was wonderful. Everyone who tried it experienced a moment of bliss as they savoured and swallowed a tiny dropperful.
“Do I have to be ill to drink this?” they asked. I just smiled and told them it was up to them.
Last year my bergamot (monada didyma) and wild bergamot (monada fistulosa) danced over the herb bed in red and purple profusion. Kiva talked about making infused honeys with these herbs so I made some. They were so beautiful and smelled so wonderful, I haven’t had the heart to eat them. They sit in the cupboard and are brought out during workshops and talks for people to smell and taste (and drool over!).
Interestingly, the first herbal honey I made was sage, way back in the late 1990s. I really didn’t like the flavour and it sat in the larder for a long while before I threw it out. I know now, I didn’t put enough plant material with the honey. I’m waiting to harvest from my aunt’s huge sage plants and try making the honey again. I can think of nothing better than sage honey with sage vinegar as a winter drink when sore throats threaten.
I’ve noticed that herbs alter the consistency and the sweetness of honey. Using fresh herbs makes the honey far more runny and the bergamot/rose/evening primrose combination is much less sweet. My elderberry honey started growing mould when I tried to infuse it in the hot cupboard, but is fine, twelve months later in the fridge. My husband complained about berries floating around in his drink, but it didn’t stop him using it when he was feeling under the weather.
Everyone thought I was mad mixing grated horseradish with honey until they tried it. The result is a perfect accompaniment to fire cider vinegar.
I make my honeys the same way I do everything else – fill a glass jar full of plant material and cover with honey. I then screw on the lid tightly, label and date and leave it for 3-4 weeks. Most of them go in the warm cupboard to infuse, but I keep a close eye on them, in case they need to infuse in a cold place, like the elderberries.
The plant material always travels to the top of the honey and I don’t bother to strain it before use. If you don’t like bits of leaf or petal or grated root floating around in your drink or on your porridge, then it is advisable to strain the honey after a suitable infusion time.
The wonderful extension to herbal honeys is an elixir. Kiva has said that any aromatic plant can be used, especially those of the mint family. This information gave me permission to play with combinations and it has been such fun creating an elixir from whatever happens to be flowering in the garden around me.
So far I have created four different elixirs:-
Respiratory: flowering thyme, purple sage leaves and fennel
Uplifting: St Johns wort flowers, rose petals, lemon balm leaves, violet leaves, alpine strawberry leaves, heartease aerial parts.
Cooling: red bergamot leaves and flowers, marigold flowers, flowering thyme
Colds/coughs: peppermint, flowering thyme, sage leaves (purple & green), yarrow leaves, rose petals, self-heal.
I can’t wait to taste them, but suspect they won’t be ready until we return from holiday towards the end of August.
My method is to gather a basketful of different herbs, cut them up into inch or so pieces with scissors until they half fill a two pound glass jar. I then cover them with a jar full of honey. It used to be 1lb, but the jars are now smaller since honey is more expensive and they’ve gone to metric measures. When all air bubbles have been removed from the mixture with a chopstick, I fill the jar to the brim with brandy, then stir again, refilling if necessary. When the lid is firmly screwed on, the jar is labelled and dated then put away in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks.
We made the “Cooling” elixir during my last workshop. Everyone took turns stirring the mixture to remove air bubbles. The scent was amazing with the combination of bergamot, thyme and honey and again when brandy was added. You could see people delighting in the pleasure they received from their senses as they worked together.
Cordials are another delicious way of preserving a herbal harvest. Not only are they a pleasure to drink, but they are a wonderful ambassador for herbs when you have a sceptical audience. For the past two years, I’ve been giving talks about herbs to older people who live in sheltered housing or residential homes owned by an organisation my employer has a relationship with. As employees, we are allowed time to give talks, help with gardening or decoration or activity sessions.
