The roots of Herbalism: A workshop with Penelope Ody

I feel very fortunate to be spending this time in the UK.  On various adventures outside London I have now seen for myself the majesty of the Lake District, the un-mistakeable English-ness of the Yorkshire Dales, and northern Wales in all its glory.  These areas are amongst countless other twists and turns of the British landscape, all with deep connections to the history of their culture.  Time after time I have been impressed with the way the past is cherished and shared through local exhibits, National Trust properties, or by keeping alive a traditional practice like dry-stone walling and thus preserving the landscape.

A goal for my time whilst living here has been to connect with the history of herbal medicine and bring alive the theory that was introduced during my herbalism studies in Australia.  Last week I took the opportunity to visit Walnut Cottage, the Hampshire herb garden of Penelope Ody, renowned herbal practitioner and author, by taking part in a day long workshop offered on her website.  The workshop, Leechbooks and Wort Cunning, discussed myths, legends, and traditional uses of plants that we still use medicinally today, whilst tracing the evolution of herbal medicine through the Druids, Saxons, Greek and Roman influences, and Medieval Christianity.  We were a small group which allowed for lively discussion and shared excitement, especially when we got to tour the herb garden and collect cuttings!

In the lovely herb garden at Walnut Cottage

Penelope Ody gives us a tour of her garden

We were casting ourselves back into the minds of our fore-mothers and fathers and regarding the plants with a deeper, more superstitious and magical significance.  We learnt that a popular use for herbs was to make them into an amulet that would bring the wearer luck or protection, depending on which plants were selected.

The cuttings for my herbal amulet

I collected cuttings of Bistort, Clover, Fennel, Rosemary and Walnut for good luck, courage, strength, improved mental powers and protection from illness and evil (covering all bases then).  I added cardamom pods for peaceful thoughts.  We also collected nine different cuttings from sacred plants such as rose, elder and mugwort to make a midsummer bouquet to be dried and hung in our homes.

My mid-summer bouquet

One of the treats of the day for me, aside from the delicious home cooked lunch, was getting to rifle through Penny’s amazing collection of old herbal books. One in particular,  The Leech Book of Bald, is the oldest surviving medical book in England.  In old English laece or leech means healer and this book was compiled by a monk named Bald during the 9th century.  We chose a traditional recipe, a cough syrup, from this ancient text and gave it a go.  The recipe stated: ‘Against a cough and narrowness boil sage and fennel in sweetened ale and sip it hot; do likewise as often as may be needed’.  The result tasted quite pleasant and the sensation after drinking was a soothing warmth in the throat.  These are herbs that we still use medicinally for coughs and congestion today, probably due in part to old references like this.

Herbal amulet, bouquet and medieval throat tonic

Now all that remains is to keep my amulet close and enjoy luck, health and an absence of evil!

A divine tea experience

Tea indulgence at Mariage Freres in Paris

On a recent day trip to Paris I treated myself to a tea experience at Mariage Freres. Situated in the heart of the Marais area, this tea salon is a perfect respite for legs aching from a long Parisian promenade.  Once seated in the small colonial style dining room I was handed a tea menu and a little book, titled ‘The French Art of Tea’, to help in my selection. The book was perfect tea table reading covering history, selection, characteristics and food matching for all the main varieties of tea.  It was so informative that I bought one to bring home with me!  The menu was similarly impressive, a vast list of teas that are all available to taste.  Their storage must be huge.

The tea menu at Mariage Freres

I selected the top tea on the right hand column (and it wasn’t just because i was overwhelmed by the choice), called Tibetan White Tea.  Like any good white tea, it was delicate with a hint of fruit and beautiful perfume.  The tea came prepared and strained in a beautiful pot with it’s own felt insulation layer, so my brew stayed warm as I enjoyed my other indulgence.  Nothing marks a perfect Paris afternoon more than a cheeky cocktail so I selected the house named ‘Mariage’s', Marco Polo red tea with champenoise methode sparkling white wine.  The red tea was sweet and syrupy and added a lovely depth to the fresh and fruity wine. Gorgeous!

I will definitely be going back one day, after all there are so many more teas to try!  The menu also includes a whole range of snacks and meals prepared using different teas.  I can picture many more indulgent afternoons to come, I just have to get back to Paris.  It is such a pleasure to enjoy an experience where tea is front and centre, where it belongs.

