How To Make Rose-Hip Syrup

How To Make Rose-Hip Syrup

Making Rose hip Syrup

Rose hips are a funny fruit: Gourd shaped little piglets, wafting in the wind! The bright red berries sprinkle the landscape with a glorious, shiny dash of color. In their early stages, rose hips are rock hard and difficult to pick. The coat is thin, the fruit flesh meager, and their bellies are filled with an abundance of hard little seeds that are embedded in fine ‘hair. Perhaps, this hair is just as irritating to a bird’s throat as it is to a human one. Not so long ago, schoolchildren tormented each other by using it as ‘itching powder’. The best variety to use for this purpose is the Beach Rose, Rosa rugosa, with its big, fat squash-shaped hips. It yields an abundance of fluffy stuff.

I can never resist the temptation of biting into the first rose hips that turn red in September, even though I know they are still hard and very sour. Inevitably, I end up spitting out the seeds and trying to get rid of the little hairs.

Rosehips are best picked after the first frost when their outer cortex turns soft and sticky. At this point, they can be gathered without a struggle and are much easier to process, too. But depending on your climate, that may come late, by which time there are not so many hips left, or they lost their appealing looks. If you have plenty of space in the freezer, you can also pick them when they are fully ripe and then place them into the freezer where they can soften and you can use them when you are ready for a day of action.

My favorite way to preserve them is to turn them into syrup or conserves, which make formidable Vitamin C bombs – much needed to boost the immune system during the winter.

When picking wild herbs, or fruit, I always ask the tree, bush, or plant for permission and explain why I need their help. I tell them that I need them to heal and nourish my friends and family and that I would very much appreciate their cooperation. I find that a plant addressed in that way will be much more cooperative and that I will be much more mindful as I pluck their leaves, fruit, or flowers.

It’s not exactly ‘news’ that Rose bushes have sharp little thorns. Those foolish enough to approach roses ‘mindlessly’ are sure to carry forth the battle scars. The rose will win, even if you manage to get a few hips. So, a mindful attitude helps, a lot!

If it tries to tuck at my clothes or rip my collecting bag I gently remind it that I am not doing any harm. Usually, we come to an arrangement. For example, I let it hold my bag since it tries to get it anyway. That leaves my hands free to pull off the hips. Wearing gloves helps.

When I first started making rosehip syrup I went through the painstaking process of cutting off each hip’s tail and snout, halving them, and scooping out the seeds and hair before putting them into the pot. This can be a very drawn-out and fiddly process! In fact, it was a pain in the neck (literally!) But then I found a better way! All you nee are frost-softened hips.

add mushed rose hips to boiling water

Simply wash and clean the hips (top and tail them) and put them into a grinder or processor with a little bit of water and grind them to a pulp. Then transfer the mush straight into a pot of boiling water (leave enough space for the mashed rose hips). This saves hours of labor and, what’s more, it also saves the most vital constituent of the rosehip, the vitamin C. There is an enzyme in the hips that is triggered by exposure to oxygen. One triggered, it activates an oxidation process that destroys vitamin C. Interestingly, the vitamin C loss from boiling the hips is lower than the potential loss from oxidation and, the boiling water kills the enzyme.

As long as the rose hips are not too hard they will mush up very easily. In no time, you will have the sticky goo of seeds and fruit pulp floating in the pot. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Then turn off the heat and allow to cool.

straining out rose hip solids
filtering rose hip liquid through cheese cloth

Once lukewarm, strain out all the solids and measure the liquid. To filter out all impurities, use a cheesecloth to filter the liquid after you have strained out the solid parts. Return the liquid to a (clean) pan and add a kilogram of sugar per liter of liquid. (Make sure you are using a large enough pan!) Stirring occasionally, let the sugar dissolve by itself for a while, before you return it to the heat. (This shortens the final simmering time considerably.)

Once the sugar has more or less dissolved, return the pan to the heat and simmer gently until all the sugar has dissolved completely. Meanwhile, sterilize your bottles. As soon as all the sugar is completely dissolved, fill the syrup into your prepared bottles, adding the juice of 1 lemon per liter of syrup. Top with a twist-off pop-up cap. Unopened, they will last as well, and as long as jams do, but once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.

bottled rosehip syrup
Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Nothing quite conjures up the magical atmosphere of autumn as the warm, sweet scent of roasted chestnuts. It immediately invokes images of bonfires and harvest feasts. When the days are getting shorter and there is that crisp little nip in the air, when the leaves turn bright in color and spread a thick carpet on the ground, when the earth smells musky and moist from the rain, the chestnut season is upon us.

Description

Sweet Chestnuts, which must not be confused with Horse Chestnuts, belong to the family of the Fagaceae, the Beech-Family, which comprises several genera and numerous species of trees with edible nuts, such as acorns and beechnuts.

They are at home in the temperate zone and shun excessively cold and wet regions. In Europe, their range extends as far north as southern England, but they are most comfortable in a Mediterranean climate, where they form quite extensive natural stands.

The North American native species (Castanea dentata) has largely been replaced by the Chinese species, which was imported in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, the imported trees were infected with a virulent blight that spread rampantly and wiped out almost the entire population of native Chestnut trees.

Sweet Chestnuts grow into beautiful tall trees, with elegant large, but slender leaves, with serrated margins. The leaves develop before the flowers appear in June. They form long golden-yellow catkins reminiscent of arboreal fireworks. The nuts develop in early autumn. They are protected by a very prickly outer shell (cortex). When the cortex splits it reveals two or three nutlets that are shaped like pixie-hats, with a pointed tip and tiny tuft of white hair. In natural stands, only one of the nuts develops fully.

Sweet Chestnut Flowers

Commercial Chestnuts are derived from a cultivated variety, in which the underdeveloped nutlets are missing altogether. The bulk of the commercial crop is grown in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, where chestnuts still play an important part in the traditional cuisine.

Foraging

If you are lucky enough to have a Chestnut tree in your neighborhood, the temptation to collect the very first nuts that fall to the ground in September is almost irresistible. But the early nuts are not yet fully ripe and are usually not worth the bother. It is better to wait for another couple of weeks. By October, the nuts are plump. The outer, bristly coats should be cracked open. Now it’s time to get busy, otherwise, the forest folk, the squirrels, and wild boar will beat you to it. The shells are really prickly, so thick rubber gloves come in handy. The easiest way to remove the cortex is by gently stepping on the nuts and rolling them around on the ground underfoot until the outer shell comes off by itself. Check the nuts for little holes. That would indicate that the worms are already feasting. Worms tend to be more of a problem after heavy rains or when the nuts have been lying on the ground for too long.

The most tedious part of the Chestnut harvest is not the collection, but the shelling. A fibrous membrane adheres to each nutlet beneath the shell. It clings to every crevice and cleft.

peeled chestnuts

There are several methods to remove this membrane, and the method of choice depends on how you intend to use the nuts.

But, regardless, the first step is to remove the outer husk. Cut a little cross on the bottom surface (of each nut. Without this precaution, they explode violently when being roasted. But even if you boil them, cutting the outer shell makes the process of shelling them and removing the membrane much easier.

To preserve Chestnuts for long-term storage you still need to shell them and to remove the inner membrane. Afterward, you can dry them quickly in the oven or dehydrator, to avoid mold. Once dehydrated, they need to be soaked in water prior to use. In France, a traditional method of curing the nuts was to spread them on the floor of a harvest hut and to smoke them for a period of time. Smoked nuts could be stored for up to a year.

