Grand Fir Dark Nougat: A Touch of Solstice Magic

blacknougat-001.jpg

I found the recipe for this “extraordinary and irresistible traditional Christmas candy” in a treasured old cookbook “The Auberge of The Flowering Hearth”. Created with only three ingredients, pine honey, toasted almonds and a pinch of thyme, it is caramelized down into a dark, delectable, chewy brittle known as Black Nougat. Well, I was enchanted. Not only did it sound easy to make and absolutely scrumptious, it was positively soaked in old world Christmas and Yule magic.

Blacknougat4.jpg

Black Nougat was one of thirteen traditional desserts served at The Auberge (a small country inn located high in the Alps of France). As per Christmas Eve custom, it was paired with White Nougat, and served alongside dried fruits and nuts, fennel seed cookies, marron de glace (candied chestnut) candied citrus peels, marzipan, fruit galette (tarts) and gaufrettes (light thin waffles) brioche, quince paste, and a Buche De Noel (yule log). Oh my.

recently-updated302

The cookbook recounts the words of proprietor Madame Vivette to a group of guests on Christmas Eve. “We have come around the full circle of the year and this Auberge of ours – here among these snow white mountains – sometimes seems a very long way from my sunny childhood in provence. But on the night before Christmas I like to bring Provence into this house with the ceremony of The Thirteen Desserts of Reveillon”.

This provencal tradition was far more than an elaborate banquet of sweets. Each of the desserts was imbued with spiritual meaning, and sampling all thirteen ensured a year of good luck, prosperity and a bountiful harvest. While the dishes have taken on Christian symbolism, many trace back to pagan times. While the number thirteen is commonly said to symbolize Christ and the twelve disciples, it also reflects the much older 13 day celebration of Yuletide, which also included many dishes, such as dried nuts and fruits, fruitcakes and sweetened breads for it’s celebratory feasts.

Recently Updated303-001.jpg

A smattering of treats & a Buche De Noel Cake. Image Source here

The Buche De Noel Cake is a more recent addition, but takes it’s origin in the ancient custom of burning a Yule log. Madame Vivette serves the cake in remembrance of her childhood when “the ceremonial relishing of the great log fire in the hearth” took place before supper. The evening began with lighting the partly burned log which had been kept from Christmas Eve the year before. When the fire was burning brightly the family took its place at the table.

After supper, a local sweet wine and the thirteen desserts were enjoyed, and “when it was time to leave for the village church my father put out the fire, and asking a blessing for the house he would set aside the log to be kept for the next year. The Thirteen Desserts would remain on the dining table for thirteen days so that if a hungry beggar came to our door, he could be offered food to eat.”     

nougatfire

Ye olde Yule Log burning bright!

Today the thirteen desserts are still served in Provence, dishes vary from family to family, region to region – but white and dark nougat are deemed indispensable. In the Christian tradition Black Nougat was said to represent black penitents and the forces of evil, while White Nougat the saved and the good – and both had to be equally represented at the Christmas table. But I lean with those who say the important pairing of dark and white nougat represents the return of the light on the eve of the solstice. The black represents the longest, darkest night of the year, and white, the return of the sun.

blacknougat36-001.jpg

White Nougat with hazelnuts & Black Nougat with Almonds

Now I love old world food lore and recreating long lost culinary traditions, but I wasn’t ready to prepare all 13 desserts, never mind a Buche De Noel, just yet. But a black nougat I could do, and it would be a lovely new (& old) way to mark the upcoming winter solstice.

Sadly, the recipe called for honey made with pine blossoms (a speciality of the region) – and I had none of that. But undeterred, I decided to try my hand creating my own localized rustic Black Nougat by adding Vancouver Island hazelnuts and grand fir infused honey. I went with Grand Fir because it’s citrusy flavour is similar to pine, and makes a good complement to all that caramelized sweetness. (Douglas Fir, Spruce or Pine, with their deeper resinous notes would also be equally nice.)

recently-updated304

Grand Fir Needles chopped into honey. Grand Fir can be identified by the needles which lie flat on the branches (not round like a bristle brush). They alternate short and long, and feature two white stripes on the underside of the needle.

The process of making black nougat is similar to how caramel is made – which means it’s a speedy process. It’s important to have all ingredients ready to go, because moving quickly is of the essence. The basic recipe is to combine honey with nuts then cook at low heat until honey becomes an amber brown. Then pour the mixture into a pan lined with buttered parchment or foil. Let cool. 

