With the modern emphasis on reducing amounts of simple carbohydrates we ingest, it may seem strange to think about the production of sugar or honey based recipes. Unless you are faced with someone suffering from diabetes or Syndrome X, there are good reasons for delivering herbal medicines in a syrup.
Children are much more likely to take their medicine if they are syrup based (and personally I would much rather give them a small dose of sugar rather than a mouthful of artificial sweeteners!). Syrups can also be helpful when you are using very bitter or bad tasting herbs (remembering not to do this if you are taking a bitter which much be tasted to kick start your digestive processes.) They can also be fun, allowing you to match flavours and herbs to suit your mood and physical need.
The production of medicinal syrups has been set out in great theory and detail on The Herbarium website. If you wish to make syrups from layering sugar and powdered leaves, barks or petals, it is best to follow the herbarium instructions. They also advocate producing syrup which has a 2:1 sugar to liquid ratio to prevent decay and bacterial infiltration of the finished product. If you are producing syrups for your own use and keep the bottle in the fridge after opening, I use a 1:1 ratio as this has always worked for me.
My basic syrup recipe comes from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley. After you have made your decoction of herbs, you need to evaporate the resulting liquid by 7/8s over a minimum heat. On my gas cooker, an inch of liquid evaporates during the course of one hour, so if I’m making a medicinal syrup from four pints of liquid, it can take a whole day to evaporate leaving me with the required one eighth. That’s fine if you have sufficient time but if I’m making syrups and cordials during a workshop which only lasts three hours, we usually compromise and make a simple cordial which doesn’t require such a massive volume reduction.
General syrup recipe from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's Herbal Remedies
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz) left. Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label. If making a syrup with more liquid, the general rule of thumb is add 1lb sugar or honey to every 1pint of liquid.
When we were making syrups during yesterday’s workshop, the question was asked, “Which herbs would you not put in a syrup?” It wasn’t something I’d really thought about before, but apart from the obvious poisonous herbs, I really couldn’t think of anything I would actively avoid putting in a syrup.
What I would be wary of is to use herbs which could be dangerous in high doses. For example, several years ago I experimented with a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) syrup made from St John’s wort seed tops and lemon balm with added lemon juice. It tasted wonderful and I was really worried that anyone with children who might get hold of the syrup could ingest large quantities which might do them harm. You could argue that this holds true for any medicinal product and is the reason why one should always be mindful of dosage and safety where any kind of medicinal product is concerned.
I have to admit, I don’t use most of my syrups in their concentrated form. I prefer to drink them in a mug of hot water. I find this the most comforting way to take them as I don’t have a very sweet tooth and a spoonful of syrup is too sweet and doesn’t last long enough in my mouth to truly savor.
What I really like about making syrups is the ability to create something unique for an individual at this moment in time. Yesterday was a classic example. Judith has been suffering with a lingering tickly cough. It is irritating especially as she sings in several choirs during the week. She was going to make a classic cough syrup of hyssop, white horehound and marshmallow. When I mentioned that Chris has found relief for his coughs with sage and thyme, she added some of those, proving heat with root ginger and added flavour with juice and rind of a lemon.
Judith’s cough syrup
1 handful dried horehound, marshmallow, sage and thyme
½ handful dried hyssop
Fresh orange peel diced.
1” root ginger grated.
2 pints water
Everything was placed in a saucepan, covered with water , brought to the boil and simmered with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. It was then strained and the liquid measured (1.5 UK pints). After cleaning the saucepan, the liquid was returned and 1lb 8 ozs sugar was added. The mixture was heated slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar was dissolved. The syrup was then brought to the boil and poured into sterilised bottles, sealed, labelled and dated.
Maggie was interested in a mineral rich and fortifying syrup. She chose to make a nettle and rose petal syrup, to which was added ashwagandha roots and a small handful of rosehips.
Maggie’s Nettle and rose syrup
2 large handfuls of dried nettle leaf
1 12oz jar full of dried apothecary’s rose petals
1 small handful of dried ashwagandha roots
1 small handful of rosehips
¼ inch grated ginger root
2 pints water
Everything was placed in a saucepan, covered with water, brought to the boil and simmered with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. It was then strained and the liquid measured (1.25 UK pints). After cleaning the saucepan, the liquid was returned and 1lb 4ozs sugar was added. The mixture was heated slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar was dissolved. The syrup was then brought to the boil and poured into sterilised bottles, sealed, labelled and dated.
Lorraine was attracted by the bowl of fresh rosehips on the table. These had been picked on the farm two days previously. She decided to make a warming rosehip syrup with added ginger and lemon.
Lorraine’s Spiced Rosehip Syrup
3/4lb fresh rosehips
1” root ginger grated
1 lemon juiced and peel diced.
2 pints water
After placing all the ingredients in a saucepan, they were blitzed to a pulp using a stick blender before bringing to the boil and simmering for 30 minutes with the lid on. The contents were then strained through muslin to remove all the seeds and hairs. 1.25 (UK) pints were returned to the clean pan together with 1lb 4 ozs of sugar. The mixture was stirred constantly on a gentle heat until all the sugar dissolved and then was brought to the boil before pouring into sterilised bottles. The bottles were then sealed, labelled and dated in the usual way.
Bill and Janey made a spiced apple cordial using the recipe posted last time. During lunch we drank a rose and lemon balm cordial which I made during the summer and froze.
Rose and lemon balm cordial
5-6 strongly scented roses (I used a mixture of Apothecary’s Rose, William Shakespeare and Gertrude Jekyll)
20 lemon balm stems
4 flowering stems of self-heal
2 lbs of sugar
2 UK pints (20fl oz) of water
Remove the leaves from the lemon balm stems and the leaves and flower stalks from the self-heal and place in a large bowl. Chop into small pieces with scissors. Add all the rose petals and mix. Remove the ends of the lemon and cut into slices. Add these slices to the herbs. Measure the sugar and cold water and place in a saucepan on the heat. Bring to the boil stirring all the time with a long wooden spoon. Pour the sugar syrup carefully into the bowl. Cover with a suitably sized dinner plate so all the plant material is submerged under the syrup. Place the bowl in a cool larder or fridge overnight. You will see that the syrup has turned pink by the following morning. Remove the dinner plate and strain the syrup into a jug. Squeeze the plant material well to remove as much syrup as possible. If you want to maximise your syrup, return the squeezed plant matter to the bowl and cover with cold water. Mix well then strain again and drink. (This should provide your first taste of the cordial at a suitable strength for imbibing.) Pour your rose syrup either into sterilized glass bottles or clean plastic bottles and immediately freeze. The glass bottles should be sealed, labelled and dated and kept in the fridge once open. Dilute to taste with still or sparkling water.
With recent drops in temperature, it is tempting to think there is very little produce available to make ourselves something fresh. A quick walk around our urban environment in the noontime sunshine revealed a multitude of fresh nettles and a red exuberance of rosehips. There is still time to forage and make sufficient cordials to keep us through the winter.