Pan/Oven Method

Cut a cross on the flat side of each nut and place them in a heavy skillet. Add about half a teaspoon of butter per cup of chestnuts and roast at medium heat until the butter is melted. Put the pan in the oven at 475°F. After 10 – 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and take off the shells with a small sharp paring knife. It is a tedious process, but if done correctly, the inner skins will adhere to the outer shells, thus making the shelling process much easier.

Chestnuts are a wonderful, very nutritious wild food. Unlike most nuts, they are rich in both carbohydrates and proteins but contain very little fat and no cholesterol. This distinct composition has earned them their nicknames ‘l’arbre a pain’ in French, meaning ‘bread tree’ or the English equivalent, ‘the grain that grows on trees’. Their flavor and consistency are unique in that it lends itself very well to both sweet and savory dishes. A favorite is chestnut stuffing, but they can also be used in soups, nut loaves, cookies or desserts, or they can be ground into nut flour.

Recipes

 

Roasted Chestnuts

A simple and delicious way to enjoy Chestnuts is to simply roast them, either in the oven or on an open fire. In southern Europe, special chestnut roasting pans are used for this purpose, though they are not strictly necessary. They are basically frying pans that have holes on the bottom. But it is just as simple to roast the chestnuts in a regular pan. The important thing to remember is to make an incision on the bottom of each nut so that they don’t explode. Place in a pan and roast over a medium flame for about 15 min. The flavor is completely transformed by the process. Even if you intend to use them for other dishes, such as soups or stuffing, roasting them prior to any further processing is highly recommended. They also taste great straight from the pan or can be served with blue cheese and wine.

sweet chestnut roasting

Stuffing

Minced chestnuts are excellent as stuffing for birds, such as pheasants or goose. Roast onions and garlic, add boiled and minced chestnuts and rice along with chopped celery sticks and apples. Stir an egg into the mixture and season to taste, e.g. salt, thyme, sage, rosemary, mugwort. Add wholemeal flour, oats or wholemeal breadcrumbs until the mixture has the right consistency, neither too dry, nor too wet. Judge the amounts by the size of the bird.

Chestnut Loaf

The above-described stuffing can also be adjusted to make a nice chestnut loaf. The chestnuts can be mixed with other nuts, e.g. peanuts or walnuts. Mix roughly half and half nuts and rice, add grated or finely chopped vegetables, e.g. zucchinis, mushrooms, onions, and garlic either sautéed or raw, add an egg and flour until everything sticks together nicely. Season to taste. Fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and a touch of sage are nice. Grease a bread pan and fill with the mixtures. Bake in the oven at about 375 degrees until a crust forms on the top and the dough no longer sticks when pricked with a wooden stick. Serve with steamed vegetables and mushroom sauce.

Glazed Chestnuts And Winter Vegetables

  • 2 large kumera (sweet potato)
  • 4 large parsnips
  • 4 small red onions, quartered
  • 12 whole garlic cloves, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 ½ cups peeled/blanched chestnuts
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper

Cut kumara into large chunks. Cut parsnip in half lengthwise. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish; bake, uncovered in a hot oven (220°C) about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and browned lightly. Turn gently halfway through cooking. Serves 6 to 8.

Curried Chestnut Soup

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup roasted chestnuts, minced
  • vegetable seasoning
  • ½ pint milk
  • ½ vegetable stock
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Curry powder
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Chilies to taste

Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are soft. Add zucchini and apple. Continue to sauté and stir. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of vegetable seasoning and a teaspoon of curry powder and a pinch of cinnamon into the vegetables and continue to stir. Add one pint of water. Bring to the boil and add the roasted and minced chestnuts. Stir continuously so as to avoid any of the ingredients sticking to the bottom. Press the garlic into the soup. Add 1/2 pint of vegetable stock and 1/2 pint of milk and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Season to taste with extra salt, coriander, cumin, and chilies. Adjust liquid level so the soup is creamy but not too thick. A tiny touch of honey can blend the flavors perfectly.

Baked Apples With Chestnut Stuffing

Roast the chestnuts as described above, shell and mince. Mix with raisins, sultanas, oats, and honey. Core the apples and fill the hole with the stuffing. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven until the apples are soft. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Chestnut Mousse

Chestnuts combined with cocoa and amaretto make a perfect ending for a festive dinner.

  • 2 pounds of Chestnuts, peeled and cooked
  • 12 Tbs. of sugar or honey or to taste
  • 4 Tbs. of cocoa
  • 4 Tbs. of amaretto
  • 16 ounces whipping cream

Shell and peel chestnuts as described above. Boil until tender. Drain and add sugar or honey, cocoa, and Amaretto. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Beat whipping cream until stiff. Fold into the chestnut puree. Divide among dessert glasses. Chill. Decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 10.

The mousse can also be used as a cake filling. Beware: it is very rich!

Sweet Chestnut-Cocoa Mousse

Preserving the Harvest (1)

Preserving the Harvest (1)

This article is about ways to preserve the harvest. Making your own pickles and preserves, jams and chutneys, liqueurs and canned veggies is a great way to celebrate the abundant gifts of nature. If you can get the kids involved, it is also a wonderful opportunity to bond and share stories while teaching them essential life skills.

Not too long ago, gardening and making one’s own food was considered old-fashioned and tedious work. It was something that belonged to the domain of Grandmothers and country bumpkins. Why bother, if all you need to do is to go down to the supermarket?

But things have changed. Soaring food prices, GM technology and a growing concern over dubious agrochemicals that have crept into our food supplies, more people have turned to gardening and making your own is fashionable again.

While the garden may not cover all your food needs, even producing some of your own food is uniquely satisfying. However, there is one problem: living in a temperate climate, with a limited growing phase, we are subject to the ‘feast or famine’ phenomenon. The harvest is plentiful during the warm part of the year, but there is almost nothing to harvest during the winter.

With any luck, the harvest is plentiful enough to provide for the cold season as well – but how can we preserve the abundance, so when winter comes we can still enjoy the fruits of the previous season’s labor. What delight it will be then to have tasty reminders of the summer’s plenty.

Freezing

These days, freezing is usually considered the easiest and quickest method to preserve anything. It certainly is convenient – if you have a very large freezer, that is. However, it is not a very energy efficient method, and nor is it particularly reliable. Power cuts occur with worrying frequency. And they spell disaster for anything that is stored in the freezer, unless you have an independent back-up power supply.

Luckily, there are many other options as we can learn from history. How did people manage to store things in the days before electricity lit up our world? After all, it is a fairly new invention!

It turns out, our ancestors have been incredibly innovative when it comes to devising methods of preserving foods, although not all are equally suitable for all types of foods and vegetables.

To begin with, it is helpful to consider the growing cycle. The natural life cycle of a plant starts with germination. Gradually, the plant develops and grows and eventually reaches its peak. This process is known as maturation. Most plants are harvested at their peak. From that point on they begin to decay.

No process of preservation can halt this natural cycle of growth and decay, it can only slow it down, or in some ways, progress it. The ultimate aim is to preserve as much of the mineral and vitamin content of a given fruit or vegetable as possible.

Clamps

In the old days, root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips were stored in the cellar. They were kept in boxes filled with earth, which were periodically sprinkled with water to keep them moist. In fact, the original purpose of cellars was to provide a cool, dark storage space for foods. Originally, they would have only had a dirt floor. This creates a moist, cool atmosphere that is able to ‘breath’. Unfortunately, modern houses, with their concrete foundations, insulated basements and concrete floors are much less suitable for storing vegetables. That is why people came up with the idea of these special boxes, which imitate the natural conditions.