Once done, I topped my Black Nougat off with a dusting of grand fir brown sugar (with a few more minced needles) for additional texture and taste.  And it came out truly delicious, not to mention very pretty.  And I like to think that because it’s made from honey, nuts and grand fir – it’s also good for you too!

blacknougat37-004

Grand Fir Dark Nougat

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup of minced grand fir needles (keep a tablespoon back for garnish)
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups roasted hazelnuts (or almonds)
  • pinch of thyme (fresh or dried)

PREPARATION

  • In a food processor pulse Grand fir needles (or mince finely by hand) and mix into your honey.
  • Line a small tin with aluminum foil and butter it well.
  • Pour the honey in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook at low heat for 10 minutes.
  • Add the thyme and nuts and continue cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • When nuts begin to crackle and honey thickens to an amber brown, your nougat is ready. (Be warned, if you overcook the honey at too high a heat your nougat will come out hard as a rock – so keep a close watch.)
  • To test, drop a teaspoon of honey into a glass of cold water; it should harden immediately. Remove honey from the heat and stir for 2 more minutes.
  • Carefully pour the honey mixture into the buttered tin (it will still be very hot). Smooth the mixture with a metal spoon.When the nougat is completely cool, break it into small pieces with the back of a knife. Store in a cool place.

blacknougat1-008

Note: If you want to make the white nougat too, there is a lovely recipe here., but it can also be purchased at many groceries, bakeries and European food speciality shops.

Winter Medicine: Delicious & Warming Tonic Syrups

tonicsyrup31-001

When dark, winter days challenge our bodies as well as our spirits, nothing makes a better remedy than old-fashioned tonic syrups. Time tested & true, these potent preventatives and remedial healers call on the nourishing, medicinal powers of tonic plants and adaptogenic herbs, berries, honey and warming spices. And not only will they help fortify your body, bolster your immunity and strengthen your heart, they will even uplift your spirit!

Plus they’re just darn delicious splashed into sparking water and cocktails or drizzled on pancakes, oatmeal, yogurt and ice cream. And if you’re already under the weather, take heart, served straight up by the teaspoon or mixed into hot tea, tonic syrups not only help soothe symptoms of colds and flus, coughs, congestion and sore throats, they make the medicine go down in the most delightful way!

tonicsyrup42-001

Created by extracting and preserving plant’s nutrients and medicinal properties, in sugar, honey, and alcohol, there as many recipes and variations for herbal syrups as their are herbalists. I’ve kept with the folk tradition – meaning oh so easy to make! Well in my book at least. At any rate, this means we’re not going to get hung up on precise measurements or ingredients, but allow intuition and creativity to guide us.

In general, when making a herbal syrup you start with a big pot filled with plants (herbs, blossoms, bark or roots) and spices, fill with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and wait. Several hours later when the liquid has reduced to 1/4 of its original volume, you’ve got yourself a decoction. To this you add an equal amount of honey, and several generous splashes of booze. Voila, you’re done. (More details coming below!)

tonicsyrup13-002

These syrups were inspired by the healing magic of the deep, silent forest. I started with a base of fragrant evergreens, douglas-fir, grand fir, spruce and pine needles, twigs, and a couple of resinous cones. To this I added an assortment of woodland berries and rosehips, all packed with nutrients and medicinal properties that boost vitality and nourish at the deepest level.

tonicsyrup13-001.jpg

Top to bottom: Douglas-fir twigs and cones, oranges, usnea, barberries, dried oregon grape, staghorn sumac seeds, rosehips and dried hawthorn berries.

Conifer needles have a bright citrus flavour and are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids. And according to various studies they contain anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular-protecting properties, and are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair and contain antiviral properties – in particular against influenza viruses!  Plus their volatile oils help release stimulating neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system, reduce cortisol, revive stamina and provide feelings of peace and wellbeing. (For more on info on conifers click here)

tonicsyrup6-002

I used dried rosehips and hawthorn berries, because they were handy. Fresh is even better!

Hawthorn and rosehips are also both exceptionally nutritious. Rich in vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants and bioflavonoids, they contain compounds that protect and strengthen the cardiac system and provide adaptogenic benefits, which enhance adrenal function when the body is undergoing physical or emotional stress. Both are renowned for their ability to warm heavy hearts and chase away seasonal blues.

To this basic formula, you add in different herbs according to your mood, purpose or ailment. For example, I made three variations: a savoury syrup with rosemary, sage, and bay (to enhance mental clarity and brain function) another with lemon balm and california poppy (to help banish stress and promote restful sleep) and the last with staghorn sumac seeds, barberries, ginger and fennel (to support digestion after or before seasonal feasting). Wild mint, pineapple weed, chamomile, yarrow and dandelion root will also help calm digestive upsets. Elderberry and echinacea will help fight off flu, comfrey root and mullein are good for soothing coughs, and valerian and skullcap will help you relax and get a good’s night rest.  

collages91

Left to right: Staghorn Sumac Seeds | Fennel Seeds, Barberries, Dried Oregon Grape | California Poppy & Lemon Balm | Bay, Sage & Rosemary

To this you can add different combinations of cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and allspice, all of which bring their powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities to the brew. Finally, for every cup of your completed decoction, you will add an equal amount of honey or a thick sugar syrup (boiled down sugar & water). A dark syrup made with brown sugar adds a lovely buttery, caramel like flavour. I like to infuse both my syrup and honey with roughly chopped conifer needles for additional flavour. Give them a pulse in the food processor to release their volatile oils, then add to syrup or honey and let sit for a day or two.

blacknougat44-001.jpg

And when it comes to alcohol, you’ve got brandy, vodka, even rum to choose from. I used a douglas fir-infused vodka and hawthorn brandy I had on hand, but any strong spirit will do just fine.

