Southern Californian summers smell of sage and the sea. I know this because I have spent a lot of time recently up mountains overlooking the Pacific, gathering sage for the Sage + Clarity surprise box. On a cliff’s edge, my backpack full of white and black sage, I sit and stare out to Catalina island, getting lost in thought about the wisdom of sage. After a while of sitting and thinking and munching on crackers and cheese, topped with freshly gathered sage leaves (my current favourite hiking snack), I determine that sage's lesson is one of clarity: it helps to clear thought that is confused, it clears a sick room of microbes, it clears stagnation from digestion. It elevates, enlightens, broadens perspective. Content with my conclusion, I brush the crumbs off my legs, gather up my belongings and begin the hike back to my car. It was only this afternoon, when I was processing another batch of dried white sage, that I started to think more deeply about clarity itself.Read More
(herbs for hot days)
Dried out grass, leaves and acorn shells crunch under my feet as I head off the trail up a hill to what, in previous years, has been one of my best wildcrafting spots. The changes, from last year to this are staggering: what was a carpet of chickweed and cleavers is still hard and dry; what was a canopy of bay and oak is patchy and stressed.
Dried seed pods crack and splutter their contents onto parched ground, to lie dormant in wait for water or fire, or both. Heat radiates up from the ground in a constant stream. The air is hot, the sun is hot, the wind is hot, the ground is hot under your feet and through the soles of your shoes. It is relentless, pervasive, never-ending. Out here there is no water, only rock and sun, that relentless sun. It is the rhythm of death looming on the horizon— an element taken to its extreme, deprived completely of another. And it makes me think of how much, even taking into account different constitutions, balance is so necessary for our survival.
I think about stress, and those little ranges of pressures we all have. And how unconsciously, when the world around us is more stressed than usual it will reflect on us, we’ll pick up on it. The dryness in the landscape is reflected in the dryness overall (I’m seeing SO many clients who need moisture right now) and this relentless heat, this dryness, this hot wind, and the lack of end in sight has been causing a low-level tension, a borderline panic in me.
A panic that is instantly relieved by moisture.
This, to me, brings to mind the importance of herbal energetics: to look up a list of ‘herbs for anxiety’ you’d probably see things like kava kava, valerian, pulsatilla, possibly rose. Maybe some GABA (SO not a herb), definitely to lay off the caffeine. But what if the anxiety is caused by irritation and dryness? A vat of kava kava wouldn’t address the underlying cause in that case. Which brings me to summer, and heat, and dryness and the misery that arises from all of them. I’ve found coping with summer heat to be infinitely more manageable if I address some of the imbalances directly— moistening the heat, tightening the tissues, replenishing the lost electrolytes. Its the principle behind the Summer Heat Elixir I make (and take all summer) and also behind almost every meal I have at this time of year (watermelon? check!). Here’s some energetic things to look at for hot, dry summers:
Dryness and demulcents: Dryness and tension go together like pirates go with rum. Because the more you dry something out the more brittle and hard it becomes. I don’t know if you see it a lot where you are, but here in Southern California, I see a lot of brittle people. People who are so wired and tense and frazzled that they look like they could snap. Its not ‘classic’ anxiety, its tension and dryness and its affecting the nervous system. The best thing to give someone like this is a cooling demulcent, because demulcents relieve inflammation and irritation by cooling, soothing and moistening.
Think about how soothing jumping into the ocean feels on a hot summer day. Think about a cracked and parched river bed in the hot summer sun, and then how relieved that river bed would feel when the deluge of a monsoon came. Think about the water filling in the cracks and seeping deep down under the surface and how that hardness and tension will slowly soften.
Demulcents are discussed a lot in terms of lung, gut and UTI treatment, in terms of softening hardness and constitutional dryness, and not very much in terms of how it can ground out a fried nervous system*, but I’ve seen it over and over again. I make up big jars of extra slimy marshmallow infusion and pass it around my classes on energetics, and the collective sigh of relief is amazing to watch, and is also a really good teaching tool.
Another nice thing about demulcents, other than the fact that they feel like absolute heaven, is that they are pretty clever and also systemic. That is, if you have dry lungs and drink a demulcent then it will affect your lungs. If your guts are dry then it’ll affect your guts. Nature abhors a vacuum but I think it also abhors being out of balance…
Try a hibiscus and mallow cold infusion. Or watermelon juice with mint. Try violet + mallow + peach leaf, or you could get fancy and try peach and hibiscus in a glass of chilled white wine. There are possibilities and they are endless.
Moistening + cooling herbs and foods hibiscus nopales cholla buds mallow (also, hollyhock, globemallow, etc) leaves or roots watermelon violet aloe (just the gooey middle bits, not the bright yellow bits around the skin unless you want to be on your toilet pooing all night) peach yogurt evening primrose
Dryness and astringents: Another action to think about at this time of year is astringency. You think astringent, and you think drying, because everyone here has sucked on a banana peel and regretted it, right? But when you think about what that astringent does: its tightening and toning the membranes that it comes into contact with, making it more efficient, more parsimonious with its expenditure of moisture, and this is actually systemically moistening** because you’re no longer losing water. This can be incredibly helpful during the summer, especially for those who sweat a lot.