But even without any kind of basement it is still possible to store vegetables – in a ‘clamp’. A clamp consists of a mound of root vegetables that is laid out on a thick layer of straw, which in turn is covered with earth. Alternatively, one can dig a pit. The base is laid out with wooden planks and straw. The vegetables are stored in the next layer, which is covered and covered with sand and earth. (For instructions, check with a good book on self-sufficiency).

It is important to ensure ventilation – e.g. by allowing the bottom layer of straw to peek through beneath the covering layers of soil. Unfortunately, these methods only work in places where winter temperatures don’t fall too low.

Carrots can be stored in containers filled with sand (or in clamps, as described above). They should not be washed and must not be damaged, otherwise they will rot. The green parts should be removed.

Sunchokes, parsnips, leeks, celery and Brussels sprouts can remain in the ground. Mild frosts don’t bother them. If need be, a layer of soil, straw or mulch will protect them against damage from hard frosts. Cauliflowers can be ‘planted’ (with roots attached) in boxes filled with sandy soil. They should be sprinkled with water once in a while.

Root vegetable clamps

For a limited period of time, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins can be stored in suspended nets.  But their high water content makes them liable to rot, especially if they have been bruised.

Onions and garlic should be spread out in the sun until the outer layers dry and turn papery. Thereafter, they can be bundled and hung.

Apples can be stored in a cool, moist, but aerated basement. But, they must be handled gently. Bruised apples will rot. Late varieties are more suitable for long-term storage. Early varieties are better used for immediately. Ideally, apples should be picked as late in the season as possible, when they come off the tree without effort. They should be spread out to dry for a day or so, and then stored singly (wrapped in paper, if possible) and placed on a shelf or in small cardboard storage boxes. Pears can be stored the same way, but prefer slightly cooler temperatures.

Chestnuts keep well in clamps. Check for tiny holes in their shells, which is a tell-tale sign that  they are infested with worms. Pulses and grains can be stored in hessian bags. The bags can be treated with neem spray to deter bugs. Shake the bag occasionally to inhibit the development of insect larvae.

Dehydration

One of the best methods to preserve fruits and vegetables is to dehydrate them. This method has the advantage that the ‘natural goodness’ is largely preserved, since only the water is extracted. In hot and dry climates, vegetables and fruits can be dried in the sun, or on special racks. In the colder time of the year, the rack is placed near the fire place or oven. It is difficult to sun dry fruit and veggies in modern apartments. However, one can use the oven to help the process. Arrange the prepared fruit on racks (rather than cookie sheets) that are lined with baking paper. Obviously, thin slices dry faster than thicker ones and juicy fruits take longer than dryer types. The greatest difficulty is to get the temperature right, since many of the nutrients are destroyed at temperature above 40°C. The lowest setting on the dial is usually 50°C degrees (100F). It is better to dry things at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. Keep the oven door slightly ajar to modify the temperature and to let the steam escape.

But even so, keeping the oven running for long periods of time is not very energy efficient and is also a nuisance during the summer, when it is difficult enough to keep the room temperatures bearable.

The best option is a dehydrator. The lower the wattage, the lower the electricity use will be. The best models are expandable (all you to add extra racks), have a timer and an accurate temperature regulator.

To prevent discolouration dip fruits that are vulnerable to oxidation in lemon water (50:50) before drying them. This preserves the natural color. Once dry, and aired out, store the dried goods in air-tight containers (storage jars). Dried fruit and vegetables can keep for ages, as long as they are stored properly. But if they absorb moisture from the atmosphere they will go moldy.

Very juicy fruit should drain for a period of time to reduce the amount of moisture (e.g, pineapple) before drying. Cut the fruit to the desired size and drain in a colander for at least an 1 hour.

Air-drying fruit also has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that it saves on electricity and can be done at a lower temperature, which preserves the vitamins. The disadvantage is that the drying fruit will attract fruit flies. Prolonged drying also encourages mold.

Drying fruit and vegetables correctly requires a bit of practice. Dehydrators make the process a great deal easier and less messy. A major advantage is that the dried material takes up much less space which is handy for storage. Also, dried fruit and veg keep well for long periods of time if stored correctly.

Fruit Leather

Spread pureed fruit blended with honey and ground almonds, or hazelnuts on baking paper, and dry.  Fruit Leather is a very popular snack that also makes an excellent, instant energy, hiking food.

Dried vegetables can be rehydrated by soaking them for a few hours in enough water to cover them; slowly cook them with the remaining water. It took time to remove the water, and it takes time to reabsorb it. If prepared too quickly the veggies will be chewy. The smaller and thinner the slices, the quicker they will reabsorb the water.

dehydration

Lacto-fermentation

Everybody knows (and some actually love) Sauerkraut. But not all Sauerkrauts are created equal. Most commercially available types are produced using salt and vinegar and are pasteurised, which unfortunately, kills off the probiotic substances that make fermented foods like Sauerkraut so beneficial.

Sauerkraut is not the only way in which Cabbage can be fermented. A more interesting variation (to my taste, at least) is Korean Kimchi, which consists of a combination of different vegetables and spices. There are dozens of recipes and plenty of scope for experimentation.

The method of lacto-fermentation is simple, providing one has the right equipment. It does not take much, except a special fermentation crock-pot with a grooved rim. This rim should be half-filled with water, which, once covered with the lid, creates an airlock that prevents air borne bacteria or fungal spores from entering the pot. Another necessary item is a stone or weight to push down the vegetables and keep them submerged in the juices. For smaller amounts, airtight jars (pickling jars) can be used instead.

Cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onion, garlic, horseradish, celery, bell peppers and pepperonis are well-suited for lacto-fermentation.

Suitable pickling spices include mustard seeds, peppercorns, allspice, juniper, cloves, fenugreek, ajowan, coriander, cumin, chillies, dill, fennel, tarragon, and bay leaves.

Finely cut or shred the vegetables and pack them tightly into the crockpot; sprinkle the spices between the layers of veggies. As the final layer, cover the veggies with a large cabbage or horseradish. Horseradish leaves will help to prevent mold. Prepare enough brine (1oz salt per liter of water) to pour over and cover the vegetables, but don’t fill the jar all the way to the top. (You can add a little whey to aid the fermentation process).

If you use fermentation crock-pot, half fill the rim with water (air-lock), place the stone on top of the vegetables and cover with the lid. Keep an eye on the water level in the airlock and replenish with water if it starts to evaporate. Place the jar or crockpot in a warm place for about 10 days, then move it to a cool one for another 6 weeks. Remove any mold that may have formed on the surface. Avoid removing the lid unnecessarily.

Canning

Canning is a great way to preserve foods. Almost anything can be canned and stored for later – and canned goods keep indefinitely, theoretically, at least. In practice, it is recommended to use canned foods within a year or two.

There are basically two different canning methods, one that is suitable for high acid foods, such as fruit, juices, and pickles, and one that is suitable for low acid foods, such as most vegetables, or meats.

There are many good canning recipes and it is best to choose a tried and tested one to avoid disappointment – especially if you are new to canning.

High acid foods are a little easier to process, as they do not require extreme heat to preserve them. Ordinary boiling is sufficient as the acid content inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Certain kinds of equipment make the process a great deal easier.

To preserve high acid foods, you need a large pot and rack (for holding the jars in place above the bottom of the pan), canning jars with two-part lids (lid with a rubber rim and band), a canning funnel, a jar lifter and lid magnet. A ‘head space’ measuring tool and bubble remover can also be useful.