Recently Updated286.jpg

So if you’re looking to ward off colds and flus, or just a little warming tipple on dreary grey days, tonic syrups will help see you through the aches and pains of winter. Great for enhancing energy and vitality, boosting immunity and overall wellness, they’re easy to make and bring a festive touch to seasonal dishes and beverages. And they make just the perfect gift for those looking for something wild in their Yuletide stockings! 

recently-updated273

Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic Syrup

(makes approx. 1 & 1/2 cups)

Ingredients

  • Approx. 2 1/2 cups of mixed conifer needles. Throw in a few twigs and cones as well. 
  • Approx. 2 cups of mixed rosehips, hawthorn berries (and whatever other berries you’d like). Fresh or dried.
  • Approx. 3/4 cup of mixed herbs (use 1/2 cup if dried)
  • Dried orange peel to taste
  • 1 teaspoon each of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice or fennel seeds. Fresh ginger is nice too!
  • Approx. 5 cups of water (enough to cover your plant material)
  • 1 cup of raw local honey (or a thick brown sugar syrup made by boiling sugar & water together)
  • 1/4 cup of brandy or vodka or rum

Directions

  • Put the plant material in a pot and cover with water. Bring this to a boil and then lower to simmer for several hours until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 of it’s original volume (about a cup).
  • Strain the plant matter from your decoction. Use a fine, tight weave cloth like muslin (not cheesecloth).This is important in case any of the rosehips irritating fine interior hairs have escaped during cooking into the liquid. 
  • Then take your remaining liquid and put back into pot, adding your honey (or syrup). 
  • Gently heat while stirring for 10 minutes or so. Do not boil.Then remove and let cool.
  • Add your alcohol, stir well.
  • Your syrup is done! Pour off into clean, sterilized bottle. Will keep in the fridge for several months – long enough to get you through winter. Cheers!

tonicsyrup44-002

“Soul Cakes” for an Old-Fashioned All Hallows Eve

soulcakes101-001“A soule cake, a soule cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a soule-cake.”  John Aubrey, 17th century

I’ve been researching old world recipes in search of Halloween food inspiration, and these sweet little barmbrack “soul cakes  are the result. And while we may think of all things pumpkin when it comes to Halloween, originally it was magical cakes, berries and nuts (especially hazelnut) that played starring roles in the feasts of “Hallowtide” (Oct. 29th, Nov. 1st and Nov 2nd).

halloween

Hallowed Celebrations (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Bridging pagan and Christian faith traditions, these foods were associated with both Samhain and All Souls Day, a Christian festival dating to 800 AD. Both had many similarities. According to this source, the dead were honoured, skeletons were decorated, lit candles were carried in processions, bonfires burned to ward off evil spirits, carnival like costumes were donned – and of course there was plenty of cake.

soul_cakes_2

Soul Cakes (recipe here)

Both featured small round “soul cakes” made with berries, fruits and nuts. And in a custom reminiscent of modern day trick or treating, according to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, people went from house to house singing and asking for a soul cake.  For each cake received, a prayer was said for the dead. And today soul cakes are still part of Catholic cuisine, baked in celebration of All Hallows Eve.

barmbrack22

Barmbrack (recipe here )

Another Halloween treat served at both Samhain and at the All Hallows Feast was Barmbrack, a sweet fruit bread or cake. This was a dark tea cake spiced and speckled with berries, dried fruits and nuts. This Irish recipe tells how tokens, rings, beans, and peas were once baked inside the cake, and each member of the family given a slice. A penny in the cake meant you were going to be rich, a pea means a future filled with health, a ring for the bride-to-be, and “a thimble for the one who would never marry and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor.”

In Celtic traditions Samhain was known as “Summer’s End” and was the time of a ceremonial third harvest, one of nuts and berries. And I was enchanted to read in Witch’s Halloween: A Complete Guide to the Magick, Incantations, Recipes, Spells and Lore that one of the most sacred of these was the hazelnut. Celtic myth tells the hazel tree overhangs the Well of Enchantment and “the hazelnut, more than any other type of nut, has long been associated with the Halloween tradition of divination particularly the amatory type. Many witches traditionally eat a hazelnut on Halloween prior to scrying crystal balls or other divining methods to see into the future.”

hazelnut22

Hazelnut, botanical book plate (source here)

According to this source Women in Scotland would designate a hazelnut for each of their love interests, then toss the nuts into a fire on Halloween. The nut that burned to ashes, instead of popping, supposedly represented the woman’s future betrothed. Or if a woman ate a dessert of sugary hazelnuts and nutmeg before going to sleep on Halloween, she’d dream of her future husband.

halloween22.jpg

Getty Images

And while I’m already in possession of a husband, it would be handy to scry into the future on this night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. So it seemed obvious to me that baking up some Halloween hazelnut barmbrack soul cakes would be a wonderful way to honour my ancestors and the beloved who have crossed to the other-side.