There’s also the issue of swellings. You know, hands and feet that go up a size when the temperature gets up over seventy degrees. Once again, think of that leakiness, and the water leaking out of the cells. Gentle astringents, slowly nudging the body back into balance. You don’t want to over-astringe, but gentle sour things are good things.
Try sumac lemonade, or berries for breakfast. Try a hawthorn and strawberry leaf elixir, or potentilla, rose and raspberry infused in vodka. Or try mixing some of these with some of the things from the demulcent category…
[Gentle] astringent food and herbs, to moisten by holding the water inside the body: rose potentilla strawberries raspberries blackberries cherries sumac (lemonadeberry) hawthorn
Dryness and electrolytes, because salts are good: The balance of salt and water is a complicated thing. There are those of us who sweat too much and those of us who sweat very little and interestingly, we (I fall into the latter category) all seem to suffer during the summer. I’ve fainted at the gym, almost collapsed while hiking, and generally have quite a hard time of it during the hot months. One of the things that helps me the most is ingesting foods that are high in electrolytes. Sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, these minerals need to be in a certain balance in our blood and while its obvious that those who sweat a lot need to replace them, those of us who don’t sweat still need to, as ingesting them makes us feel a whole lot better.
Try adding a pinch of sea salt and half a lemon to your drinking water, or having a watermelon, mint and sea salt salad, or munching on seaweed as a snack, or this coconut cooler recipe. If you’re exercising and getting faint, up your fruit intake, or try a sports drink, or even make your own oral rehydration salts.
Electrolyte-rich foods***: sea salt (add a pinch to your drinking water) coconut seaweed watermelon lemons oranges apricots make a seaweed-rich nutritive sea salt
*unless you’re Jim McDonald in which case you will talk about this a lot because you love slime **another Jim-ism ***also, never underestimate the efficacy of something simple like Gatorade or Pedialyte on a hot day, as disgusting and full of crap as they may be, they’re better than fainting or [hyperbole alert] dying.
(On summer heat, prickly pear, and cooling drinks)
Let’s set the scene: its 100 degrees outside, and the air in your house is still, stifling, stuck. Opening the windows doesn’t help, because the air that comes in is hot. So you keep the curtains closed, the windows closed, and stay still. Sweating. There’s stuff to do, but its too hot. Things to write, but its too hot. Beds to make, but that involves movement, and who wants to move because its hot. At some point the cat walks over and collapses on the tile floor nearby and stares at you, beseechingly, wondering why you can’t make it stop. It doesn’t stop. This is what summer looks like from my perspective.
I have a friend who loves the summer. We’re opposites in many ways: the second it starts to heat up she gets happy, and I get grumpy. When the summer solstice comes, I get excited knowing that fall is coming, even if its far away. The arrival of fall makes her sad because summer is so far off. But not me! When the Autumn arrives I'm in utter bliss. Hot days make her happy. I’m trying to understand this better, understand what it is about the heat that is pleasant. So far I've come up with this: heat relaxes things and people. Heat means one has to move more slowly. Heat brings to mind places I’ve not spent much time, like the American South, where people supposedly sit around drinking ‘tea’ (as a Brit I beg to differ), eating watermelon, doing things slowly, and drawling. I took an unofficial Facebook poll, and discovered that there are some other things, according to people who like the summer, that are good about hot days and balmy nights: fireflies, cicadas, warm earth, shaded areas, cold fruit salad, iced tea, ice cream, stone fruit, watermelon, partial nudity, cleansing sweat*. I’ve resolved to change my approach this year: to accept that it is hot, to find things to like about it, and to find things that help in coping with it. One of my favourite of these newfound coping mechanisms, that is swiftly becoming an obsession, is prickly pear cactus.
Prickly pears (opuntia spp.) are common and abundant in many states. Here in Southern California, and throughout the Southwest I assume, its quite common to find them in Mexican grocery stores, already de-spined and ready to be thrown on the grill (if you haven't had grilled cactus paddles, I suggest you go out and do so immediately as they're delicious). All parts of the plant are edible, from the big paddles to the ripe fruits to the flowers, and all parts of the plant are medicinal, which makes it an extra-useful thing to have around.
For prickly pear as medicine (and actually for all the opuntias), think the following: cool, calm, moisten, soothe, heal. Like a cool river flowing through a parched landscape. And think how perfect that is for this time of year, for the dried out and cracked up, the overheated, the overirritated. Think about the skin and the mucous membranes, and how these mucous membranes are really just skins on our insides anyway, and that cooling, calming, soothing, healing effect on any of those skins, for things like burns, irritations, wounds. Think about it internally for cooling and soothing overheated lungs or an irritated digestive tract. Or externally for sunburn, for healing irritations or rashes. Or systemically for the grumpy overheated winter-loving grouch *points at self* who wants nothing more than to stick her head in the freezer.
