Tuesday 29 September 2009

Simpler Apprenticeships 2010

During 2010 I shall be offering apprenticeships to those who wish to develop their knowledge and skills of kitchen herbwifery.

Apprentices will be asked to commit to:-

Choosing between 10-20 herbs to study in greater depth

Attending at least six workshops during the year and taking responsibility for some of their chosen herbs

Keeping a detailed diary of their herbal journey including studies of their chosen herbs, associated studies of human physiology and notes of all herbal products made and taken.

Discussing herbal experiences via an email discussion group

Anyone who is interested in an apprenticeship should contact me before December 14th saying what their best hopes would be for the twelve months of their apprenticeship.

Unfortunately, because the essence of these apprenticeships is local and practical, they can only be offered to people living within the UK who are prepared to travel to the Cotswolds and/or Solihull. It is not possible to offer apprenticeships outside the UK. However, if someone abroad wishes a herbal mentor and can tell me how they think we could work well together, I'm willing to consider it.

Sunday 20 September 2009

More hedgerow tonics

At the last meeting of the Mercian Herb Group I took along a bottle of my newly made blackberry, apple and rosehip syrup. Those who tried it, asked for the recipe.

Blackberry, apple and rosehip syrup
1lb blackberries
1 large double handful of rosehips
3 medium size cooking apples (preferably windfalls)
1 cinnamon stick
½ grated nutmeg
1 pint of water
Sugar or honey
Peel, core and slice the apples. Wash blackberries and rosehips and place in a large saucepan with the apples and spices. Just cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer until everything is soft and mushy (around 40 minutes or so depending on the ripeness of the rosehips). Liquidise the contents of the saucepan, strain and measure the volume. Clean the saucepan and return the puree to the pan together with a suitable amount of either sugar or honey working on 1lb sugar/honey to 1 pint puree. Heat until sugar or honey is dissolved into the puree. Pour into heated sterile bottles and seal with screw top lids. Label and date.

Here are two more honey recipes. You will probably want to strain your honeys before using them.

Rosehip honey (Gail Faith Edward's recipe)
2 large double handfuls of fresh rosehips
1 jar of runny honey
1 large glass jar
Wash the rosehips and remove any stalks of dried bits of flowers. Put the fresh rosehips in a liquidiser and process for 30 seconds or so until they are in very small bits. Scrape all the rosehips into the glass jar and slowly pour on the runny honey, stirring as you go to remove all the air bubbles. (If you pour too fast it will stay on top of the rosehips and end up on the work surface). Seal the jar with a screw top lid tightly. Keep in a warm place e.g. a sunny windowsill for 4-6 weeks.

Mint honey (Kiva's recipe)
Pick several large handfuls of mint – preferably stalks which have not flowered yet or new side shoots. Remove each leaf and place in a 1lb glass jar. Every so often, cut up the mint leaves with a large pair of scissors inside the jar. When the jar is filled with chopped mint leaves, add the grated rind and juice of one lemon. Carefully pour runny honey over the mint leaves in small batches, mixing with a chop stick every time to remove air bubbles. Add as much honey as you can. Seal the jar with a screw top lid tightly and place in a warm place for a month or so.

Don't worry when the infused matter, whether blossom, leaves, or dessicated roots floats to the top of the honey. If your lid is secure, try turning it upside down ever so often so the top of the contents are covered.

I've made 2 small jars of horseradish root honey and one of elderberry honey this weekend. It's best to keep the elderberry honey in the fridge whilst infusing so it doesn't start to grow mold. It is your choice whether or not you strain the elderberries or horseradish out before using. I keep them in. Chris mutters about "having bits floating around" in his cider vinegar, but I like to chew them. The elderberries are wonderfully sweet at the end of your drink!

Friday 18 September 2009

Something new

“What’s been new for you this year?” Maddie asked during the August workshop. This post is a more considered response to the question than I was able to make at the time.

My first new loves must be mint honey and creating new elixirs. Mint is one of the two herbs which graced my childhood. On alternate Sundays we would have roast lamb. In summer this would be served with mint sauce, in winter with onion sauce.