I’ve adapted the recipe from several sources for both soul cakes and Barmbrack to make these All Hallows Muffins. And instead of using raisins, currants, or dried fruit, I went with foraged berries of the season, the bright orange (Chinese lantern and Arbutus berries) and red berries (Barberries) for colour and texture. These grow practically everywhere from gardens to seashores so click on the links if you want to know more.

halloween23

If you don’t have any of these handy, cranberries would likely do nicely, but remember to add in a few candied citrus peels or currents for additional flavour. Click the above links if you’d like the more traditional recipes.

halloween29.jpg

Hazelnuts, Chinese Lantern, Barberries, Arbutus berries, dried Oregon grape berries and Almonds.

Magical lore tells that one should harvest the hazelnuts the day before or on Halloween, but I had a basket of hazel nuts foraged in late summer waiting for just such a special occasion. Hazelnuts can of course be found outdoors – or at your local market!

halloween90.jpg

And did I mention these barmbrack soul cakes are oh so easy to make? And fun enough for children to join in, especially if one decides to put a magical treasure inside each cake before baking!  Happy Halloween!

Hallowtide Soul Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup fresh berries
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts ( I added a few almonds as well)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup hot strong black tea (I used a combination of ginger and Earl Grey)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cardamom 
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  •  A few tablespoons of chopped candied ginger (optional)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 1/2 cups of self-rising flour

Directions

  • Combine berries, nuts and brown sugar. Add the hot tea, stir well, cover and allow to soak for an hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a muffin/cupcake pan.

halloween31.jpg

  • Beat the egg into your wet mixture, adding the flour in 1/2 up batches, beating well after each edition.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until toothpick comes out clean (around 45 min.)
  • Let cool in the pan before turning out.  

soulcake103-001.jpg

Oh so pretty to look at plain – but fun to decorate too!

recently-updated250

Happy Hallowtide!

Chestnuts, Neruda & A Recipe For Crème de Marrons

14690968_1189913827721021_160380678244775500_n

I adore chestnut season. And by season, I mean post-windstorm sometime in mid-October. There’s just something so cheering and magical about fallen chestnuts. I know of only a few trees here in the city—tall, stately ones lining a couple of boulevards in older neighbourhoods.

Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground ~ Pablo Neruda
From bristly foliage you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose

14729315_1189913777721026_5151645883495278680_n

A few weeks ago, we were expecting heavy storms to sweep through the Pacific Northwest. Thankfully, it mostly bypassed the island, but not before high winds swept through the chestnut trees to rattle a bounty of nuts to the ground. We donned our slickers and braved the gusting rain to collect several baskets full. My six-year-old loves kicking through the spiky casings, looking for the small glossy treasures hidden inside. We made sure to wear thick wooly hats to protect our heads against falling chestnuts though that did little to protect my other bent over from from meeting the business end of a small bristling branch. It shocked me more than it hurt and it sent my son into seemingly never ending giggles. Seriously, he laughed for a long time. Butt injuries are hilarious to first graders. Schadenfreude is strong in that boy.

In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
birds bursting with syllables,
starry dew below,
the heads of boys and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.

14681757_1189913824387688_7985941904162483060_n

Note: Make sure you’re not collecting Horse Chestnuts! These relatives of the sweet chestnut look somewhat similar to the untrained eye, but sadly aren’t good eating. Great topical medicine for oedema or even cellulite, but toxic when eaten. You probably won’t die, but you will experience severe GI distress. A little research and you’ll be able to tell the two apart easily.

You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.

detail Anton Seder's chestnut

Detail of Anton Seder’s “Chestnut”

Right, now where was I? Oh, yes—waxing poetic about foraging for chestnuts. Now, the only real drawback to gathering chestnuts is that you actually have to do something with all those gorgeous impenetrable little fortresses of deliciousness. They do not give up their innards without a fight. We’ll get to that.

You fell,
you struck the ground,
but nothing happened,
the grass still stirred,
the old chestnut sighed with the mouths

of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.

14650514_1189913854387685_5670372185433519142_n

First thing’s first. You’ll have to go through the chestnuts and discard any wrinkly or weevily ones. I’m just going to go ahead and jinx myself here and announce that I’ve yet to come across a wormy chestnut. Wipe the chestnuts with a damp towel and lay them out on a table in a single layer. If you have such a thing as a drying rack, that would be wonderful. I laid my out on a table in a dry airy room and let them sit like that for four days. This will sweeten them up a bit.

Because you are only a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights,
silence 
prepared the germ,

the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.

image-1

Chipped nails. Classic chestnut sacrifice.