I’m currently working on a prickly pear face cream (cooling, soothing, healing, moistening? Yes please!) for my July Surprise Box, and so I've had a LOT of prickly pear paddle juice lying around. Its slimy and its soothing, and is useful in this regard either externally or internally. I like to throw it in ice cube trays to use as burn treatments, or to ice summer drinks. More about the prickly pear paddle, and its uses, in upcoming posts. As for now, however, I want to talk about the fruit, and my favourite (at present) summer drink. Its really easy-- a few ingredients, thrown in a blender and then strained into a glass. Its full of electrolytes and is cooling, calming and moistening to boot. Plus, its pink. You can never go wrong with such a bright pink drink...
Prickly pear cooler
Innards of 3 prickly pear fruit Juice of 1 fresh young coconut** 1 lime Prickly pear juice ice cubes for serving (optional)
In a blender, pour the coconut water, the innards of the prickly pear fruits (to peel them, slice along one side, carefully pry them open then just scoop it out with a spoon), and the juice of the lime. Blend on medium for about 20 seconds, then strain into a glass.
*thank you to all you lovely people on Facebook who put up with my silly questions and play along. **to open coconuts, check this out.
As I write this, I have my back turned on my office and kitchen, both of which have been completely devastated by my tornado-like working methods, which go something like this: 'start one thing then another then another then another then forget what you were doing, make a snack, then decide to write a blog post and if you don't look behind you then the mess doesn't exist, right?'. I might not be the most efficient person in the world, but I don't think that was ever a question. The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, between catching up on work from my month away, making products for Surprise Boxes, and driving up into the mountains at every given opportunity. Things of note that have happened since I was last here:
1. The light changed. Silly bright white summer light is no more, and has been replaced with the soft golden tones of fall. The sun no longer rises onto the buildings across the street, now it rises and the tree in the front garden is lit up orange. Those seconds are my favourite seconds of the day, and every morning when I get to see it is a good morning as far as I'm concerned.
2. As a result of said light change, I have replaced the sandals by the front door with my four favourite pairs of boots. This, for the record, was slightly preemptive and stupid as the last week has been hotter than hell and I keep having to run upstairs to get sandals from my closet. But seeing boots by the door makes me happy. I was built for boot weather.
3. I've been reading The Plant Healer's Path, while I sip my coffee in the mornings. Thoughts and musings from some of my favourite people (and yes, a couple of my articles are in there); truly life and path-affirming stuff. Highly recommended...
4. I finally strained the nocino I made last year. Yes, its about a year after I said I was going to strain it, no, it has not affected the flavour negatively, and yes, it is being sent out to my Surprise Box subscribers on Monday. Which is ruining the surprise, somewhat, but there are three other true surprises in there...
5. I have been gathering like a madwoman. The end of summer brings pine nuts, mesquite pods, and acorns, all three of which are my favourite flavours-- things I could (and probably will) combine ad infinitum for years to come. I didn't get enough of any to eat them for years to come, but there might be a few months of acorn, mesquite and pine nut recipes. You have been warned.
5. The acorns are dropping. This was, at the time, early. Ridiculously early actually. I just happened to be driving up a windy mountain road, after gathering mesquite pods, and *happened* to see big clusters of perfectly ripe acorns hanging heavily from the oak trees as I drove under them. I pulled over, glad for a constant supply of canvas bags in my trunk for these very occasions, and I gathered what I could. Acorns are a magnificent wild food, despite the hard work that goes into making them edible. As far as I'm concerned, all that work is rendered '100% worth it' upon tasting anything made with them. As evidenced below.
6. Make this tart. Please make this tart. If you don't have oak trees growing near you, you can find acorn flour at a Korean market (it'll be called 'acorn starch') or online. If you don't still have plums at the market because you don't live in the magical fruit-loving realm of Southern California, you can use frozen, or plums shipped from halfway around the world (THE HORROR!). If you don't have a gluten intolerance then you can substitute all the funny flours in the crust (except the acorn) with regular flour. If you do have a gluten intolerance, this recipe is gluten free. Regardless, it is mind-blowing. Plum and acorn is one of my favourite flavour combinations, and this does not disappoint. Make it. That's an order.
You will have a lot of custard left-- may I advise to fill crepes with it and top with some leftover plums.
And as far as acorn flour goes, check out Hank's article on the matter here.
Plum and acorn custard tart
For the crust:
2 sticks butter, at room temperature 1 cup acorn flour 1 cup cornstarch 1/2 cup white rice flour 1/2 cup arrowroot flour 2/3 cup sugar 1/2 tsp salt
In a big bowl, dump the butter, and beat for a little bit until its light and fluffy. Add the salt and sugar, mix, then one by one add the flours. By the time you add the last one you can probably just mix it with your hands.
Once its all mixed, you can press it into the base of a tart pan. Rolling this dough is quite difficult, simply because it lacks gluten to hold it together. I've found it much easier to just press little pieces of it into the tart pan until the whole thing is covered. Make sure its even, and that the whole thing is covered. Save the rest for another tart, because you'll want to make one soon.