The most important thing about canning is to make sure that all the equipment is squeaky clean and that the produce is immaculate and fresh. Don’t be tempted to preserve items that are on the verge of going off, or you will ruin the whole batch.

Prepare the foods according to your recipe, fill into the jars, and cover with a rubber ring and lid. The lids  are held in place with a special little clamp. Canning machines have a rack that is placed at the bottom. If you are using a large pot, you need to find a rack that fits the pot. Place the jars on top of the rack and cover with water . Boil for a set amount of time (according to your recipe) to sterilize the jars.

For a detailed description of the process see:

Canning High Acid Foods

Low acid foods require more care. Since they lack naturally occurring acids, they must be heated to a temperature that is well above boiling to kill any pathogens that otherwise might spoil the fruits of your labor. To achieve such high temperatures you will need a pressure cooker, preferably a purpose made one with a pressure gauge and thermometer.

As with the high acid foods, it is recommended to use a tried and tested recipe. Fill your food into clean jars, cover with lids and place the jars on the rack. Cover with water and sterilize according to the instructions of your recipe.

For a very useful and detailed description of the process, see this presentation:

Canning Low Acid Foods

Pickling

Instead of fermenting foods, many vegetables can be pickled in vinegar. This method is not as wholesome as the lacto-fermentation mentioned above, since it does not create probiotic bacteria in the process. Acid inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, which is why it serves well as a preserving liquid.

The most important thing about pickling in vinegar is to use non-metal (except stainless steel) and non-plastic containers. Acids can react with such materials. Use glass or stoneware.

Fruit can be pickled in a vinegar /sugar syrup, to make delicious condiments.

Vegetables are often salted for a period of time (overnight) in order to draw out some of their water and to soften the skin. Wash and simmer them for a few minutes before covering them in vinegar and pickling spices. But not for too long. You’ll want the veggies to stay crunchy.

Some recipes call for a vinegar /sugar others for a vinegar /brine blend. Some recommend the vinegar to first be heated (and simmered with various spices) and then cooled before pouring it over the vegetables, other recipes call for hot vinegar. Pickling provides endless scope for experimentation.

Preserving in Oil

Oil in itself does not ward off bacteria, but it creates an effective barrier and thus prevents oxidation. To preserve vegetables in oil they are usually cooked in either brine or vinegar first, for a short period of time. The idea is to preserve the crunchiness. Place the veggies into a jar and cover with oil. Start with a layer of oil before adding the veggies, as this will prevent air bubbles. Make sure the contents remain covered in oil even once you start to use the preserve. Use good cooking oil – olive oil is ideal, as it has a good balance of fatty acids and resists oxidation.

Preserving in Sugar/Syrup

That sugar isn’t healthy is not the latest discovery of science. It depletes vitamin B1 and calcium and destroys the teeth. However, for certain things sugar is an ideal preserving agent – just as with any other harmful substance, there is a direct correlation between the level of damage and the amount consumed. Sugar preserves include jams, jellies, marmalade, syrup and candied fruit. For jams and jellies it is usually necessary to add pectin (or use preserving sugar) in order to achieve the proper consistency.

If you use lemon or orange peel in your recipes make sure it comes from organic citrus fruit.

Preserving nature’s bounty is an art and no novice will immediately master all methods. But it is a great joy to preserve the harvest and to create unique tasty treats, just exactly the way you like them. No commercial enterprise can even come close to that. All it takes is a spirit of experimentation and discovery.

It is also a lot of work – but it is SO worthwhile when, in the midst of winter, you can still feast on jars and cans filled with the sunshine and goodness of the previous harvest.

Resources:

National Center for Home Food Preservation

FAO Leaflet Small-scale Post-Harvest Handling Practices

jam
Preserving the Harvest (2)

Preserving the Harvest (2)

In the last issue, I talked about different ways to preserve food, from storing, canning, and drying to making jams and pickles. All of these methods serve to preserve food for later use to sustain the body. However, there is only so much jam and cake you can make with excess fruit.  But, hey, there is still something else you can do!

Traditionally, any excess fruit is distilled to yield fruit brandy. The Black Forest, for example, is famous for its Kirschwasser, but there are dozens of similar fruit brandies made from plums, raspberries, bilberries, pears, apples, apricots – you name it. But as home distillation is illegal in many parts of the world, we won’t go into it here.

Wine-making

Winemaking, on the other hand, is not illegal. Wine experts may scoff at such peasant brews, fruit wines can be excellent, highly idiosyncratic, fun to make, and inexpensive. One just has to abandon any preconceived ideas of what wine should taste like. If you enjoy experimentation, winemaking opens up a whole new universe of hitherto unimagined possibilities.

The process of winemaking is simple enough. It involves the straight forward process of converting sugar to alcohol and CO2, using the ‘bio-services’ of yeast, which does all the work. (Sorry, wine-making is not CO2 neutral.)

There are gazillion different recipes for just about any fruit or vegetable imaginable. But grapes are considered ‘ideal’ in terms of the balance of acids and sugars. They require little or no adjustments. The most difficult aspect is the measuring process used to calculate the acid/sugar/ and potential alcohol content of the resulting brew. That is if you are going to get technical about it and expect to have some control over the result. Good wine does not happen by accident (although it may). When making wines with other fruits the wine-maker periodically takes a sample to measure the acid and sugar levels and makes adjustments accordingly.

Beginners often find it confusing that there is no general method that applies to all fruit. Each is considered for its own specific merits and treated accordingly. Although when just starting out one tends to want to follow a tried and tested recipe blindly, it ultimately will be to your advantage to learn about the chemistry involved so that you can make your own decisions based on your specific measurements.

Hot summers produce sweeter fruits than cold and rainy ones. Personal taste also comes into play. Some prefer a lighter, fruitier wine while others like a heavy, full-bodied one. As in all food ventures, the better the quality of the source materials you use, the better will be the result.

Basic Method:

  • Select and prepare the fruit: take off stalks, remove large stones
  • Transfer to a bucket and bruise/mash
  • Add water (the flavor would be too strong if left undiluted)
  • Add other flavoring agents, such as ginger or raisins

Many winemakers add Campden tablets at this stage for the purpose of sterilizing the brew. Others just add the yeast and allow nature to run its course. Whichever method you follow, the important thing is not to add yeast and Campden tablets at the same time as this would destroy the yeast.

After adding the yeast, leave the mixture to ferment, but cover the container. This primary fermentation usually takes approximately 3 – 7 days.

Siphon the liquid off by transferring it to a demijohn. Bung with an air-lock to prevent oxygen from entering. Fill the demijohn to the top. Check the sugar/acid content and make adjustments as needed. Let it ferment for a further 4-6 weeks.

Avoid opening the demijohn unnecessarily so as to minimize exposure to air, especially in the beginning when the alcohol content is low. But if the fermentation process slows down too soon, test and if necessary, feed it with additional sugar.

When the right alcohol/acid/sugar balance has been achieved, the liquid is siphoned off, filtered and filled into bottles. After 6 months to 1 year, the wine will be good to drink.

Winemaking is not complicated. But if you want really good results you have to invest in a range of tools and equipment and learn how to use them. You also need enough room to store the materials and the demijohns. But the satisfaction and sense of discovery derived from it are absolutely worth the effort. Just don’t expect your wine made from Bananas to taste like a Chardonnay. And, be patient!