Every year I approach the task of shelling chestnuts with a heartbreaking mix of unrealistic optimism and grim determination. I research the same sites over and over looking for tips to make the next few days of my life less miserable. And here’s what works best for me. And by best, I do mean the least shitty. Some nuts will burn your hands. Some will crumble when you try to peel them. Sometimes the tough hairy inner skin has a deathgrip on the lovely yellow nut underneath. Me? I simply lower my standards. I guarantee you I’ve eaten a lot of that inner skin. Who am I to get between that kind of devotion? If you’re eating them straight up, nothing beats roasted chestnuts. Just score them and roast them in a cast-iron pan for 30 minutes in a 400 C. But for the sake of this recipe, steaming works well. Chop them in half and steam them for 20 minutes

.14733634_1124676280973130_4346484363563630592_n

And what exactly is crème de marrons? Well, obviously it translates to “cream of chestnuts”, but it’s not really a cream. It’s a terrifically sweet nut conserve and it’s very French. It was invented by French confectioner Clément Faugier in 1885 and since then Crème de Marrons de l’Ardèche has been a staple of French children and chefs alike. My half-French husband speaks wistfully of visiting Lyon as a child and eating it directly out of an aluminum tube.

3d2e0e37203686487c96947a2d1a74a1
You can usually find it, usually tinned, in specialty food stores or at better grocers. But, that would be easy. That’s not for folks like you and me. We MAKE things. Sometimes until 3 AM. And then we curse the things we make. However, you’ve come this far, so let us make us some fancy French chestnut conserve. En français, s’il vous plaît! . This recipe is pretty much Frankensteined it together from different recipes and trial and error. Once you get past the shelling and shucking, it’s dead easy.



Recipe: Crème de Marrons (Chestnut Conserve)

img_1809
Ingredients:
fresh chestnuts
organic cane sugar
vanilla bean
water
sea salt

Step 1: Peel. Cut the chestnuts in half using a serrated edge knife. Bring a pot with 2 inches of water to a boil and fill a steamer basket with the chestnuts. Working in small batches (a cup at a time) lower the chestnuts into the pot so that they stay above the boiling water, cover  and steam 20 minutes. Remove the chestnuts from the steamer and start peeling as soon as you can bear it. Keep them wrapped in a kitchen towel to keep them warm. Once they cool they’re monstrous to peel. Pull off the thick brown shell and if the chestnut goddesses are smiling on you, the inner skin will come off, too. If not, try rubbing it off with the towel. If that fails use a small paring knife and get scraping! It’s exactly as fun as it sounds. Also, keep some aside for snacking. Chestnuts  are high in fibre, antioxidants and Vitamins B and A. They also help build stronger bones and contain complex carbohydrates to help maintain energy levels. You will need this after all that peeling.

Step 2: Cook. Put the peeled nuts and the inevitable frustrating little piles of chestnut crumble into a deep pot. Add a good pinch fo sea salt and enough water (you can use your chestnut water) just to cover and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the nuts are tender. You may end up with extra liquid or you may not. This is one of those mysteries I have decided to move on from. Last year I had to drain them. This year I did not. Go figure.

Step 3: Purée. I used my trusty OXO food mill to purée the softened chestnuts. You can also use a food processor. Whatever mushes your chestnuts.

Step 4: Weigh. I used a kitchen scale to weigh the chestnut purée. You’ll want to add an equal amount of cane sugar. I wound up with 1300 grams. Put the sugar &purée back in the pot and stir. Add 100 ml of water for every 1 kg of sweetened purée. Add a split vanilla bean to the pot.

Step 5: Cook. Again. Bring the now already wonderfully fragrant mixture to a simmer. Using a wooden spoon, stir constantly to keep your hard won spoils from burning. It’s ready when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pot or when you like the look of it.

Step 6: Preserve your conserve. Remove the vanilla bean and pour the piping hot mixture into hot sterilized canning jars (washed and rinsed in boiling water). Now here is where it gets confusing. Because chestnuts aren’t acidic, the thought is that you cannot safely preserve this conserve in a hot water bath—it would have to be pressure canned. Though I think that might be overkill and could potentially compromise the jam. However, most European recipes recommend a hot water bath and storage in a cool space. There does seem to be consensus that the conserve will keep for a couple of months, unprocessed in the fridge. Not one to pick sides, I did a 15-minute hot water bath and then stored the preserved jars in the fridge. I don’t expect them to hang around too long as we’re going through it pretty quickly and I’ll be gifting the rest for Christmas. It’s kind of the perfect host gift.

Crème de marrons is best (in my opinion) served on a thick buttered slice of rustic bread. It’s also lovely between cake layers or dolloped in yogurt. Bon appetit!

Medicinal properties: Sweet Chestnut (Castanea vesca) leaves are astringent & high in Vitamin K. Tea made from the leaves is used to treat respiratory diseases such as whooping cough, and mixed with thyme makes a powerful medicinal syrup that is used to treat cough, diarrhea, backache and intoxication. (source)

Magical properties: fertility,  desire, abundance.

Reclaiming The Radical Legacy of The Witch

Recently Updated244-001.jpg

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about witches. Not just because top ten lists of hot tv witches and sexy Halloween selfies currently swamp my social media feeds, but because my tables and shelves are currently so laden with herbs, plants, berries, phials and bottles that if an inquisitor of old were to enter, I’d find myself quickly tied to the stake. And while this worry seems remote, it’s a plain fact that women in third world countries are still hunted down, tortured and set aflame for the crime of witchcraft.