Prick holes in the base with a fork, then put the pan + uncooked crust in the freezer for about an hour. After an hour cook at 350 degrees fahrenheit for 40 minutes, until the crust is slightly more brown than it was before. Leave on a counter to cool.
For the acorn custard:
2 cups milk 1/2 cup + 1 tb sugar 1/2 tsp vanilla extract 1/2 cup cornstarch 1/8 cup acorn starch 1 egg 4 egg yolks 4 tb acorn infused butter 1/4 tsp salt
To make acorn infused butter, the easy way, melt two sticks of butter over half a cup of acorn flour, and keep warm for a few hours. Mix, and strain the whole thing into a jar.
Combine the milk, sugar and vanilla in a heavy-bottomed pan and heat gently. Meanwhile, beat the egg and egg yolks in a bowl. Add a cup or so of the milk mixture, then add the cornstarch and acorn starch. It will make a thick paste. Whisk is until its smooth. Once the milk on the stove is warm, add a cup at a time to the cornstarch-egg mixture, whisking it, until it is liquid, then pour the whole thing back in the pan and turn up the heat a little so that its at a medium . Stirring constantly, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom, until the whole thing starts to thicken, then boil. Its ready when a wooden spoon dragged across the bottom leaves a noticeable trail, and its noticeably thicker.
Pour into a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface (to prevent it forming a skin), then refrigerate until cool.
For the plums:
4-6 plums, sliced 2/3 cup sugar juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup brandy, eau de vie, or kirsch
In a pan, place the sliced plums, and sprinkle the sugar over the top evenly. Add the sugar and brandy, then turn the heat on low. Keep heating until the plums start to soften, and change colour, flipping them over on occasion, and rearranging so that they all get an even coating of the brandy-lemon-sugar mixture. The skins will start to shrink. Press a fork or wooden spoon into the surface of a plum-- they're ready when they give but don't crumble. You want them soft but not destroyed. Remove from the heat and let them sit so that the rest of the liquid can absorb.
Put it all together:
Using a spatula, spread the acorn custard into the base crust, filling it until the top of the crust and the custard are level. Smooth it out as much as possible. Lay the plums out on top in a pretty pattern. Then, if there's any liquid left, it should be quite thick and delicious, pour that over the top in a drizzle. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Gathering with friends is only fun if its an enhancement of gathering alone. Because alone, gathering is a holy experience. You sink into a rhythm, a quiet calm. Snip, pluck, drop, move, repeat. That rhythm becomes a background humm, that turns into a moving meditation. By the time you emerge from it, your bag is full, and problems have resolved themselves in the recesses of your mind, and, most likely, your eyes are a shade brighter than they were before*. I do this so often that I had forgotten how nice it was to have company. Especially company that gets as excited about happening upon a bounty as I do. Like when Emily and I were out looking for currants a couple of weeks ago and just happened upon a big, heavy mama elder tree so laden with berries that the branches hung low to the ground.
By the time we left, my backpack was so full and heavy that the ones on top started crushing the ones on the bottom and the juice started seeping out the bottom of my backpack, down my back, onto my pants. The top of my pants, by the time our walk was over, were stained blue. I think this would go into the category of ‘forager and herbalist problems’. And I’d guess that, if you see someone out in the world and the back of their pants, from waistband to butt, have a slight purplish tinge, then you know what happened, and you can throw them a high five and say ‘what’s up, elderbutt!’.
But back to those berries. There are lots of reasons to go out and find some elderberries this year. The first is, of course, elderberry elixir (or syrup). You MUST make a batch (if you cant, then you should probably buy some, as a medicine cabinet devoid of elderberry preparations is like a fortress devoid of a wall). Your immune system will thank you, as will the rest of your family when they never get sick again. As will your cabinet, for finally feeling complete (cabinets are known to be very insecure).
The second is this chutney. There are plenty of other things you CAN do with a big batch of elderberries, from jams to wines, to pies, to juices, but as far as I’m concerned, this chutney is the business. Its best application is on top of something bread-like, like oat cakes, alongside something tangy, like goat cheese. It makes lovely hors d’ouvres when you have people over, but it’s even nicer for a summer lunch, with a bottle of something crisp and cold (Ginger beer. Definitely ginger beer.) and a nice shady spot outside. Bring some crackers, bring some cheese, and a knife, and a little container of chutney. Take a cracker, then a slice of cheese, then a dollop of chutney, and munch on it while you survey what’s around you and listen to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. And then lie back and relax, and let all those little elderberries go to work strengthening your immune system, improving your circulation, tonifying your blood, and generally making you stronger and more resilient. And reflect, with a full belly and a full heart, on how you are ingesting something from the land around you, and what that means for your soul, as a whole, to be connected to the earth, and a part of the life cycle. And if you feel like it, maybe even do all of this with a friend.
