I spend a lot of time during my bereavement courses emphasising the importance of touch. To find another human being who feels safe enough to hug isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have transformed into the prickly hedgehog which makes it difficult for those around us to offer the support we need. Sometimes we just want time alone. If this is the case, it is the perfect time to indulge in a herbal hug or two.
My favourite winter drink was inspired by Rebecca Hartman. Flax seeds decocted with a broken cinnamon stick and finely chopped peel from your breakfast orange is incredibly soothing. Rebecca’s original concoction was made as a relief from period pains, but I have found nothing better for making me sit still and do nothing for however long it takes me to sip the contents of my mug.
Warming winter tea
Place 1-2tsp flax seed together with a broken up cinnamon stick and maybe a couple of cardamom pods and some sliced orange peel, a handful of fresh or half a handful of dried rosehips and the juice of half an orange. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and fill the saucepan with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer uncovered until the amount of water has halved from evaporation. Strain, add honey to taste and sip while hot.
One word of caution, less really is more in this recipe. We have made flax seed tea twice during workshops using a tablespoon of flaxseed and several pints of water. I’ve also used dried orange peel rather than fresh. It is nowhere near as nice. We found strong flax seed tea on its own almost undrinkable until a drop of cinnamon tincture was added. Too much dried orange peel made the tea very bitter and not to my taste, although others enjoyed it.
Another totally delicious and unexpected drink is Nut Brew. Again this was based on the Hickory Brew recipe from Ananda Wilson's blog. Steeping nuts to make an infusion was not something I'd ever thought of, but it works wonderfully.
1 part smashed hazel and walnuts (you could experiment with other nuts as well)
6 dates chopped
3 parts water
Simmer for 30 + minutes
Strain a cup at a time, leaving the rest to continue steeping.
Add milk or almond milk to taste if required, but no extra sweetening is necessary.
Sometimes you come across a herbal hug completely by accident. Two summers ago, I began to experiment with elixirs - herbs extracted in honey and brandy. One evening after work, while the sun still shone in the garden, I wandered around gathering herbs which nourished the nerves. In my basket went lemon balm leaves, violet leaves, rose petals, heartease aerial parts, wild strawberry leaves, St John’s wort flowers and four lavender heads. I let them steep for around five weeks before decanting the result into a recycled brandy bottle. It tasted interesting and I labelled it “Uplifting elixir”.
There wasn’t any call for this elixir over the following twelve months, although it did get used as a taste example when I gave talks and was generally well received. Last autumn, my son found himself in an extremely stressful situation, so I gave him a dropper bottle of elixir to take whenever he had the opportunity. He said it really helped.
I also sent small bottles of elderberry and uplifting elixir to my friend in Glasgow as part of his Christmas present. When he tasted the uplifting elixir, his exclamation of “Wow!” really had me wondering what this particular combination was doing. When I asked him to explain his reaction further, he said, “The elderberry is very fruity, and on the nose has almost “vanilla” notes. It’s possible that the tang – similar to the nice sharpness you get from blackcurrant, but without the bitter afternotes that blackberries have – is disguising the spirit to an extent.
“The Uplifting may have just the same proportion of brandy and honey, but it definitely feels in the mouth like a much stronger mix. There’s a tingle on the sides of the tongue that you get with whisky or brandy, and the warming as it goes over is much more pronounced, without being likely to induce a coughing fit.”
My hunch is that the lavender is the main cause of the increased warming effect. One of Kiva Rose’s students once called lavender tincture, “a hug in a bottle” and I know other people have found lavender tincture extremely helpful during stressful times. I’m looking forward to making another batch of uplifiting elixir this coming summer from the fresh herbs in my garden.
Another elixir which is becoming a firm favourite is rose petal elixir. This again was a 2010 experiment arising from articles written by Kiva Rose Hardin on her Medicine Woman blog. The first elixir I made was with a mixture of apothecary’s rose and ‘William Shakespeare’ – a deep scented red rose. To say the elixir tasted heavenly was an understatement.
When I gave a talk on tinctures to a group of complementary therapists in Northampton last November, I took a small bottle of rose petal elixir with me. I stood at the front of the group, cradling the bottle to my bosom and told them I could hardly bear to share it with anyone else – before I passed it around for everyone to taste. At the end of the talk, a woman came up to me, her face alight with excitement.
“How do you make this elixir,” she asked. “It is the best thing I have ever tasted and I could feel it lifting my spirits as soon as I swallowed!”
Luckily the recipe was in her handout.
I’ve made the elixir with dog rose petals, which is lighter and more subtle and with William Shakespeare petals on their own with different amounts of honey. It doesn’t matter how you make it, the result is still wonderful and a real treasure to keep with you during the depths of winter.
Finally, my other favourite herbal hug is my spiced hedgerow cordial. Made from whatever I happen to have gathered from the hedges that day, it is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and sweetened with honey or sugar.
Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
1-2lbs of blackberries
1 large orange (sliced)
1 and a half inches of root ginger (grated)
1 nutmeg (grated)
2 large quills of cinnamon
3 lbs honey
Place everything in a large pan and cover with cold water (I used about 5 pints). Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about an hour. Strain the liquid and push any juicy bits you can through the seive. Discard the debris and wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and put on a low heat to evaporate for an hour or so, depending on how thick you want your cordial to be. I had 4 3/4 pints liquid, so I evaporated it down to around 3 pints as I need enough for the party and a residential home demonstration and Christmas. A film will form on the top of the liquid, mix this back into the cordial before you add the honey. Heat very gently until the honey is dissolved. Steralise bottles in the oven for ten minutes, then pour cordial into bottles, seal, label and date. To make the drink, add 1 tablespoon of cordial to a small cup/goblet of boiling water. Sip and enjoy.
You could use half elderberries and half blackberries and more rosehips.
Possibly my favourite is sloes and rosehips flavoured with lemon juice.
1/2lb ripe rosehips
Place sloes and rosehips in a pan and add 2 pints of water and the juice and zest of a lemon. Simmer for about an hour until the rosehips are soft. Liquidise and measure the resulting liquid after passing everything through a sieve. Add sugar or honey in the ration of 1lb to 1pint of liquid. Heat until sugar or honey has dissolved. Taste. If it is too sweet, add more lemon juice. Serve with boiling water in a ratio of 1/3 cordial to 2/3 water or to taste.
A tablespoon or two of cordial mixed with boiling water in one of my Greenman goblets from Pickering in Yorkshire is a simple but effective way of treating myself when everything else is bleak.