Sure, the witch is emerging from the world of taboo and shadows onto the world stage. Sure, she’s being touted as a feminist icon  – a “powerful feminine model free from male influence or ownership”. But I’m not so sure. Because how can it be that the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, is now so trendy and positively mainstream?  Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine declared Fall 2016, the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

recently-updated238-001

W Magazine, Salem Issue, 2016

And while many believe the witch of the middle ages was a spectre created by the church, I believe she was real. Yes, many put to death were just ordinary women who practiced folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but many were powerful spiritual leaders of the indigenous, animist faith traditions of the old world – and their magic was earned through a lifetime of spiritual discipline spent in communion with nature.

And I worry her make-over into nubile fashion siren not only obscures this history, but her true relevance as a role model to us today. One that if resurrected, would be just as subversive and dangerous to the powers that be. 

witchvintage

Today the witches tall black hat and burbling cauldron have become icons of Halloween kitsch, but they were once hallowed items of the holy women and priestesses, the healers and herbalists, the oracles and diviners of old Europe. Their conical hats and cauldrons date back to the 2nd Millennium BCE and were connected to the female shamans of the Indo-European peoples.

recently-updated246

Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE

recently-updated247

Scythian Princess and her cauldron, 4-5th century BCE

Their cauldrons (as well as crystal balls and magical wands) were still being used thousands of years later by the “witte wieven” or wise women, the sibyls, seers, and female druids of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, and Norse traditions of the middle ages.

According to Max Dashu, author Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion,  these “dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practiced “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shapeshifting”. Legends tell of their sacred cauldrons in which “they simmered mysterious herbs to produce a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

witchmagic-circle-by-john-william-waterhouse-1886

The Magic Circle,  John William Waterhouse

These women were the guardians of the earth, the protectors of the sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the middle ages they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

But according to Barbara G. Walker , it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of sacred land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men.

witchwisewomen

While books on sorcery were condoned well into the enlightenment, female witches in contrast were said to “magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty”. And thus their religious practices (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom” were extinguished by a priesthood that sought to bring nature, magic, women (not to mention their land and property) under male control.

witchburn

These women did not go easily, or take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the church. She must have been the original eco-feminist, fighting the patriarchy with one of most powerful tools at her disposal, magic. And the Church took it pretty seriously indeed.

witchtortured

And I’m sure that if they were here today, these witches would be doing a lot more than striking a pose, they’d be busy protesting our dying forests, fighting the polluting of our waters, and protecting the planet. I like to think they might even have been part of The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. a radical feminist protest group whose manifesto stated witches “were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression — particularly the oppression of women — down through the ages.”

witchwitch1

W.I.T.C.H. casts a spell

Their first action took place on Halloween 1968, when WITCH members marched down Wall Street and place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is said to have declined sharply the next day.) And isn’t this the radical role model rendered invisible in the witches new fashion friendly image?  One that explains why corporate interests would rather have us dressing the part, than actually taking her seriously?

witcheseastend

As her image grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea continue to be hunted down and burned alive. I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “real” witches here and now?

Accusations of witchcraft have long been used to control women’s behaviour. And if we take any lessons from history, what might happen to those who don’t (or won’t) look the part, or otherwise refuse to behave?  How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door? Just who benefits when the witch becomes no more than a fashion statement or pouty pose?

But that said, I do find something hopeful evoked in the trend of witchy selfies found on Instagram and Tumblr. Like photographic spells, they evoke the long repressed archetype of the holy woman of old. And while they may be romanticized, they offer a vision of a forgotten time when wise-woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions, creating magic and blessing for themselves and their communities.

Recently Updated249.jpg

It is this age-old impulse in the female psyche that is reemerging as the popularity of Wicca, herbalism, kitchen witchery, flying ointments, tarot, crystals and gemstones, continues to grow. An impulse, perhaps, that still threatens the powers that be?

And it’s why I resonate deeply with Max Dashu when she writes, “In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.”

witchvolvenmaxdashu

And as I look over the drying plants and herb craft spread around me, her words remind me of my childhood ways of spending hours alone in the woods, gathering stones, listening to the whispering wind and watching it move through dancing trees. But I had no guide to show me how to “hear”, no wise-woman to teach me how to “gaze” or “see”.

Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, believes the burning of witches, the subjugation of women, the desacralization of nature, and modern capitalism went hand in hand. And she asks us to consider – just what was eliminated when these women were condemned to the stake?