5 cups elderberries
1 cup elderberry juice
1 cup raisins
1 apple, peeled and chopped into small cubes
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp coriander
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 inch ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mustard seed
2 tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup sucanat
In a big pot, put all of the ingredients, then turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Reduce to simmer immediately, and do so for about 3 hours. Once the liquid has reduced dramatically (you still want SOME, but not a soup), and the whole thing looks like a big mushy mess, sterilize your mason jars. Spoon the hot chutney into your hot jars, leaving a half inch space at the top. Seal with fresh lids, and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. They'll keep for a year. Refrigerate once opened.
*Not to give too much of an impression that wildcrafting is an idyllic experience- it’s not. You get stratched up, scuff knees, ruin favourite skirts, break nails, get sharp things under nails, get whacked in the face by branches, bitten by ants and spiders and bugs and scared by rattlesnakes. You come home with dirt in places you didn’t think it could reach, and twigs in your hair. In other words, it’s really fun.
(a recipe for braised fennel yum and exploration of what it is we all do) Often, while sitting at my little market stall, I am approached by people who want to know what a herb DOES.
People are always interested in the function of person, plant or object alike, because we want to know how best it can serve us. But when it comes to people and plants (because objects are often born with a job in mind, like, for example, a kettle, whose function, first and foremost, is to boil water. All other functions, say, to be beautiful and to match the curtains are secondary) I am loathe to start spouting off functions.
Of course, at a party it is really difficult to walk up to a person and say 'who are you?'. Most likely you'll be given a name and a job in response, which will leave you in the same place as if you asked 'what do you do'. And quite honestly, the same thing happens with a plant. A question of 'who are you' to a plant will often be met with a use of some kind. For example, me asking a lovely desert lavender plant the other day was met with the image of a fevered man being fed a hot tea of desert lavender flowers. Is desert lavender (as if desert lavender was a person) a hot tea for fever? Among many other things. But if people and plants gave up all their secrets upon first meeting each other then what point would there be in developing relationships and getting to know each other?
Essence has to be worked for, and understood without words. I'd venture to say that the second you start to describe somebody with words, the essence is gone (try describing the person you love the most in a series of sentences and they just fall flat). And the same goes with plants. Reading a list of indications on a page will only give you so much information. To understand it, you have to dive in, get to know it. Taste it. Feel it. Let it become a part of you and flow from your pores. Only then do you start to understand what person or plant is made of. Only then do you start to understand how they fare in different situations and how there are some things they will do even if its not in their job description (maybe they'd only do it for you because you took the time to get to know them) and then some things that they do automatically because its in their very nature. Plants and people, as far as I see it, are very alike in this manner.
Fennel is one of those things- yes, it's good for flatulence, and yes, it tastes delicious, but to say that it is these functions is to reduce it so a list of facts. Energetically, one would say that its warming, soothing, moistening. That it relaxes spasm and has a slight expectorant effect. That it excels in cough syrups and cramp formulas and can soothe a colicky belly and sore throat alike. But it's more than that still. It has an affinity for the feminine- that moist, dark, retreating principle- and the seeds are a bit more expansive and action-oriented, though the whole thing is commonly used to increase milk production... The leaves, when munched on or tea-d with are sweet and soothing and can make most borderline disgusting formulas much more palatable. Also, according to Culpepper, tea made of the leaves, seeds and roots will 'make people lean who are too fat', but you didn't hear it from me (I think this is because fennel will, in fact, make you feel sated even when you are not).
Unfortunately there's very little way to convey it being more than that other than with a few chicken-scratches and possibly an interpretive dance with a big hug at the end. So let my little list and description be enough right now, until you go and cook some up for yourself (after which you'll return to say 'yes, yes, I understand completely, it can do all that and so much more, let's make some chicken-scratches and interpretive dance together, to signify everything that it is and then go back to drinking our fennel tea, glad for its flatulence-dispersing and indigestion-soothing effect, but understanding that it is not (nor is anybody) its job description).
Braised fennelly goodness*
As many fennel bulbs as you have people
1 teaspoon fennel seeds per bulb
1/4 cup white wine/ champagne or leftover apple cider. The recipe is non-specific, just use whatever is lying around leftover from another meal.
Butter. 1 tb per fennel bulb.
Oil. Olive oil. White fir infused olive oil if you have it but a good slightly peppery one will do in case you don't.
1/2 tsp salt.
A good crunch of pepper.
Dear readers, the first thing you should do with a bulb of fennel is to chop off the fronds with one swift and confident motion. The purpose of this is twofold: first, to show that you are not afraid of something strange, and second is to show your cutting board who is boss. Take the fronds, wrap the stalk-ends in a rubber band, then tie that rubber band up somewhere dry with a string. I like to keep my hanging herbs in plain view, partly because it looks slightly witchy and slightly like a French provincial cottage kitchen, but also because when I can see them, I will use them, whereas if they sit drying in a closet somewhere I will only remember after a year when they have gone brown and the fragrance has been lost to the surrounding bedsheets. You can do this with a few fennel bulbs, and you'll be left with a big bunch of hanging plant matter, and a few bulbs lined up neatly on your cutting board.