It would go far beyond the scope of this article to describe all the tools that are necessary to get started or the additives that may improve the quality of your wine. Join a wine-making forum to discuss your projects and learn from others who are also practicing this fine art. Below are some links to pertinent pages and forums:

Liqueurs

This kind of sweet, alcoholic ‘dessert’ is easy to make and quite delicious. Macerate the fruit or herbs in a strong alcohol base such as Vodka, for several weeks. Remove the fruit and add sugar or spiced sugar syrup. Fill into glass jars and allow to stand for several months more – the longer you leave them the better they get.

Rumtopf

This is a great way to preserve excess amounts of fruit. And what sweet memories it of the summer past it will bring with when you dig into it in the winter.

Rumtopf consists of fruit, sugar, and rum. It is basically a collection of seasonal fruit preserved in and macerated in sugar and alcohol. Traditionally, it is started with the first soft fruit of the year – usually strawberries. Remove the green bits but keep the fruits as ‘whole’ as possible. Place a layer of fruit into the rumtopf (a tall earthenware pot), then cover it with a layer of sugar (equal amount in weight). Finally, add rum to cover the fruit with about 1inch of alcohol. Place the lid on top and leave in a cool, dark place. Every month a new fruit is added following the same procedure. Strawberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, peaches, plums, apples, pears – whatever you fancy. Most people prefer to make a batch for red fruit and a separate batch for yellow fruit or use red fruits only. By Winter Solstice you will have a lovely jug full of highly potent fruit that makes a very warming condiment for ice cream or other desserts.

Elderberry wine

  • 3 lbs fresh elderberries
  • 3 lbs sugar
  • 8 pints of water
  • 1 teaspoon citric acid
  • Wine yeast

Clean and strip the Elderberries from the bracteoles (can be done with a fork) and remove all green parts. Place in a bucket and bruise the berries to release the juice. Boil the water and pour half of it over the berries. Set aside until cool. Dissolve the sugar in the rest of the boiling water and strain the berries through a sieve on to the sugar. Add the lemon juice and the yeast (the liquid should be warm, but not hot). Pour the liquid into a demijohn and seal with an airlock.

Keep the wine in a warm place and allow the fermentation to run its course. When the bubbling has ceased, siphon the wine into a clean jar, a process that winemakers call ‘racking’. This is done to remove any sedimentation (known as ‘lees’). Store the demijohn in a cool place and rack intermittently until no more sediments form. When the fermentation has ceased completely, there are no more sediments and the specific gravity is 1000 or less, the wine is ready for bottling.

Green Walnut Liqueur

  • 750 ml fruit brandy
  • 500g brown sugar
  • 1 Vanilla bean
  • 3 inches of crushed Cinnamon stick
  • 3-5 star anise, roughly crushed

Pick about 30 green walnuts (traditionally on St. John’s Day / 24 June) while they are still soft. Cut into slices and place them into a wide-mouthed jar. Pour 750ml of fruit brandy, or eau de vie over the nuts and macerate for 4-6 weeks. Strain and discard the nuts. Prepare a syrup with 500g of brown sugar and 500ml water. Scrape the inside of the Vanilla bean, and add to the syrup along with the crushed Cinnamon and the Star Anise. Simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon of Cocoa powder and the juice and zest of 1 organic orange. Set aside to cool, then mix with the walnut filtrate and fill into jars (Kilner jars). Allow macerating for at least 3 months. Filter and bottle.

Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Corn or Maize, the ‘staff of life’ of the Americas, hardly needs much of a description. Every child recognizes it and it is cultivated so abundantly that it can hardly be overlooked. What few people know, though, is that Corn is just an overambitious grass.

Corn is a giant among grasses. It can grow more than 2m high and covers vast stretches of land dominating rural landscapes. The sturdy, fibrous stalk with its characteristic broad angularly bent-over leaves is a familiar sight. The ears develop in the leaf axils. But they are so well covered by the outer sheathing (husks) that they can barely be seen, were it not for the tuft of ‘hair’, known as corn silk that protrudes from the top of the cobs.

Modern corn was first domesticated in Mexico. It is one of the earliest domesticated plants from the New World. Its wild genetic parents are two species of Teosinte (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teosinte). Today, at least five species of Teosinte exist, but it is not clear whether any of them has been a direct ancestor of our modern corn, or whether the original parent variety has since become extinct.

Although Teosinte resembles modern corn in many ways the differences between wild and domesticated species are quite distinct. Most notably, Teosinte’s cobs are tiny. Its seeds are hard and covered by a tough skin. When ripe, their ears break off and the seeds are released.

Domesticated corn has been bred to hold on to the ears and not to release its seeds voluntarily. In the process, modern domesticated corn has become entirely dependent on humans to sow their seeds. We don’t know exactly when corn first began to morph into the shape and size we know today, but the process must have started a very long time ago. The oldest archaeological record for domesticated corn comes from Guilá Naquitz Cave, near Mitla, which is located in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is approximately 6250 years old.

Surprisingly, corn appears to have been known in Asia for much longer than is commonly assumed. It was long assumed that prior to Columbus there was no contact between the Old World and the New. Yet, archaeological findings from southern India and China that feature corn and other New World plants, seems to prove this theory wrong. Carl L. Johannessen stumbled across some very precise carvings at temples in the Karnataka region of India, which were built during the Hoysala Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th centuries.

Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, “Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion,” Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80, argue that stone carvings of maize ears exist in at least three pre-Columbian Hoysala stone block temples near Mysore, Karnataka state, India.

Their article provides 16 photographs that show a few of the sculptures in question.https://www.asc.ohio-state.edu/mcculloch.2/arch/maize.html. The carvings are quite remarkably accurate. Not just one but many distinctive features of maize are represented as true to life as a record cast in stone. Yet, many scholars have found it difficult to accept the idea of pre-Columbian contact and have thus come up with their own alternative interpretations of these sculptures. None of them seems terribly convincing.

Corn hybridizes quite freely and innumerable varieties have been created since it was first domesticated. Today, corn comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures: some predominantly starchy varieties, some soft, some hard, some sweet, some long, some short and round, some with large kernels, others with tiny ones, some blue, some white, some yellow or red and even glassy, multi-colored ones exist.

The variety appears sheer endless, yet only about five basic types of corn exist. The rest are variations of these basic types.

DENT CORN

The cobs of this type of corn are white to yellow. It is called ‘dented’ because the kernels become indented as the cob matures. This is the most commonly cultivated species as it is very versatile. Dent corn is used to produce oil, cereals, and flour, as well as animal feed. it is rich in cellulose which can be used to make biodegradable plastics and absorbent material for toiletries such as diapers, while the oil is used in cosmetics, soaps, skincare products, and more.

FLINT CORN

The cobs come in all colors and they shrink as they dry. This type of corn has very hard kernels and is used for similar purposes as Dent corn.

POPCORN

This type of corn is characterized by a hard outer skin and a soft, starchy center. This combination gives it its unique ‘pop-ability’.

SWEET or VEGETABLE CORN

This is everybody’s favorite type of corn. As the name suggests, it is high in sugar and deliciously succulent. It is the well-known ‘corn on the cob’ variety. Most of the carbohydrates in this type come in the form of sugars, which make it so tasty and sweet. It is best enjoyed fresh, as the sugars turn into starch if it is stored for too long.

WAXY CORN

This type of corn has starchy cobs with a waxy appearance. It is mainly used in the Far East for its tapioca-like starch. The food industry makes use of its stabilizing and thickening properties and as an emulsifier, e.g. for salad dressings. Other industrial uses include remoistening adhesives for gummed tape, in adhesives, and in the paper industry and as animal feed.