Tea takes centre stage at Mariage Freres

Primrose Hill herb walk

I spent this Saturday morning walking around the lovely Primrose Hill with herbalist Christopher Hedley and a group of keen herbal students and enthusiasts.  It rained, it was cold, we were cold, but it was fantastic!  Christopher led us through tips on identifying our medicinal plants (never taste until you are sure!) and told stories about the magic of the hill.

The view down Primrose Hill from under a Hawthorn tree

We ate leaves from Hawthorn and Linden trees (above dog height is always best).  We found and then discussed the use of fresh plants like Chickweed for itchy skin, Common Dock for Nettle stings, and Plantain for insect bites.

Chickweed - a fresh plant tincture is helpful on itchy skin conditions

I am so inspired!  It is wonderful to walk around a park in the middle of a big city like London and remember that there are traditional herbal medicines growing all around.  I have some freshly picked Cleavers ready in a pot for an overnight cold infusion which Christopher recommends to be drunk over a few days for a Springtime lymphatic cleanse.

Horsechestnut tree - the nuts can be used as a tonic for varicose veins

Exploring new ingredients

Since moving to London earlier this year I have found that I have access to so many new ingredients!  My kitchen has bravely ventured into previously unchartered culinary waters, from ‘classics’ like a black pudding fry up and Toad in the Hole to cooking gorgeous local fish and Singapore style chilli crab (ok, that last one wasn’t me – I’m still a shellfish novice).

I have a couple of great independent health food stores near me in North London and love browsing for inspiration.  Today I made these delicious muffins:

Soaked Millet, Banana & Barberry muffins

I am not the best with recipes when I bake.  I know it’s risky, but I always seem to use a little less sugar, or flour, or add things.  So this recipe was loosely appropriated from the Millet Muffin recipe from Passionate Homemaking.  I started by leaving some organic millet flakes to soak overnight, out of the fridge in buttermilk, because I am exploring the benefits of soaking grains to improve their digestibility (you can read more about this here).

This morning I realised I should have also added the flour to the soaking mixture so I added wholemeal wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and about 1/3 cup honey with 1/3 cup sunflower oil. I also added a little soy milk to help the mix stay moist.  Then I covered with my tea towel and left it soaking out of the fridge for around 5 hours.  Possible not enough time for the “anti-nutrients” (I still have a bit of trouble with that word) to be neutralised but I hope better than nothing.

Before spooning into my muffin tin I added 2 chopped bananas, a good shake of dried barberries (see below!), one beaten egg and some cinnamon.  I’m happy to say I added no other sugar or sweetners and that the honey and banana have done the job beautifully.

Oven fresh muffins with Greek yoghurt and raspberries

Of course it’s always great to tuck into fresh home-made muffins, but I also get very excited about the health benefits of these ingredients.  Millet is a wonderful gluten-free wholegrain that is high in B vitamins, magnesium and protein. It is a great source of nutrients and fibre.  Barberries are not available at home in Australia (as far as I’m aware..) so I am thrilled to get to experiment with them here in London.

The berries are the fruit of the herb Berberis vulgaris,  and have a range of medicinal actions focusing on the digestive system.  They contain plant chemicals which are anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and regenerating to the lining of the gut, as well as being immune boosting.  They have a tart, almost sour flavour which offsets the sweet banana very well.  It could be because they are a great digestive stimulant, but I think I need to eat another muffin..

A herbal workshop in the Cotswolds

As an Australian herbalist I am excited to learn more about the way herbal medicine is practiced in other parts of the world. Now that I am lucky enough to call the United Kingdom home for a while, I have been scouting around for ways to connect with other practitioners and herbal enthusiasts.  Via the excellent hub provided by the Herb Society website (www.herbsociety.org.uk), I came across Sarah Head and the Springfield Sanctuary in the Cotswolds (www.springfieldsanctuary.co.uk).

Sarah is the best type of herb enthusiast – one that loves sharing her knowledge as much as gathering it.  A practical herbalist, Sarah runs two herb gardens, gives tours, talks, and workshops and offers herbwifery apprenticeships.  She invited me along to a herb workshop last weekend, with promises of herb identification and the experience of making a bramble root vinegar.

I caught the train out of London with two of Sarah’s herbal apprentices, wonderful women whom it was a pleasure to meet. We were met by Sarah at the station and our first glimpse of the sanctuary was driving in through a classic Cotswolds dry stone wall, much older than I am I’m sure.  The land is gorgeous and the view…

Cotswolds view

The summer house at the Springfield Sanctuary

 We began with a cup of nettle and cleavers tea, fresh picked from the garden, while we waited for the other apprentices to arrive. Then Sarah gave us a tour of the herb gardens, showing us specific medicinal plants and trees and discussing their use.  We saw Ginkgo and Cramp Bark trees, Sage and Mullein, St John’s wort and Wood Betony, amongst many more.  It was the first week of Spring and many plants were not in flower, but it was still such an important process of recognition and a treat for this herbalist who’s training has been heavy on the theory but lacking in actual contact with the plants themselves.  We smelt, felt, and tasted herbs, until I actually felt a little light headed!