And this is where it gets fun. My favourite thing to do with fennel involves a hot oven and a cast iron pan. Chop the bottom off the bulb, and then chop the fennel bulb swiftly in half down the middle, from bottom to nose. Lay each half flat, and then slice into quarter-inch pieces, which you can toss immediately into a cast-iron pan. Do this with all the bulbs until there are none left, then drizzle them with the olive oil, sprinkle over the fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Pour in the wine/champagne/cider, dot with butter, and put in a hot oven (preheated to 375) for about 30 minutes. When its done, you'll know it, because your house will smell like sweet anise and green and cooked wine. And most likely somebody (perhaps you?) will be clawing at the oven in desperation. Remove from the oven, chop a few of those frond-pieces that you have hanging nearby and sprinkle them over the top. Serve in its pan, with a cool drink and a big chunk of fresh, warm bread.
*This is a technical name.
I remember the day I first fell in love with the elderflower: it was a hot Glaswegian summer day. I was sitting on my favourite grassy knoll, in the shade of a big craggy old hawthorn bush, with a bounty. All of my adventures involved a bounty of some kind, be it wood sorrel (no plant was safe), wild blackberries, or, in this case, chocolate chip cookies and soda. My soda of choice was usually sparkling apple cider, but, on that day, they were out of stock, and right next to that empty spot was sparkling elderflower.
It sounded old; like something my grandparents would have drunk years ago, before the war, on a sweltering hot August afternoon. Reasoning that Marks and Spencer never stock anything that doesn't taste good, I bought it, placed it carefully in my backpack, then jumped on my bike.
Few things in life are as carefree as summer holidays when you're young: two infinite-seeming months that stretch into the orange sunset, where the days last until 11pm (in Scotland at least) and the sound of sprinklers unleashed on front lawns ran into the late evening, with the squeals of delight carried on the smell of cut grass permeated the warm air that drifted in through the open windows. Between that yellow-orange glow and smell of hot grass, in the filing cabinet of my memories, on the other side of wild berries swollen, heavy, pregnant with purple juice, is the KCHHHHH sound of opening a bottle of elder fizz on a grassy knoll, with my bike, and an Agatha Christie book.
Elder flowers are fairy flowers. They dance on the edges of fields and woods and on the edges of worlds. Even their smell is somewhat lovely and somewhat pongy, at the edge of what's normally considered 'nice'. Glance through the shadows cast by those dancing umbels and, if you're not really paying attention you can hear laughter and singing. True story. A day spent gathering elderflowers will cast you out of time somewhat. I like to think of this as a good thing. Not only that, but the tree in itself is a veritable pharmacy- the leaves and twigs make great blood moving salves, the flowers and berries are edible, and the berries are pretty much the best thing ever for flu season. So gather a ton of flowers (making sure you leave enough to turn into berries too!), and bring them home in a paper bag. Set aside some especially pretty umbels to dry for a flu-season tea, and then turn the rest into cordial. Because anything you need to do with elderflowers (except fritters) can be done with a cordial. Custards, drizzles, cocktails, meat glazes, and fizzes all stem from this little workhorse. Then make yourself some fizz, kick your feet up, watch the light change, and let yourself be transported back to the edge of a dream, where you found the flowers in the first place.
2 cups elderflowers, removed from stems (roughly, don't drive yourself crazy, just try and get most of them off) and de-bugged
6 cups sugar
5 cups water
Juice of 3 lemons
Bring the water and sugar to a boil and then remove from heat. Add the elderflowers and leave to cool. Heat up once more, adding the lemon juice, and allow to cool overnight, then strain out the flowers, squeezing to make sure you get all the syrup out. Pour into bottles and refrigerate. It'll last months in the fridge.
serves 2 gluttons, and 4 normal people
1/4 cup elderflower cordial
juice of 1 lemon
1 large bottle of sparkling water
Put all the ingredients in a decanter or big jar of some sort, add some ice, stir gently, and serve.
I'm submitting this post to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst for wild flower month!
It was a hot desert summer day- the kind of day where you really don’t want to go outside between 9am and 5pm. The kind of day where having a regular day job in an air conditioned building doesn’t sound so bad after all. We were in Palm Springs, at Jam’s parents’ house, and it was late in the day so I decided to drive to a nearby trail that I hadn’t explored in years. When I arrived, a lady was pacing back and forwards in front of her car. She looked worried. I asked her if she was ok, and she said that she was waiting for the police helicopter- her husband had fallen and hurt his leg up the trail. He had dragged himself for as far as he could but now he was out of water and couldn’t go any further. She had good reason to be worried, by the way- being stuck out in the desert with no water is no joke. Dehydration and heat exhaustion can happen so quickly you don’t even know it’s hit you, and if he wasn’t found soon he could possibly die. I thought for a minute then asked how far up he was: it would be dark in under 2 hours, and then it’d be impossible to see him from a helicopter. She said that he wasn’t very far up, so I grabbed an extra water bottle and set off at a jog.