New varieties of corn are continuously bred. But today, these are born in the test tubes of biotech labs. Such modern cobs are not just hybrids but bio-engineered functional plant agents, designed to produce phytohormones and other substances of value to the pharmaceutical industry.

This type of enterprise is inherently dangerous as there is no way to protect people from inadvertently consuming this type of product. The germplasms of edible and bio-engineers varieties are kept in the same storage vaults, which risks accidental mixing. The germ-plasm bank for corn in Mexico has already been contaminated with genetically altered material. And time and again there are reports of non-approved, gene-manipulated types of corn that have entered the human food chain, often in the form of harmless-looking tortilla chips. These can cause severe and dangerous ‘allergic’ reactions in humans.

Corn is also at the center of another controversy: a considerable amount of corn is used to make ethanol as a bio-fuel. While we urgently need to find more environmentally friendly sustainable biofuel alternatives, we must also realize that they have their own environmental problems. Previously uncultivated land or even forest is turned over to agricultural production to fuel our cars.

In the course of its domestication, Corn has adapted so well to our human needs that it has given up its ability to reproduce independently. Natural fertilization still occurs, but corn depends on humans for all its nurture and care.

NIACIN DEFICIENCY AND NIXTAMALIZATION

Corn is very nutritious and supplies about 20% of the world’s food calories. However, a diet that is completely dominated by corn and corn products is deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Niacin deficiency can result in serious physical health problems due to niacin deficiency. The condition is known as ‘Pellagra’, which is characterized by the ‘3 D’s’ – diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia (some say 4 D’s and add ‘death’).

Interestingly, the lack of niacin in corn can be corrected by treating it with lye – a common practice among Native Americans. Such treatment results in a corn product known as hominy or Nixtamal. The process itself is referred to as nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl word ‘nixtamalli’, meaning ‘unformed corn dough’). This forms the basis of many corn products such as tamales, corn tortillas, and masa. The process removes the pericarp or outer skin of the kernel.

The process of nixtamalization also increases the bio-available amount of calcium by 75% – 85%, making it more easily digestible. Other minerals, such as iron, copper, and zinc are also increased. Nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein, and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately, the purpose of this alchemy was completely lost on the Spaniards, who took some corn back with them to Europe. They also introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with pellagra symptoms. The importance of minerals and vitamins had yet to be discovered, so corn soon was eyed with suspicion. It earned a reputation as a poor man’s food that would prevent starvation, but it was not considered wholesome.

CREATION MYTHS

Native Americans of course continued to thrive on it. It is their most important staple food and it is closely tied to all kinds of spiritual traditions and practices.Throughout the Americas, corn is closely associated with various creation myths. According to theses myths it was the Corn God or Goddess him or herself who taught the people how to grow and prepare corn so it may sustain them.

The Mayans revered this God as Yam Kaax, described in the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Mayans. Corn is linked to the very genesis of creation itself, for when the Gods decided to shape the world, they made different kinds of corn brew, which were to provide vigor and substance to their creation. They formed the first man and the first woman from white and yellow corn masa, which they transmuted into human flesh and blood.

And so it is to this day – corn is part of every meal, whether as tortillas tamales or hominy or one or another type of brew. The Aztecs mixed corn starch and cocoa to make a brew known as ‘Atole’, a kind of original ‘hot chocolate’. However, this did not taste much like what we have enjoy as such. It was mixed with various spices including vanilla and chili. An alcoholic brew made from corn is known as ‘Chicha’. Originally, it was used as sacred brew for ritual purposes, but now it is served at any and all occasions, especially during fiestas.

According to a Peruvian story, only two men survived the primordial deluge. They learned about corn from the ‘Macaw Women’. Every day, when they returned home at night, they found a large vessel filled with Chicha in their house. This went on for some days until one day, one of the men decided to stay at home to watch and see who brought them the mysterious brew.

Soon after the other man had left, two red Macaws flew in, took off their feathers and revealed their female bodies, one an old hag, the other a young girl. At once they started to chew some corn and spitting it into the pot. Finally, they filled it with water. This describes the traditional method of preparing Chicha. The man, being the possessive type, jumped from his hiding place and grabbed one of the women by the hair – of course he caught the young one, while the old woman fled. Thus, he came into possession not only of the first corn seeds, which he duly planted, but also of a wife.

In Peru, corn was associated with the Sun, which in this myth are personified as solar Goddesses. Chicha thus represents the essence of the sun’s magical powers.

In the Americas, Corn silk, the familiar tassel of ‘hair’ at the end of the cob, was considered a valuable medicine. It is believed to support the organs of the lower abdomen and was used to treat a variety of conditions: constipation, diarrhea, urinary retention, bladder infection, as well as infertility, and menstrual pains. It was also used to tone the womb after childbirth.

Although cornsilk is not ‘official’ in most of today’s pharmacopoeias, except in China, herbalists still use it to cleanse the urinary system, and to flush out kidney and bladder sand and gravel. Corn silk is considered a cleansing herb, that can eliminate toxins and thus purify the blood. Thanks to its diuretic effect it can also reduce an elevated blood pressure.

The Mayans considered their sacred plant a medicinal food – when suffering from severe illness they would eliminate all other foods from the diet and let corn alone nurture the person back to health. Mythology becomes reality – the corn reconstituted the patient’s flesh and blood just as in the ancient origin myth.

corn silk

Medicinal Uses:

Part used: Corn Silk, the silky ‘hair’ at the end of and surrounding the cob.

Constituents: allantoin, sterols, saponins, hordenine, plant acids, Vitamins C and K

Action: diuretic, demulcent, tonic,

Indications:

Corn silk is a valuable remedy, both, by itself or as an adjunct to other herbs. It can be used to treat afflictions of the genitourinary system. It is particularly helpful when it comes to alleviating the stinging pain of cystitis. The diuretic action also helps to flush out small urinary gravel and sand. In conditions such as prostatitis, it relieves fluid retention and reduces the frequent urge to urinate. The diuretic effect also lowers the blood pressure.

Native Americans have also used it to treat infertility and menstrual pain. Applied externally, the fresh corn silk can be used to clean wounds. For bacterial bladder infections it is best used in conjunction with an antiseptic herb, such as Uva Ursi or Boldo leaves. Cornsilk also seems to have an indirect effect on the liver, as it increases the flow of bile. This may explain the  traditional indigenous use of this herb in the treatment of gallbladder stones. Increased bile flow also improves digestion and absorption of nutrients from the intestines.

Corn Recipes

Green Chili Corn Bread

  • 1 cup of buttermilk
  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • ¼ cup of flour
  • 1 cup of yellow corn meal
  • ¼ cup of vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4-ounce can of chopped green chillies (or fresh)
  • 1/2 cup of Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 8-ounce can of creamed corn

Mix all together. Pour into well-greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake at 350ºF. for 1 hour.

Blue Corn Dumplings

  • 1 cup Juniper Ash Water — (See below)
  • 3 ½ cups Water
  • 6 cups Blue Corn Meal
  • Salt to taste

Boil the water.

Add the juniper water and salt.

Add corn meal and knead until soft.

Shape into small balls and drop into the boiling water. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. Remove and drain.

Serving Ideas : good with stews and hearty soups.

The Hopi form round dumplings in the winter and flat ones in the summer to ward off bad weather.

Juniper Ash Water

  • 2 tablespoons Juniper Ash
  • 1 cup Water

Snip off the tips of several juniper twigs and place them on a fine meshed metal screen. The twigs should not be woody. Light the twigs and let the ash settle on the screen. With a fine brush, (broom grass), carefully sift the ash though the screen. Store in an air tight container until needed.