The residents were not at all sure when I talked about nettles and hawthorn berries, but they were very enthusiastic about elderflower cordial and my spiced hedgerow cordial. There are lots of recipes for cordials. I have already written several articles about elder. You can read them here and here
These are other cordials and syrups I’ve been very pleased with. Although syrups are generally thicker than cordials, I tend to use them in the same way, making them into drinks as well as adding them to porridge or rice pudding. You could also make savoury versions, like haw-sin sauce, and use them as a dipping sauce for meat or vegetables. Recipes for two more rose syrups can be found here.
1oz cinnamon (in sticks or powdered)
1oz cloves (whole or powdered)
1 inch root ginger (grated)
¼ pt alcohol
Cover blackberries with smallest amount of water. Add prepared spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Mash blackberries, strain and measure liquid (should be around 1pint). Clean saucepan, pour liquid back into saucepan together with 1lb honey or sugar per pint of liquid. Heat gently, stirring until honey is dissolved. Add 1/4pint of alcohol of choice. Pour into hot, sterile bottles, seal. Label and date.
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
1.8 kg granulated sugar
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.
Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
Small bowl of blackberries and rosehips
1 inch of fresh ginger root peeled and chopped (or you could grate it whole)
3/4 nutmeg grated
1 cinnamon stick broken up
Juice of a lemon
alcohol of your choice (brandy, sherry, a good whiskey, vodka etc)
Wash the blackberries and rosehips. Place in a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with water. Simmer over a low heat for half an hour. Mash the blackberries and rosehips to a pulp with a potato masher and cook on the lowest heat for another 15-30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a plastic sieve and measure the volume. Wash out the saucepan. Return the liquid to the pan together with a lb of runny honey for every pint of liquid. Heat gently until honey is dissolved. Add juice of a lemon. This can now be poured into clean, sterile bottles and sealed and kept in the fridge to use with children and anyone who doesn't like/can't have alcohol. To preserve the syrup without keeping in fridge (but in a cold place) add alcohol to taste. I had a pint of liquid originally to which I added a lb of honey which gave around 2 pints of syrup so I poured out one jar then added about 1/2 pint of Madeira to the remaining syrup. I probably could have added less. Both taste wonderful!
Pick an amount of fresh dandelions, red clover flowers and stalks and hawthorn flowers. Remove the dandelion petals and centres from any green bits. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain and measure liquid. Clean saucepan. Return liquid to the pan and simmer with the lid off until the liquid is reduced by 7/8s. Add honey in the ratio of 1pint to1lb honey. Stir gently until honey is dissolved. Pour into heated, sterilized bottles. Seal when cold. Label and date.
375g haws (hawthorn berries)
200g runny honey
250ml cider vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
Wash haws in cold water and remove stalks. Cook in saucepan with water and cider vinegar for 45 minutes until soft. Sieve through metal sieve pushing through as much softened material as possible. Measure liquid. Clean saucepan. Return liquid to saucepan adding honey to liquid in equal volume (100ml:100g). Heat gently while stirring with wooden spoon until honey is dissolved. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Cook for a further 5-10 minutes if you wish to reduce the amount of liquid and thicken the syup. Pour into hot, sterile bottles. Seal, label and date.
Herbs can be made into wonderful liqueurs. I use Christina Stapley’s basic recipe to invent my own combinations.
1 75cl bottle of vodka
1/2 cup of lemon balm leaves
7 cloves (or less, the original recipe uses 1 tsp)
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp carraway seeds
2 tsps grated lemon or orange rind
3 tsps marjoram leaves
Wash and chop the herb leaves, adding the spirit with the pounded seeds and cloves and grated lemon rind. The cloves should be measured whole, but ground before adding. Leave to steep in a tightly closed jar in a warm dark place, swirling daily for 6-7 weeks. Filter and sweeten to taste with approximately 1/2-1 cup of sugar or honey before labelling in the original bottle and maturing for at least a year. A soothing liqueur for troubled spirits.
To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years).
The wonderful thing about preserving your herbal harvest with honey is that it makes you smile. You smile when you’re creating it, you smile when you taste and you smile as you gently sip when the heat of summer has gone.