Tuesday 17 March 2009

Spring Tonics

The equinox will be upon us in another few days. Light is increasing, stimulating new growth in so many different areas. Pink strands hang from the flowering currant in my garden, echoing the yellow forsythia flowers draped across the cherry tree. The first few dandelion flowers have appeared in strange places – one by the front door and another in the back garden. The latter found its way into my first fresh nettle soup of the year, mixing with onion, carrots and parsnips to brighten and lighten the heavier root vegetables from last year’s harvest.

Nettle and carrot soup
1 onion (peeled, diced and sweated in a tablespoon of vegetable oil)
8 carrots (scraped and chopped)
3 parsnips (peeled and chopped)
1 colander full of young nettle tops (washed)
zest and juice of 1 orange
All the ingredients fitted into my 5 pint saucepan, so I covered them with water and simmered for about 20 minutes after bringing to the boil. After whizzing in the liquidiser, it just needed some salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with wholemeal or granary bread.

Spring is often a time to think of tonics. Matt Wood has defined a tonic as “a herb or food that acts on the body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the substance of the body.” Jim MacDonald has written a really useful paragraph on his website describing the many different kinds of tonic, showing how different herbs can be used to meet different bodily needs.

Tonics can be taken in many different forms, from the simple nettle tea, to the complex maceration of a tonic wine. Here are four different recipes for a tonic wine. Two came from one of Debs Cook’s collection of ancient books and the third from Juliette de Bairacli Levy’s basic herb book.

Nettle Tea
Gather two handfuls of fresh nettle tops, (preferably in Spring) and place in teapot or cafatiere. (Wash first if any soil or debris can be seen) Fill the teapot with just boiled water and leave to steep for ten minutes. Strain and drink. Honey can be used to sweeten to taste.

Aromatic Wine
2-pints red wine
1/2 Tbsp sage leaves
2 Tbsps thyme leaves
2 Tbsps hyssop leaves
2 Tbsps spearmint leaves
2 Tbsps wormwood leaves
2 Tbsps marjoram herb
Use dried herbs
Chop the herbs into a coarse powder. Moisten the powders with some of the claret. Pack into a coffee machine, using parchment paper. Pour the claret over the herbs. It should yield about 1 pint of filtered liquid.
This French formula possesses strong tonic and aromatic properties. It is useful for invalids with feeble digestions and will also help with flatulence and other digestive disturbances. Use 1 tablespoon at a time. For ulcers, use heated as a hot (external) compress (dip a cloth into the hot liquid).

Tonic Wine
1 pint Madeira
1 sprig wormwood
1 sprig rosemary
1 small bruised nutmeg
1 inch bruised ginger root
1 inch bruised cinnamon bark
12 large organic raisins
Pour off about an ounce of the wine. Place herbs in the wine. Cork the bottle tightly. Place the bottle in a dark, cool place for a week or two. Strain off the herbs.

Juliette de Bairacli’s medicated wine
Several sprigs of rosemary and wormwood
6 candied cherries
2 nutmegs
1 inch cinnamon
Candied angelica
Bruised ginger root
1 doz large raisins
Pour over wine and leave in warm place for 1-2 weeks

Sarah Head’s medicated wine
6-8 sprigs rosemary (fresh)
2 sprigs mugwort (dried, but can use fresh)
2 handfuls of organic apricots
2 grated nutmegs
1 inch grated ginger root
1 quill cinnamon bark broken into pieces
Place ingredients in a 2lb glass jar, cover with Madeira wine, seal with screw top lid, label and date. Leave in a warm, dark cupboard/airing cupboard for 2-4 weeks. Strain and bottle. Take one small shot glass full as required.

Having made all three tonic wines, I preferred the taste of my version of Juliette’s recipe.

Christopher Hedley has a wonderful nettle iron tonic which I’ve made for several different people. As with all nettle “medicines” the recipients tend to take it until they don’t like it any more or forget and stop, which usually means they don’t need it.

Christopher Hedley’s iron tonic
Soak equal amounts of fresh nettle tops and organic apricots in good red wine, with a little bitter orange peel added. Soak for two weeks, strain and store in a cool place, Dose 1 or 2 dessertspoons twice daily.

This last recipe made me start to think about how to develop a tonic for a specific person. Karen was involved in a serious car accident at the beginning of the year. Thankfully she is now on the mend and I was wondering what would be helpful for her once she comes out of hospital. I put a query out on Henriette’s herblist, describing what had happened and said I was thinking of adding plantain to Chris Hedley’s tonic.

Henriette has suggested adding something for the liver to counteract all the medication she’s been on (dandelion and burdock should be available) and something for the digestive system to help it start working again after all the opiate painkillers she’s taken. She suggested prunes, figs, mallow or plantain seeds. I inadvertently dug up a marshmallow root recently, so it can be added to the mixture along with some dried prunes and figs. These can be eaten in very small doses once they have macerated for a couple of weeks or whizzed up with the infused Madeira.

Henrietta also suggested rose petals and rescue remedy. I still have some dried dogrose and apothecary’s rose petals from last summer, so I can add those to the mix. Hopefully we should be able to gather everything else during the next workshop on March 28th then Karen’s friend, Julie, can take it home with her to give Karen when it’s ready.