Thursday 30 July 2009

Sweet Memories of Summer

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.

Blackberry cordial
1lb blackberries
1oz cinnamon (in sticks or powdered)
1oz cloves (whole or powdered)
1 inch root ginger (grated)
1lb honey/sugar
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.

Elderflower Cordial
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
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
4 cloves
runny honey
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!

Derbyshire Delight
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.

Haw-sin Sauce
375g haws (hawthorn berries)
200g runny honey
250ml water
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.

Melissa Liqueur
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.

Hawthorn Liqueur
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.

Monday 13 July 2009

More literary excitement!

Last night I discovered two of my short stories have been published online. The Lady and the Bull is a story of experience based in Cornwall, while Malachi's Task came from a dream. For more details, go to my writing blog, Mercian Muse.

Roses in summer

There is something very special about roses in summer. Their deep scent transports us to a place of warm sunshine, peace and tranquillity; memories of carefree times amid beautiful surroundings.

My childhood roses grew in my grandmother’s garden and in hedgerows. My parents had no time in their busy lives nor inclination to grow plants with thorns which needed care and attention. It wasn’t until I went away to secondary school and lived with a family opposite the school that I discovered the joys of cultivated roses. The father cherished his roses, bringing a single bud to place on the mantelpiece above the fireplace in the living room so everyone could stop and smell the perfume as they passed by. I watched yellow, pink or red buds open into flowering glory, before being replaced by a new bud when petals faded.

When we moved into our house in 1981, the garden was a weed-free rose haven, with roses climbing over every fence. It was too much for us to look after. The previous owners were retired, the wife having never worked outside the home, so they had plenty of time to lavish on both home and garden. Our priorities were different, with both of us working, then bringing up three children. The flower beds receded to give the children more room to play and now only two ancient plants remain from those we originally inherited.

My interest in roses began in 2004 when I ordered an apothecary’s rose (rosa gallica) from Poyntzfield Herb nursery. I had to wait until the following year for it to bloom, but it was worth it. I was dazzled by the glorious colour and rich scent. The poor bush had to contend with being browsed by rabbits, sheep and deer during its first few years, but I noticed last year the runners were not like those of other roses, they all flowered. It has grown into a good size bush and this year bloomed a whole month earlier than usual, June rather than July.

Working with rose petals began in 2008, when I spent a delicious hour late one Friday evening collecting dog rose petals from along my parent’s lane. I climbed over gates into our next door neighbour’s field to harvest petals from the largest bushes, noticing how the colour changed from pink to white on different briars. The best pictures were taken the following Sunday when I risked barriers of nettles to gather from other briars near our old barn. It was one of the few dry weekends of the summer and I was desperate to gather elderflowers and rose petals while I could.

We used the dog rose petals during the Saturday workshop to make tincture, vinegar and to dry for future teas. When I returned home, I made my first rose infused honey, which still retains its subtle fragrance even now.

Later on in the summer I begged red rose petals from my friend’s garden in Sheffield. These yielded an amazing ruby cider vinegar with a truly awesome flavour which we played with during a vinegar workshop in November. Mixed with a light, sunflower oil and soaked up on crusty French sticks, it made a unique starter to lunch.

Nearly all my dogrose briars were decimated at the end of last year by the new tenant of my father’s fields. His brief to tidy all the farm hedgerows lead to total obliteration of many tree tops and bramble hedges. It needed doing and looks much better in many ways, but I shall have to wait several years before I can gather dogroses in such profusion from the same place again.

Luckily, work took me to Northumberland towards the end of June this year. I hoped the northern latitude would mean dogroses would be flowering later than in the Midlands. As we drew into our first caravan site on the Whitehouse Farm Centre in Stannington just outside Morpeth, I was delighted to see a wealth of bushes showing pale and bright pink flowers. While Chris recovered from the six hour drive, I took my gathering basket and explored the grounds of the first children’s sanatorium in the UK.

Nothing is left of the original buildings except the electricity substation, although a sign on a tree still reads “Dangerous buildings”. What really annoyed me and local inhabitants was that the top soil from the land was dragged off into mounds many years ago in readiness for building houses. This has never happened, so the field lies sterile and unusable, only a few hardy weeds growing in barren soil.