Jogging up a mountain when it’s 100 degrees out is no joke. After a couple of miles I stopped for a rest and looked around me. The area was completely deserted. The light was pink and there were long shadows cast over the red rocks. The stark beauty of the desert really struck me in comparison to the direness of the situation: nature doesn’t give a damn, and it’s never more apparent than when somebody’s life is in danger. In a way it’s that cold beauty that draws me to it. It’s not nurturing in a loving way- not in the way a mother is to a child. No, it’s nurturing in a primal way, in that the earth feeds us and we feed the earth whether we feel it or not, or whether we understand it or not. Something about that rhythm that carries on regardless makes me happy. It’s the freedom of not mattering one bit that I like so much. Because in not mattering, there is nothing to weigh you down. No potential and no guilt, no past and no future, just this big impersonal moving organism that marches forwards, constantly evolving. In its chaos, it's constant.
I heard a helicopter in the distance, getting closer, and I sat down on a big rock to watch. It looped back and forth, going further and further along the trail, and after about 20 minutes of circling, a loudspeaker said “we see you there sir”. I watched (which was SO COOL) as they lowered a someone down with a stretcher, and lifted the man to safety. And then I lay back on the rock and said “thank you”. To who or what, I don’t know. I just know that I was so relieved that he had been found and was safe.
I gathered some creosote and then set off down the mountain. As I walked back to the car, the worried woman stopped as she was driving off. He was ok. Seriously dehydrated and his leg was badly injured, but he'd be fine, and was on his way to the hospital. Then she looked at me strangely and said “Thank you. You didn’t need to do that.” And I said something about how I really didn't do anything- I mean, I didn't, as he would have been found and safe whether I was there or not. But as I got into the car to drive away I thought “Why was she surprised? How could I not have made an effort?” I mean, there was a man out there who could have died, and what if the police hadn’t arrived in time, or if they hadn’t found him? I don’t think it would have been possible for me to drive off not knowing if he was ok.
As I drove back towards the main road, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and slammed my foot on the brakes. Fancy cars don’t like it when you do this in the desert but I didn’t care. I was surrounded by mesquite bushes, and they were covered in pods. How I didn’t notice them on the way in is beyond me, but then if I’d noticed I might never have made it to the trail, and I wouldn’t have got to witness an air lift happen from super close and I wouldn’t have decided that I’d like to join search and rescue when I am able. In the twilight, I gathered as many pods as I could fit into my bag, and then went back to Jam’s parents’ house to take a shower.
Mesquite reminds me of the desert, with its nutty, sweet, malty taste. You can nibble on the pods alone, or grind them up to make flour. And for those of you who don’t live in the desert areas, you can buy mesquite flour at health food stores thanks to it being a favourite of raw foodists. I highly recommend it. You can replace up to 40% of the regular flour with mesquite, and it makes such a gorgeous difference, adding a complexity to baked goods that is really just, well, worth it. Worth the expense if you don’t have access to the trees, and worth the agony of running up a hill if you do.
A few notes:
If you’re making mesquite flour, depending on how sugary and resinous the pods are, you might have to grind them up a bit, then dehydrate the ground bits. I put them in the oven on its lowest setting for a couple of hours, then ground them some more. You can use a really good blender, or a grain mill, and I think Kitchen Aid has an attachment, though I have no idea how good it is because my blender doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. Then, just run it through a sieve to separate out the husky parts.
The pods themselves will keep for months in a big jar. The flour will keep for months too, though try and use it fresh because the flavour is richer.
It’s a useful thing to have on hand anyway, as it’s antimicrobial and astringent- great as an eye wash or for a damaged GI tract or for washing wounds- just make a strong tea with the powder.
Adapted slightly from Dorie Greenspan’s almond biscotti recipe
1 cup flour (spelt is lovely, if you can tolerate the gluten in it)
1/2 cup mesquite flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces
3/4 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350.
Mix together the dry ingredients- flours, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, and then the vanilla, and beat until smooth. Add the sugar, combine, and then the flour in 3 parts. Then stir in the chocolate.
Roll out into two log-shapes and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes (this step is important!). Then slice into biscotti shapes (about 3/4 inch thick) and stand up on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 for another 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Store in an airtight container. They’re good for about 5 days, if they last that long.
I do not sleep well at anchor. En route to Alicante, we sailed into a little cove- a magic cove really- that Jam has named “cala de torre solamente” (lonely tower cove). He spotted it from a mile out, and insisted we sail in to explore it. Some people would call it luck, but I say it takes great talent to pick out the perfect spot from a mile away. A turquoise-bottomed cove, with a lonely old tower standing look out on top of a hill, protected from the wind, with a lovely rocky beach. I called it a Moorish tower, but Jam said that is NOT what a Moorish tower looks like, and then I kept calling it a Moorish tower because it sounds much cooler that way. We dropped anchor and went for a swim, then Jam rowed us ashore and wandered around while I took photos of plants and picked grape leaves. Back on the boat, I made dinner as the sun was going down, and we sat in the cockpit eating as it got dark. A crescent moon rose above the tower, the waves lapped gently against the hull, and all was well in the world until it came time to go to sleep.