And that’s why in a world of ecological crisis, where the witch’s hat is cheap halloween merchandising, where the cauldron’s medicine is replaced by pharmaceutical labs, where nature is a “raw resource” without spirit or sentience – we are in need of the witches radical magic more than ever.

witchvolva

Fudgey Burdock & Rose Brownie Cake

budockcal2

Last spring, I tested out a batch of Burdock & Rose Brownies at Gather’s “Botanical Sweet Treat” bar. And they were the first to go. Their dark fudgey icing drew peoples eyes like a magnet – and no one cared a whit about warnings that these brownies were a little more “earthy” in flavour than usual. But judging by their expressions as they took their first bite (and the brisk sales) the Wild Rose & Burdock Fudge Brownie was a winner. So this fall, in honour of a young Venus turning 19, I decided to make a brownie birthday cake. burdockcale1-002

Grounded in the dark, heavy goodness of chocolate and the loamy roots of the burdock, this cake takes flight in the heady floral top notes of rose. And when it comes to indulgence it’s pretty guilt-free. Yes of course the sugar is “bad”, but everything else in these Burdock & Rose Brownie Cake is really gooood for you!

Last spring I used a fresh burdock root in the recipe. I peeled it, gave it a boil pulsed it the food processor, then mixed the mash right in the brownie batter, much like you might use zucchini. But this time I used dried burdock root powder instead (made by whirring up the dried bits in my coffee grinder), and it added a delicious, roasted coffee-like flavour. (You can find dried burdock at your local herbalist shop)

recently-updated195

Burdock is a blood purifier and important detoxifying herb in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine. Nutrient and mineral rich, burdock contains phenolic acids, quercetin and luteolin, lignans, inulin, mucilage, sulphur, and organic acids, all of which assist digestion support the liver, balance hormones, and reduce inflammation. Studies show that burdock is useful to help ease arthritis and gout, and as an anti-tumor herb. And it rumoured to be one of the four ingredients in the legendary anti-cancer Essiac Tea, allegedly acquired from a First Nations healer.

burdockroot22.jpg

Image Source: Little City Farm

And it’ magical too. Old folk-lore and traditions tell us that burdock root protects from evil and negative influences.  Burdock should be gathered in autumn under the waning moon (right now!) dried, cut into pieces and strung on a red string. When worn as talisman or as a necklace this burdock necklace will protect the bearer from bad spirits and ill forces.

burdockold.jpg

And because the planet Venus rules over burdock (as it does the rose) it also associated with love. One medieval folk tradition tells girls to pick a burdock burr, give it her lover’s name and throw it against her dress. If it stuck he was faithful, if not, he was untrue.

recently-updated210

Image Source here

Of course nothing captures Venuses allure and beauty better than her signature flower, the rose. Long used in love magic, potions and spells it’s no wonder she has been called Venus Verticordia (“Venus the turner of hearts”). Because of her aphrodisiac qualities, it was an old custom to strew rose petals on the bed of a just married couple to enhance fertility.

recently-updated209

Last May I used the petals of wild roses but this time I went with the intensely fragrant blossoms of the Rugosa whose bright pink flowers are blooming again all over Victoria. To this I added a a fat coral rose from the garden with a wonderful peachy aroma.  These rose petals bring not only Venu’s intoxicating aroma to this brownie, they bring Vitamin C, antioxidants, polyphenols and bioflavonoids to it too.

burdockbees.jpg

Yes, they really are this pink.

And considering that chemical compounds found in roses have been found to help to trigger “feel good” endorphins while reducing cortisol and blood pressure, helping the brain enter calm and relaxed states – this is one dreamy brownie cake indeed. And I’m not going to even begin in all the wonderful mood-lifting and healing properties of chocolate itself!  Lets just say, this brownie cake will not only nourish you as you indulge, it will make you feel really good too! 

recently-updated212

Burdock Root & Rose Brownie Cake

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons dried powdered burdock roots 
  • 2 cups fresh lightly chopped rose petals ( 1/2 cup dried)
  • 1 &1/2 cups organic cane (or brown) sugar
  • 1 & 1/2 cups unbleached organic flour
  • 2 & 1/2 ounces unsweetened or dark chocolate (in pieces)
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped, roasted hazelnuts (optional – I found some fall foraging so I threw them in)

Recently Updated213-001.jpg

Directions

The first most important thing is infusing your petals in melted butter as this extracts their flavour.

  • Melt butter on low heat. Place the rose petals in the pot/pan and stir gently.
  • Let them in infuse in warm heat for at least an hour (don’t cook them- just let them release their oils into the better.  I put mine in a small casserole dish in the oven at lowest setting to sit.
  • Once roses are done (they should be limp) preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a small round baking pan and dust with flour.
  • Melt chocolate and set aside to cool.
  • Beat eggs and vegetable oil until fluffy. Add sugar and beat well. Next mix in melted chocolate. Add in your butter and butter infused petals. 
  • In separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Stir in nuts.
  • Fold together your wet and dry ingredients, mix well.
  • Spread batter into prepared round pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until toothpick stuck into center comes out slightly moist. Cool completely.

burdockbrownie98-002

Couple of Closing Notes:

If you want to use fresh burdock root, spring and fall are the best times for harvesting. Or should I say digging? Because fresh burdock definitely requires getting your hands dirty. These links by noted herbalists  Yarrow Willard and Jim McDonald tell you everything you need to know. Use about 1/2 cup, peeled, boiled and chunkily pureed.