To make juniper water, boil the water, remove from heat and add the ash. Steep 10-15 minutes, strain. Only make as much as is needed immediately, as it does not keep.

Plant Profile: Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Plant Profile: Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Poppies come in almost every color. The flowers have an ephemeral, dreamy appearance, quite otherworldly and mysterious. It matches their ethnobotanical profile rather well!

Synonyms

Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule

Description:

Opium Poppy is an herbaceous annual that reaches a height of between 70-130cm tall. Their showy flowers are popular with gardeners and many varieties are cultivated throughout the temperate regions. The wild variety has pale whitish-pink petals with a large dark dot at its base. Cultivated varieties are white, pink, orange, red or even dark purple. Some have a single arrangement of petals, others are double. There are even ones with frilly flower heads. The variation is truly amazing.

In the center of the flower is a prominent, many-rayed stigma surrounded by a multitude of stamens. Once the flower is fertilized the petals drop off and the seed capsule begins to swell. The size and shape vary among the different types of poppies.

The seed pod of Papaver somniferum is almost spherical with a star-shaped, flattened top, that lifts off as the capsule begins to desiccate and tiny holes begin to form underneath the rim. When the seed pod is dry and is blowing in the wind the tiny seeds are dispersed through these holes. The color of the seeds varies depending on the specific variety and can be anything from almost white to bluish-black.

The flowers are born on sturdy single stalks. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are glaucous and contain a milky latex which is the substance known as raw opium.

single poppy

Habitat and Ecology

The genus Papaver comprises about 100 species distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world. Opium Poppies (Papaver somniferum) are often confused with their close relative, the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) a common wild species that lacks the psychoactive properties of the Opium Poppy. The two species can be distinguished by size and color:

Opium Poppies tend to be much larger. Their flowers are conspicuous, white to purple, forming large, globular seed capsules.

The Scarlet Poppy tends to be rather small, with bright scarlet-red petals and small and slender seed capsules.

In New World, Native Americans have used related species such as the Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos and A. mexicana) and the State Flower of California, the Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) for medicinal purposes. Although the chemistry of these species is somewhat similar to that of Papaver somniferum, their alkaloid content is much less concentrated. Nevertheless, their ethnobotanical uses have not been entirely dissimilar: Native  Poppies were used as anodynes, antispasmodics, and as sedatives. Externally, they were used to treat burns, sores, and cuts, and as a hair rinse to get rid of lice.

Opium Poppies are not native to the New World, but after they had been introduced, eastern tribes adopted them into their material medica and used them in much the same way as the settlers did who had brought them there.

The exact origin of Papaver somniferum is difficult to trace. But most researchers now agree,, that their original home is likely to have been the Mediterranean parts of Asia Minor. From here they are thought to have spread east, to Asia, south, to northern Africa, and north, into Central Europe. Today, they are even found in British gardens and some have escaped into the wild.

Poppies naturally associate with wheat, and both plants were once considered sacred to the grain-goddess Demeter. In Europe, the closely related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can still be seen as colorful dots among the wheat. Scarlet Poppies have also been used medicinally, but their action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.

History

Beautiful to behold are the delicate Poppy flowers as they waft softly in the summer’s breeze – alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next, the fleeting splendor only lasts a few days before the falling petals expose the naked seedpod, the true keeper of the Poppy’s secret*. As the seedpod ripens, it will bulge and become filled with tiny seeds. Eventually, it begins to dry, causing the star-shaped top to lift and thereby release thousands of tiny grey-blue seeds. Every child is acquainted with them as a topping for buns or an ingredient of cakes and other baked goods. The seeds are rich in oil which Gourmet chefs value for its delicate nutty flavor. (1)

But Poppies have another property, which can bring both, great relief or misery. Within their fleshy leaves, stalks and the still green seed capsules flows a white, milky juice, which the ancients knew as ‘opion’ (2). In the ancient world, this substance was highly valued for medicinal, ritual, and recreational purposes. In fact, it has changed the course of history to no small extent. Its analgesic and sedative properties have helped many to better bear their physical or emotional pain. However, it is a highly addictive substance that traps the body and the mind into addiction,  causing destruction, self-delusion, dependence, and even death to those who succumbed to its seductive powers.

But, as Paracelsus said so many centuries ago: ‘all things are poisonous; alone the dosage decides whether a substance will kill or cure’. That dictum is certainly true for Poppy. Throughout history, it has offered a great deal of relief to millions of suffering people.

Archeological evidence suggests that Poppies have been used as far back as Neolithic times.  It seems that over a period of many thousands of years they have played a significant role in human culture. Remains of opium as well as poppy seeds have been found at Neolithic settlements, burial sites, and even in the frescoes on the walls inside the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, together with images of Mandrake and Blue Water Lily.

Poppies appear to be native to the Mediterranean. The earliest written records come from Sumeria and date to about 2000 BC. In Sumeria, it was called ‘Hul Gil’ – the Herb of Joy. It is thought that Poppy and the knowledge of its powers spread from Sumeria throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, as well as to Persia and Greece. The famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1500 B.C.) mentions it and recommends it as a remedy for ‘excessively crying of children’ (!). But as incredulous as that may seem, this use has remained popular in parts of Northern Africa and Europe to the beginning of this 20th century. Nevertheless, the drawbacks were also known. While it kept children quiet it was also said to ‘make them dull’. Then as now, physicians knew of the potential dangers, although addiction did not appear to have been as much of a problem in ancient times.

Opium is widely used and highly valued for its medicinal properties. It is considered the single most effective painkiller (although we now use it in a more refined and thus, more potent and more dangerous form). Furthermore, it was used as a sedative to calm hysterics and alleviate melancholy. It was thought to be one of the best remedies for treating colic, diarrhea, and persistent spasmodic coughs.

Opium has also long enjoyed a reputation as a potent aphrodisiac. Most famously, Queen Cleopatra’s reputed love-potion is said to have been a combination of opium and some type of nightshade, (probably mandrake), steeped in palm-wine.

It is mentioned in all the ancient works of medicine, from Hippocrates to Avicenna, Dioscorides, and Galen. Dioscorides described the process of obtaining this latex in detail:

“Those who wish to obtain the sap (of the Poppy) must go after the dew has dried, and draw their knife around the star in such a manner as not to penetrate the inside of the capsule, and also make straight incisions down the sides. Then with your finger wipe the extruding tear into a shell. When you return to it not long after, you will find the sap thickened and the next day you will find it much the same. Pound the sap in your mortar and roll the mass into pills.”

In ancient Greece, Poppy was sacred to Hypnos, the God of Sleep, who is often depicted with Poppy adorning his head and holding the seed capsules in his hands. Poppies guarded the threshold to his drowsy realm. Hypnos brought prophetic dreams and alleviated the pain of emotional trauma. At the temple of Asclepius, on the Greek island of Cos, Poppy was used in a kind of sleep therapy. The patients who came to the temple were given a draft of some kind of opium brew to induce visionary dreams that should reveal the method and agents, that could affect a cure.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their own God of sleep, ‘Somnus’, whose name still echoes in Poppy’s Latin name ‘Papaver somniferus’ – which comes from ‘somnus ferre’ – bringer of sleep.

poppy center

But Poppy was also associated with Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, who rules the realm of the dead.  Excessive use of its milky juice can bring eternal sleep.