Sarah Head gives a tour of the herb gardens

Me enjoying a cup of tea

Then it was time for the hard work.  All I knew was that we were clearing a bramble patch and making a medicinal vinegar from the roots.  Not entirely sure what I was doing, I set out to help the others.  Brambles are blackberry plants with long running thorny stems which love to cover an area send down new roots.  This can suppress the growth of herbs and other plants.  So we got out the forks and dug them up.  I was aided in pulling up what I thought to be a very impressive root bundle which I lovingly cleaned and washed, along with piles more, ready for the vinegar. Continue reading

New adventure

The waiting and wondering was worth it! For the first time in my life I am living in a new city and experiencing a lightness that I never expected. It helps that my new home is a place that speaks the history of my family, my culture and my profession. London I am yours.. for a while at least.

Food as medicine

Thanks to my lovely colleague Cath Bender for sending me the link to this TED talk.

United States based physician and scientist Dr Terry Wahls tells the amazing story of how she used diet to cure her MS.  She followed a logical process of research to highlight the specific nutrients necessary to maintain the health of her brain and nervous system and then built a diet abundant with these nutrients. Her recovery is incredible.

What we can all take from this is the inspiration to make the effort to include these important foods in our diet as much as possible.  It is not always easy to eat the amounts of fresh greens, brightly coloured vegetables and berries and essential fatty acids that were effective in halting and turning around the nervous system degeneration experienced by Dr Wahls.  But for anybody who is looking to prevent chronic disease these foods are here waiting to offer you their benefits, even if you start to gradually include them alongside your normal diet.  Start slow, get into good habits and build from there.

I was inspired to take these suggestions and use them to make breakfast.  This is my free range egg omelette filled with sautéed red onion and fresh sorrel, silverbeet and parsley from our garden.  I crumbled some goats cheese through the eggs, which may or may not have been in keeping with the diet, but tasted excellent.

Hunter gatherer omelette

 

New beginnings

I am living through a very strange few months.  For the first time in my life the immediate future is completely up in the air as we wait for confirmation of a grand adventure which will mean a new home in a new country.  This has involved more back and forth communication than I would have thought necessary and more waiting than I knew I was capable of.  And so as the time ticks down we proceed with hope and optimism as though it will happen.  I really hope it does!

Tea in Europe

Finally it feels like Spring!  The warm breeze lifts my spirits and eases the tension out of my winter bones.  It also  reminds me of wonderful summer days in Europe where we drove through alpine valleys, ate delicious local seafood in Italian lake towns and cheered as the Tour de France whizzed past!

I loved having the opportunity to explore European tea culture.  We visited tea houses wherever we found them and I thought I would share two of my favourites.

An inner London oasis, Postcard tea shop

The Postcard tea shop is in the middle of busy London, just around the corner from Soho.  You step into an oasis of calm, a quiet contrast to the bustle outside.  At times it was even a little too quiet, some music would have created more atmosphere, but I wasn’t there for my ears, I was there to taste!

Timothy d’Offay is extremely well traveled and knows pots about tea and the wonderful processes that bring it from tree to cup.  Pick his brain with your tricky tea questions or enjoy learning about his travels to bring the best tea from around the world back to London.

Plenty to taste, Postcard tea shop

The tea menu is extensive, with most of the tea sourced direct from small estates, selected for its quality or unique characteristics.  They also have a Tea Masters range which show off the skill and passion of experienced tea masters from China and Japan.  I was so excited tasting I forgot to write down the names of the tea, however you can’t really go wrong with this selection and the staff are on hand to guide your choice.

Send a postcard, Postcard tea shop

One of the coolest things about the Postcard tea shop is that you can choose a tea, taste it, take it home in an artistically unique canister AND send a packet to a friend as a postcard!  They have you covered, you simply pay a little extra for postage and they send it off for you.  I sent one home so it would welcome us on our return.

http://www.postcardteas.com/

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Prague has a vibrant tea culture.  People go to tea houses at all times of the day to sit and chat over pots of tea, rather than a cup of coffee.  There are tea houses dotted around the city, and we loved this one.

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