Did you ever see that Donald Duck cartoon with the dripping water? When he had insomnia and the water was making him crazy? With every gust of wind, and every tug of the boat, I’d go running up onto the deck to make sure we were staying in place. It doesn’t really make sense- anchors are built to hold a boat in place, and in light winds, it would be no problem. But fear counters all logic. I lay in bed terrified until around 230, when I decided that I’d just go up on deck to sleep so that I could start the engine when the anchor failed. Lying on the deck, the tower looked ominous. The winds sounded like they were taunting me. And all of a sudden the quaint little houses on the hill looked like something out of Deliverance and not a quaint little Mediterranean village at all. In fact I was sure that I could see locals on the shore getting ready to swim out and board the boat and attack us. With the big evil tower looming overhead. I crept back below deck and climbed back into bed. The boat gave a big jerk and I whimpered, which woke Jamie up. He then valiantly offered to go and stand watch on deck so that I could sleep. I gratefully accepted and passed out within seconds of him leaving. That he actually went back to sleep instead of standing guard as suggested was of no concern to me- my mind had been put to ease and that was all that mattered.
But let's go back to those grape leaves for a second- because that's the Wild Thing for the month of August. I've been terribly remiss in my Wild Things recipes , so I was really happy, when wandering around the mainland, to find grape leaves. They're everywhere. Which was really handy for two reasons:
1. As a host, it's kinda good if I have at least one recipe for the round up, and
2. They're cooling and delicious- perfect for the 100 degree + days we were facing in Spain.
I made a sauce for meat, which we drizzled over baked chicken. When I got home, I refined the recipe a bit, using a blender, marinading the chicken, and grilling it, before serving with the sauce. I much prefer method #2, though in a pinch, without a grill or a blender, #1 works quite well too.
Grilled chicken with grape leaf salsa verde
4 bone-in skin-on chicken parts
2 cups fresh grape leaves, chopped roughly
5 cloves garlic
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cilantro
1/4 cup parsley
salt and pepper (about 1/4 tsp each)
Place everything except the chicken in a blender, and blend for about 15 seconds- until the greens and garlic are all chopped into little pieces. Take half the sauce and pour over the chicken in a big bowl, making sure each piece is coated. Cover the rest and set it aside in the fridge.
Marinade the chicken for up to 24 hours, then get the grill going, and grill 15 minutes on each side, or until it's cooked.
Serve with the remainder of the sauce.
A vendor handed me a big bunch of lavender at the Farmers Market on Wednesday. Since I was already so close to Malibu, I decided to head up into a favourite canyon and look for some elderberries. Last year I missed them completely- came home dejected and empty-handed, with sunstroke and eventually had to drive up into the Sierras to find some. This year I went on a whim and it happened to be just the right time, as they were everywhere, dripping from their branches like little black raindrops*. The sun was getting low, and the light was getting orangey, and the ocean breeze was blowing through the little canyon carrying the scent of alder and bush mallow, and it was all a bit perfect.
When I got back to the car, the scent of the lavender in the trunk had filled the whole car. It gets into your head, that smell, sticks in the air and onto your clothes, and all I could think about was how I wanted to infuse it in honey and drizzle it on absolutely everything. And that's what I did when I got home- I made a big batch of lavender honey. Another batch of lavender tincture (one of my favourite things for liver-tension and headaches!), and then used what was left to make cornmeal muffins, because the honey wouldn't be ready for a while and I really did want to eat it.
These muffins are ridiculously easy. I separated the batter before adding the flavours, and made half with elderberries, and half with lavender and lemon. The recipe is the same for each kind, you just mix the ingredients in at the end.
Elderberry cornmeal muffins/ Lemon-lavender cornmeal muffins
2 tb butter, at room temp 3/4 cup honey 2 large eggs 2 cups all-purpose flour (I used an all purpose gluten free flour mix) 1 1/2 cups cornmeal 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup buttermilk, or soured raw milk
2 cups elderberries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup chopped lavender flowers and rind of 3 lemons plus the juice of two
A few hours before cooking, put the cornmeal and milk in a bowl. It'll be a thick mixture, but you just want to hydrate the cornmeal a bit so that it's not so crunchy when you cook it.
In the bowl of a mixer (or by hand) beat the butter and honey until fluffy and light. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the buttermilk-cornmeal mixture. Once incorporated fully, add the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in 2 batches.
Add the dry ingredients- or do what I did and separate the batter, mixing in half the quantity to each.
Pour into a greased muffin pan and bake for about 30 minutes, until a knife inserted comes out clean.
Serve hot out the oven, sliced in half with a big dab of butter on top.
*Elderberries, by the way, make me want to talk in an Olde English accent. So I do, often to myself, while wandering around gathering them. When I run into people I get funny looks, especially if I'm mid-sentence. Sometimes I do it while I'm driving and forget that the window is open. More funny looks. But if you haven't tried it, it's really fun. I highly recommend hunching over and pretending you're a little old witchy lady while you do it. Throw in a 'boneset' too, because it makes you sound legit.