Most people rave about mint tea when they first start trying herbal drinks. It is not my first choice, unless it is chocolate mint freshly picked from the Sanctuary. To me, mint tea belongs to the aftermath of a stomach bug when I can’t tolerate anything else.

I’ve grown several different varieties of mint for years – peppermint, applemint, spearmint, Swiss mint, pineapple mint, eau de cologne mint, lemon mint, lime mint, red mint, black mint and chocolate mint. The first three do battle for supremacy along the left hand border of my garden while others grow mournfully in tubs on the patio. The chocolate mint runs riot in the main Sanctuary bed, but I don’t try to cull it as everyone who goes there falls in love with it.

I love the smell of mint freshly crushed, but until this year I’ve never really engaged with the plant itself. Two months ago, Kiva Rose gave the recipe for her mint honey with lemon zest and juice. Lemon and honey is another comforting memory from childhood. A special drink my mother would make when we were ill with colds. The combination of lemon and mint with honey appears to have done something quite amazing to my taste buds. It is not often I sit and drool over something, but mint honey does it for me!

I was reading Carol Rogers' chapter on menopause recently, whilst preparing to give a talk to the Mercian Herb Group and she listed several foods which are especially nourishing for women during this time. Honey was one of them. Avocados were another. I have been relishing avocados for a year or so. Honey has been an important part of my life for the past three years, when I first became perimenopausal. It is easy to see how mint, which is a cooling herb, lemon and honey all combine to provide something richly nourishing for my particular time of life.

Needless to say, when I found applemint growing wild on the banks of the Catherine de Barnes canal last weekend, I gathered as much as I could and spent the next day putting up a further 2lb jar of lemon mint honey to add to the jar already infusing. It’s not really a flavour to spread on your toast, but it will be fantastic in drinks.

Chris loves honey and he was grumbling the other evening that all the jars I buy seem to disappear leaving him nothing to have for breakfast. I showed him all the herbal honeys sitting on the kitchen window sill and asked why he hadn’t been tempted to try them for himself.

“I daren’t” he replied. “I don’t know what is to eat, what is medicine and what is to be avoided while you go and lie down in another room.”

His reply had me in stitches for several minutes. When the children were small, there was a memorable occasion at Greenbelt when the mere offer of mint tea had two of them jumping up from their sickbed and declaring their complete recovery. It was good to be reminded.

I also loved the reference to Terry Pratchett’s dwarf bread which is carried on expeditions and is only eaten once everything else including clothes and soles of boots has been consumed. (Guess which books I was reading on holiday!)

Anyway, to return to the subject of honey, those currently infusing are:-
Blossom and pineapple mint and sage leaves, sage, wild bergamot, rosehip, mint and lemon, angelica root and St John’s wort honey. The latter was begun because Darcey said she wanted to make some to see if it would turn red like all other SJW concoctions. She had no access to fresh SJW flowers, so I decided to carry out the experiment myself.

The half jar of honey and yellow blossoms sat on the window sill next to the infusing SJW oil for weeks and nothing appeared to happen until last week when we had several days of hot sun. Finally the honey started to change colour. It won’t be the deep crimson of the oil, but it will be a definite SJW derivative.

I have already written about my new elixirs. I decanted them all last weekend, ending up in a sticky, sweet surfeit after trying them. Even Chris agreed they tasted far too good to be medicine!

The other completely new things in my herbal life have been plants – lemon geranium and lemon eucalyptus, pleurisy root, ashwaghanda and ox-eye daisy. Ashwaghanda is proving a total delight even though I have not yet tasted her. I was going to harvest the roots of both my plants this year, but after a member of the Herbwifery Forum advised that the roots were stronger, the older the plant, I decided to leave them to see if they will over-winter on the patio and return to me next year. It has been a real joy watching the flowers appear and produce beautiful bright green berries which then turn scarlet as the leaves become brown.