It seemed ironic that the most prolific plants were coltsfoot and dog roses – both with ancient associations with treating deep seated lung conditions – yet ignored by the medical enthusiasts who set up their fresh air wards with an open-air school where children were expected to learn in icy temperatures during the winter and snow drifted onto verandas which housed the beds of young patients during daylight hours. Despite the sometimes harsh physical conditions, the sanatorium boasted an 80% success rate. This may have been due in part to the good food and fresh air given to poverty stricken children from the slums of Newcastle.

Food was grown by the neighbouring farm colony, also established by the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, where local poor children, mainly boys, were taught farming and horticultural skills. Many of the children were dispersed to “the colonies” in Australia and Canada.

I was surprised to find another briar rose (rosa rubiginosa) in the Northumbrian hedgerows. The petals were smaller and deeper pink, but I knew the properties were similar to rosa canina, so I picked as much as I could from bushes in Stannington and those lining the car park to Walkworth beach. It was incredibly soothing to walk across the sand dunes to look at the calm North Sea, then pick as many petals as I could before the heavens opened! I put all the petals to dry on kitchen towel in one of the shelves in the caravan. Now they are safely put them away in a glass jar in the larder waiting to be added to elderberry elixir in the autumn..

Since our return from Northumberland, I feel as if I have been knee-deep in rose petals. This time from the apothecary’s rose and my new William Shakespeare rose which is blooming in a pot on the patio.

I scoured the garden to find young nettles hiding amidst the broad beans and soft fruit bushes to make the 1935 Famers Weekly recipe, Nettle Syrup.

“Gather the tops of young nettles, wash well. To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted, then strain. To this liquid add ¾ lb white sugar and petals of seven red roses. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Strain free of petals and boil until syrup thickens, when it will be a rich red colour. Pour into clean, dry, warmed jars and seal very securely. To make a good drink, put a teaspoonful into a milk beaker and dissolve it in a tablespoonful of boiling water. When cold, fill up with milk. This is an excellent cure for sore throats and is also a splendid pick me up.”

The means to make this syrup has eluded me for several years as it seemed impossible to gather young nettle tops from the first spring growth at the same time as roses, since they are at least 4 months apart, unless the writer is talking about a second crop of nettles.

I also couldn’t make head or tail of the sentence “To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted.” It’s not like adding sugar to rhubarb and leaving overnight to extract the juice through osmosis! This time, I wanted to get as many water-based constituents from the nettles as I could, because the syrup is destined for a friend who has just finished her fourth bout of chemotherapy, so I decocted it for 20 minutes, then left it covered overnight in the saucepan aka Susun Weed. Then I strained it and left it in the fridge during the day while I was at work until I returned home and could find the time to finish it.

The resulting liquid was very dark green. I suspect what I should have done was make a cold water overnight maceration producing a pink coloured liquid, which would then have turned deep red from the rose petals as per the recipe. My syrup was very dark, but did have a deep red colour if you poured it against a bright light. There is also a subtle rose scent and none of the usual earthy nettle aroma.

I also rediscovered a recipe for Greek Rose Syrup, Tyrandafilo Glyko, posted on Susun Weed’s forum by Saint Francesca.

4 cups red Rose petals (though scented pink petals will do), with the white ends removed (I only had 3 roses available so added ten heads of flowering lavender)
3 cups sugar
1 cup water
juice of 1 lemon
Place lemon juice, sugar and water together in a suitable saucepan (preferably heat toughened glass or enamel. Not aluminium!). Bring to the boil, stirring as it heats to dissolve the sugar before it begins to boil. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes to make a syrup. Remove from the heat and cool. (I poured the syrup into a plastic bowl with a lid and cooled in a water bath in the sink for half an hour.) Add the petals to the syrup and leave for at least five to six hours or preferably overnight. Return to the stove and bring quickly to the boil. Simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat and either strain the liquid through a sieve into warmed sterilized jars or bottles, or leave the petals in the syrup and bottle. Seal when completely cold and store in the refrigerator. The Greeks do not usually strain this preparation. The traditional manner of taking this restorative syrup is to dissolve 1¬ - 2 teaspoons in a glass of cold water and give it to the weary traveller.