Such associations reveal Poppy as a plant of the Underworld, a connection which dates to prehistoric times, as the above mentioned archeological evidence confirms. Presumably, Poppy or opium was intended to help the departed on their journey to the Underworld. (3)

Poppy was also considered sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught us the art of grain cultivation, especially wheat and barley, that Poppies love to mingle with. The bulging seedpods, containing a myriad of tiny seeds serve as a perfect symbol of fertility. No doubt, the aphrodisiac qualities of opium featured prominently in the rites of this benevolent Goddess of fertility.

Some scholars believe that opium may have played a role as an important ingredient of the secret ritual drink at the Elysian Mysteries. Unfortunately, we shall never know for sure. The recipe for this potion ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world.

Another myth claims that Poppy sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the loss of her lover Adonis. In the ancient world, Cyprus, considered Aphrodite’s birthplace, was known as a major hub of Poppy cultivation. It was from here, that Poppy or Poppy products were first shipped to Egypt.

During the Middle Ages, Poppy became very popular as an aphrodisiac agent in folkloristic love magic. It was the herb of choice for love charms, philters, potions, and even some forms of divination. It was thought to reveal the identity of a future lover or foretell the outcome of a love affair. Typically, the inquirer would write a question on a piece of parchment and conceal it in a seed capsule, which he or she would then place underneath the pillow. The charm was supposed to induce a prophetic dream.

The mass of tiny seeds hidden in the round-bellied capsule symbolizes fertility and prosperity. At New Years, it was customary to make sweet-breads with Poppy seeds as a magical token of these properties and a blessing for the New Year.

Alternatively, these properties could be ‘captured’ by making a necklace with gilded Poppy heads, that served as a charm. Interestingly, it was thought that if Poppy seeds had been hidden in the bride’s shoes, it renders her infertile.

Other magical uses included a potion that was thought to infer invisibility – probably an allusion to Hades, who’s ‘cap of invisibility’, (which he had worn to conceal himself when he abducted Persephone), was thought to emulate a Poppyseed capsule.

Perhaps connected to these myths was the belief that Poppy seeds could ward off daemons and vampires – if only by distracting them. Should one of these evil creatures be on one’s heels,  tossing a handful of seeds on the path behind will stop the daemons in their tracks. Forgetting their original purpose, they feel compelled to pick up and count the seeds instead.

As a medicinal agent Poppy was perhaps the most effective ingredient in the panacea known as  Theriak. Emperor Nero had ordered his personal doctor, Andromachos, to produce a potion that would ease all pain and disease. Andromachos came up with ‘Theriak, a potent potion of no less than sixty different plants and substances. Galen later refined this potion and renamed it ‘Galene’. It was hailed a panacea and became popular throughout Europe, despite the fact that is was expensive and some of the ingredients were difficult to obtain.

During the Middle Ages, when ‘heroic medicine’ became the medical approach du jour, the medicinal use of opium declined. Unsympathetic doctors of the time thought of disease as a ‘divine punishment’ and saw no reason to prescribe painkilling medication. Eventually, Paracelsus created a simplified version of the original Theriak recipe. It proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the popular appeal of the original. His concoction, known as ‘Laudanum Paracelsi’ was available in pill form. What made the pills even more effective as a painkiller was probably the addition of lemon juice, which subtly changes the chemistry of opium and enhances the anodyne action.

Laudanum was said to cure every ailment save leprosy. The glowing reports of its wondrous powers kept mounting, which meant that it was often in short supply. Scientific curiosity spurred experimentation and eventually gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. First employed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1656 in an experiment designed to prove the theory of blood circulation, he injected the hind leg of a dog with a solution of opium. Sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the entire body of the dog.

In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus’ potion once again. He intended to purify the raw drug in order to get rid it of any substances that produced ‘sickness’ if it was taken in excessive quantities. He mixed it with sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon, and cloves and named the brew ‘Sydenham’s Laudanum’.

Suddenly, opium-based products proliferated. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum, and Dr. Bate’s Pacific Pills became increasingly popular and opium supplies could hardly cover the demand. Nevertheless, Laudanum soon became a household name. Physicians prescribed routine dosing twice a week as a preventative remedy. Needless to say – this careless malpractice produced the first wave of mass addiction to opium. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was over-prescribed for children, which produced certain habituation and drug resistance in adulthood.

In 1700 Dr. John Jones published a book called ‘The Mysteries of Opium Revealed’, in which he extolled the marvelous properties and uses of opium as well as its pleasant side-effects in no less than 400 pages. His work was clearly biased and likely to have been strongly influenced by the author’s own intimate relationship with his subject matter. Yet, it did contain a grain of genius: Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances already present in the body. It took another 400 years before scientists actually discovered these substances, which became known as endorphins.

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799,  Friedrich Sertürner, a young German pharmacist apprentice, observed that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch. He became convinced that this must be due to the inconsistent presence of one active constituent of the raw opium. It took him only four years to isolate a substance, which he called ‘morphine’, a nod to the Greek God of sleep. Based on the fact that only a tiny amount of morphine was necessary to induce far stronger effects than the same amount of raw opium, he erroneously believed that this purified compound was safer.

Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to produce morphine in large quantities. Wren’s hypodermic needle became the preferred method to administrate opium. The rationalization was that injecting morphine directly into the bloodstream could triple its potency.

The story of Morphine and later, heroin epitomizes the ill-conceived idea of a science-based attempt to ‘perfect nature’ and the illusion of a ‘miracle cure’, which often produces disastrous results. Nature offers many wonderful gifts, but we must use them with due respect, lest our attempts to manipulate these blessings turn them into demonic forces that are beyond our control.

(There is a dark aspect to the history of the poppy which is also very thought-provoking, especially at this point in time. It is the story of the opium wars and the colonialization of Hong Kong. It is, however, beyond the scope of this article to explore. I would strongly recommend a deep reading of this history to all who are interested in history as well as the current developments.

poppy pods

Medicinal Uses

Parts Used: Seeds, latex, leaves, petals

Constituents: Contains about 40 different alkaloids, most importantly, morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, and narcotine

Actions: Analgesic, narcotic, sedative, antispasmodic, anti-diarrheal, antitussive, diaphoretic, aphrodisiac

Indications:

The dried latex is a well-known and highly effective painkiller and sedative. It has also been used to calm hysteric patients who are mentally or emotionally disturbed.

Its astringency makes it a powerful anti-diarrheal agent for the treatment of colic and dysentery. As an antispasmodic remedy, it can be given to calm cases of gall-bladder colic and spasms. Its anti-tussive action is highly valuable for treating persistent, spasmodic coughs (codeine is the active alkaloid here). In the past, it was much used in the treatment of tuberculosis.

As an aphrodisiac, it plays an important role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, such as impotency and premature ejaculation where these are due to stress and performance anxiety.

Caution:

Opium, morphine, and heroin are all highly addictive substances, besides which they are also highly illegal. Excessive use of opium leads to serious health problems and can even cause death.

This article is intended as an educational resource, not as a guide for self-medication or to encourage the use of illegal drugs.

Status: In most countries, it is illegal to cultivate Poppies without a license, although in Europe it is commonly grown as an ornamental. Harvesting opium, however, is strictly prohibited everywhere. The dried seedpods and the seeds are legal and commercially available. The dried seed pods are a popular item for crafts, dried flower arrangements, and ornaments. The seeds are used for cooking and baking. The oil, obtained by pressing the seeds, is used for cooking. In  Neolithic times it was used as a lamp-oil in the lake villages of Lake Constance. The seeds are mostly used in baking.

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