The ox-eye daisy has a tale all of its own. Several years ago, Henriette enthused about ox-eye daisy delivering a tasty and nourishing tea. It caught my fancy, but finding seeds proved a real problem. They only seemed to be available in wild flower meadow mixes, not on their own. My father came to the rescue, using his considerable charm on a local seed merchant who let him have an ounce of seed for nothing. I dug a suitable sized patch of ground in the main herb bed, planted the seeds and waited.

It was a good job I didn’t hold my breath, because nothing grew I convinced myself the plot had become overgrown and overshadowed with other herbs, thereby killing the seeds. I was really disappointed.

This spring I noticed a plant with strange leaves was growing in the middle of the herb bed. I presumed it was another wild flower like white or red campion but decided to let it flower before I pulled it up just to be sure. Imagine my delight when the newcomers turned out to be ox-eye daises! I checked the leaves against the moon daises in my garden and they were exactly the same shape, but larger. Obviously the seeds take several years to germinate, so I should not have been disappointed when they didn’t appear the first year they were planted.

Then I noticed their energetic properties – they help women come to terms with the menopause. It made me laugh and feel slightly humble. The plant had waited to enter my life until it was needed. I was very grateful and made a special batch of flower essence to share with others.

There have been several other new herbal products I have made this year: –
 milk thistle leaf vinegar for its minerals,
 dried mullein stalk tincture for hormonal incontinence,
 hawthorn flower brandy to add to Christmas custards,
 crampbark tincture for nocturnal leg cramps,
 elecampagne flower essence for deep grief
 hyssop, horehound, liquorice and marshmallow leaf cough syrup (a classic)
 fennel tincture and liqueur
 chive flower vinegar
 nettle seed salt

The crampbark tincture was made from slivers of red bark collected from twigs when the bush was flowering – not the usual time to collect bark from deciduous trees or bushes! Janey prompted me to create the tincture. She mentioned she was having terrible trouble sleeping because of nocturnal leg cramps, so I suggested she tried taking some milk of magnesia to increase her intake of magnesium and gave her some twigs to start de-barking and cover with alcohol.

When she next returned to the Sanctuary, I asked her whether her cramps had improved. She said she had started taking the milk of magnesia immediately and the first night she had taken a spoonful of the crampbark tincture her cramps had disappeared and never returned!

Another tincture I am planning to make this weekend is Solomon seal root. The plants have become well established over the past ten years. The good reports I have heard about using the tincture to support back health from Jim MacDonald and Matthew Wood have inspired me to try making some for myself. It is not a tincture which is widely available commercially, so it will be exciting to see how it works.

One of the wonderful things about herbs is there is so much to learn and experience. It doesn’t matter how many you grow or what you make, each year is a new beginning and a real opportunity for growth.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Harvest ramblings

Despite the weather, harvest is upon us. No matter how large or small our productive plots, there is something to gather, preserve and enjoy. I thought I would share some of my recent activities.

Surprisingly, I harvested nothing during our time away apart from some wonderfully sweet blackberries and a few nettle seeds. Cornwall grows the largest ribwort plantain I’ve seen, but there seemed little point in gathering armfuls as I did two years ago when there was nowhere to keep it dry and relatively warm. Instead I caught up with embroideries I’ve been meaning to do for the past 15 years – starting but never finishing until last month.

Usually I make a new corn dolly to celebrate the harvest, but this year I drew one and embroidered it instead. I also drew a picture of the three pine trees we could see out of the caravan window. I can’t draw in any sense of artistic merit, but my little attempt at folk art brings me pleasure if no-one else!

Since our return, my free time has been taken up with birthdays and harvesting. Last week we celebrated my mother’s 81st birthday. I made new cockerel cushions for my father to give her and she liked them and the new teapot, milk jug, mugs and plates – all with blue cockerels on them - I’d found in Bakewell back in May.

We were at the farm again for the weekend for a herb workshop. Eight people came and made flower essences, comfrey and meadowsweet double infused oil, nettle salt, wild bergamot flower honey, bergamot leaf elixir and various vinegars and tinctures. The weather was kind and during our herb walk around the beds, we looked at meadowsweet, spotted orchids, burdock, white horehound, lemon balm, Solomon’s seal, calendula, motherwort and several other herbs.