The syrup is possibly the most beautiful preparation I have ever made. The flavour is subtle and a sheer delight to sip slowly in a glass of cold water while resting.

There is so much to learn from rose. It is a plant which can be used to cool conditions involving heat from any part of the body both internally and externally, whether the heat arises from infection e.g. tuberculosis, vaginal yeast infections, insect bites or an auto-immune inflammation such as arthritis. It is also astringent and has been used for such conditions as dysentery and excessive nose bleed.

Mathew Woods in his Earthwise Herbal says it is used for acute inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract, including sore throat, free secretion or obstruction of the nose and bronchi. It is also a remedy for chronic inflammation and is indicated in “the weakness of convalescence, old age and delicate children”. He says rose also acts on heat in the digestive tract, including diarrhoea and stubborn inflammatory conditions. He recommends rose petal waters, lotions and baths be used to cure arthritis associated heat.

Maurice Messegue, the French herbalist, recommends rose to counteract the damage done by antibiotics on the intestinal flora.

Kiva Rose Hardin has written several fascinating articles on rose. She uses it to “ease the itch of mosquito bites and other hot, itchy things”. She also uses it for lung congestion irritability, tension, respiratory heat and general feeling of overheatedness and anxiety. Her favourite rose medicine is an elixir, where petals and leaves are steeped in a mixture of honey and brandy, then macerated for 4-6 weeks before straining or sometimes leaving the plant material in the menstrum. Doseage is one dropperful every half hour or so.

She also uses rose infused honey and vinegar to treat burns – the honey being especially useful where the burn appears to be infected. Last year I made up her recipe for burn honey using apothecary’s rose petals, flowers from evening primrose and bergamot flowers. The scent is amazing. The honey is less sweet than when pure and has a more runny consistency which would be ideal for smearing over open skin.

Possibly the most helpful thing about roses, like plantain, is that you can use any species to achieve the same effect. It doesn’t matter if you only have access to dog roses in hedgerow or copse, apothecary’s rose in the garden or rosa rugosa in a boundary hedge, their properties remain the same. They are the ideal plant for summer and I look forward to working with them even more closely in the years to come.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Fennel update : a feast of red

Some spare hours today saw me decanting the most recent tinctures and vinegars. Ribwort plantain came out it's usual almost black colour, with a warm taste to the slight bitterness. The small amount of yarrow tincture was a clear brown/orange, making me anxious to harvest more once it all starts flowering. I had to protect the few random stalks in the field behind the gate from Chris'enthusiastic strimming last Sunday, but he then went on to leave the ones in my parents garden as he recognised them as a plant I wanted, rather than a weed!

The real surprises were the fennel tincture and the chive vinegar, both of which came out a beautiful red. The fennel tincture had a rose glow to it, while the vinegar was almost scarlet. I didn't think the tincture would go red as it looked a dark green when I first poured the vodka in. It was such a surprise! I hope the liqueur will also have a red tinge, but I shall have to wait another month before that is ready to decant.

The chive vinegar smelled strongly of pickled onions (which is not surprising!), but has almost a sweet flavour to the vinegar. I can see we're going to have fun at the next Vinegar workshop!

At the last one, we made fire cider vinegar and I was thinking of that when I saw some horseradish leaves sticking up above a patch of weeds surrounding some courgette and squash plants. The courguettes are flowering and have set one fruit, which already has had a bite taken out of it. The butternut squash plants don't seem to have grown at all since I planted them, which does not bode well.

I thought I would clear the weeds from them (red dock, chickweed and various others) when I saw some rustling and a huge frog made its way into the safety of the compost bins which are overgrown with potatoes and bindweed. I did apologise for taking away his shelter, but he has lots of other places to hide. I've seen a couple of tiny froglets in the past month, but it's really good to see the adults back again.