The wasps’ nest behind the summerhouse had been deserted, but this didn’t stop the wasps being out in force, attracted by all the honey we were using. When everyone had gone, I managed to pick some hyssop, skullcap and white horehound along with a few dandelion roots.

After tea, I took my mother down to Condicote, where we used to live and where her brother and nephew still farm, so I could raid their purple sage plants. I finished the evening by collecting yarrow from around the garden. I was afraid it would all have gone to seed, but I managed to find some newly flowering plants.

On Sunday morning I picked flowering mullein stalks and dug rosettes to make mullein root tincture. It was really difficult digging the new plants as the hens decided they had to investigate everything I was doing as they couldn’t afford to miss any insects or seeds I might dislodge in the soil!

I also managed to pick some seed-heavy nettles from the field which will probably be the last ones I dry for this year. I already have several jars put away along with three or four from last year, so there should be plenty to munch my way through for the rest of the year or to give away to those in need.

My uncle gave us some of his cream out of a huge bowl while we stood in his kitchen. It was so thick; it turned into butter with just one whisk of the beaters when I worked it on Sunday morning! It took me back to my childhood whisking cream into yellow gold, then painstakingly squeezing it with a large knife to remove the buttermilk. With only one housecow, butter making was a very infrequent task in our household, but we relished the new butter when we had it.

On Bank Holiday Monday, Chris went off to spend a happy day at Greenbelt with his cousins while I took a deep breath and began my herbal task list. Herbs which had been drying in the kitchen and summerhouse were brought onto the garden bench to be checked for mildew and either discarded or placed in glass jars in the larder.

Although I still have to do something with a large bag of assorted dried herbs sitting in the summerhouse (nettles, dead nettles, ground ivy and red clover), sage, burdock, St John’s wort, thyme, calendula, apple and spearmint were all dealt with. I also decanted three jars of vinegar (milk thistle, motherwort and mint), put up some St John's wort and mullein root tincture and made some meadowsweet oil from last year's dried leaves and flowers.

The mint vinegar tasted and smelled so wonderful, I picked some more mint and put up another jarful, together with a small jar of rose petal vinegar using the last 3 roses in the garden and a sprig of spearmint.

The hawthorn trees in the garden have produced the most amazing large, ripe haws this year, so I took time to pick enough to put up 1 jar of brandy, 1 jar of liqueur and 2 jars of vinegar. Chris kindly took his stepladder on Tuesday and picked more haws, which took me two evenings after work to prepare more liqueur and vinegar.

When researching a particular herb, it is not often I find an appealing recipe and have all the herbs to hand. This happened on Tuesday when looking up the properties of horehound. Maud Grieve said a popular cough medicine was made with hyssop, white horehound, marshmallow root and liquorice.

I still haven’t had the courage to dig any marshmallow roots, but the plants are prolific in leaves, flowers and seeds at the moment, so it didn’t take long to pick a large handful to go in the syrup mix along with half my hyssop and horehound bundle and a large stick of liquorice I bought at a French farmers market in Solihull a few years ago. The resulting syrup was incredibly bitter, so it’s been put in the larder to wait for an unsuspecting guinea pig with a dreadful cough!

The remaining hyssop and horehound was mixed with brandy and honey for a cough elixir. We shall see which is the more popular!

My first priority yesterday was to make some St John’s wort salve for a Tabler friend who is suffering the aftermath of transverse myelitis. I mixed a small amount of yarrow oil with the SJW and will be interested to know how useful he finds the salve.

I split my yarrow harvest in two and made some more oil with the older stems and a tincture with the fresh green leaves and flowers. Now I just have nettle roots to tincture and dandelion roots to pickle tonight and this current batch of herbal preservation will be over.

It is very satisfying to see my hot cupboard full of vinegars and liqueurs, but I need to start decanting tinctures and elixirs soon as there is no more shelf space and I’ve run out of large glass jars!