And when it comes to rose petals any fragrant variety will do. Just take a whiff and your nose will let you know. And right now if you like in Victoria you can even find wild roses like Nootka making a last reappearance in the autumn sunshine. If you can’t find fresh roses, dried rose petals will work. Just be sure to place to infuse them in butter longer than the recipe requires – they will need to fully plump up before you use them. 

And when it comes to frosting – well, I’ll leave that up to you!

burdockicing.jpg

Beautiful Venus Vinegar: Autumn Medicine & Magic

desktop29-001

Behold the fruit of my autumn equinox harvest! A magical Venus Vinegar composed of the most vitalizing wild foods, herbs and medicines offered by mother nature this season. And it is no ordinary herbal vinegar, but a nutrient rich, beautifying, fortifying tonic that is fruity, tangy, spicy and earthy all in one. And a splash of it’s beautiful zesty flavours will not only bring life to heavier fall foods and dishes like roast meats, stews, baked beans, braised cabbage and root vegetables, it will nourish, energize and pleasure you through the dark days of winter.

recently-updated184

Venus Vinegar adds zip to this Nasturtium Dip w/ Polenta Fries

It is mostly the nasturtium flowers, rosehips and staghorn sumac seeds that give this venusian vinegar it’s glorious colour. But what makes it “magical” is that from the sweet tartness of crab apple and oregon grape berries, the fruity tang of sumac, the spicy nasturtium blossoms and pungent wild mustard seeds, to invigorating new shoots of green, nourishing nettle, dandelion and plantain, it embodies the seasonal flavours and energetic principles at work in the heavens and our landscape this season.

vinegarcloseup.jpg

The word Equinox descends from Latin, aequus for “equal,” and nox,  “night”- and describes the two days of the year when the day and night are equal in length. The Vernal Equinox marks the birth of spring, and the Autumn Equinox marks the onset of fall. While solstices are all about extremes – high summer, deep winter, equinoxes are the moments of balance. Which is appropriate as autumn equinox marks the day the sun enters the sign of Libra, which is depicted cross culturally as a goddess bearing scales.

Recently Updated194.jpg

But what I love best about this time of the year is that it’s ruled by Venus, goddess of beauty and all things green and growing. Reflecting the principle of balance, Venus appears twice a year in the astrological calendar, at the Vernal Equinox (Taurus) and again at the Autumn Equinox (Libra). Fulfilling the promise of new life she planted at spring, she oversees the red apples, ruby ripe berries and fattening seed pods, the fruits of the summer which are ready for release.

recently-updated181

But she also blesses the landscape with a new carpet of green. Plants driven back by the dry heat of high summer, send out new shoots and emerald leaves to harvest the last warm rays of the sun. And during the coming month, they will be busy pulling light energy deep into their roots for storage during winter hibernation.

Desktop30.jpg

And so, balancing the fruits, shoots, seeds that embody the energetic principles of the season, these Venusian Vinegars are powerful medicine indeed. Because as herbalists well know, soaking plants and foods in the acidic bath of vinegar (a menstruum) extracts their nutrients and medicinal qualities into the liquid itself.

recently-updated186

Now, vinegars are good for us all on their own, helping to lower cholesterol, improve skin tone, moderate high blood pressure, prevents/counter osteoporosis, improve metabolic functioning. Which is probably why vinegar has been used historically for far more than preserving pickles. Added to flavour food and drink, it has been used as a strengthening and energizing tonic throughout history. But marrying it nutritional properties with the health-promoting effects of green herbs, berries, shoots and seeds, makes Venus Vinegar good for practically anything that ails you.

And right now the landscape from backyard to forest is vibrant with vitamin C packed rosehips, anti-inflammatory Staghorn Sumac seeds, lutein packed nasturtium blossoms, brain enhancing ginkgo leaves, new shoots of nutrient and mineral rich nettle, digestive supportive dandelion, gentle cleansers like chickweed, and warming anti-arthritic mustard seeds. And of course, I’ve named only a few.

recently-updated189

But aside from their health supporting properties, I love the idea of crafting herbal vinegars as alchemical creations. Legend tells that Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, after a lavish meal with Mark Anthony, dissolved a pearl in vinegar and then drank the resulting concoction. Later vinegar played a role in the practices of the European alchemists whose used its dissolving properties to distill or extract magical properties from stones and minerals.

recently-updated187

So too, I like to think of this Venus Vinegar as extracting more than just nutrients and medicinal ingredients, but the energetic principles of the season, not to mention the essential life-giving force alive in our landscape. And it is created in tribute to my witchy ancestors for whom the autumn equinox was a time of “betwixt and between” – a high time for magic. Because as the old saying goes “as above, so below”.

According to herbalist and wise woman Susun Weed, the equinox, a moment of celestial and earthly stasis, is a turning point, an ideal time for turning something around in your life. But because the light and energies of growth are waning, this is not a time for making active outward change in the world, but a time for releasing the old and harvesting the fruit of the year, to dive deep to into ourselves, to get rooted for winter. 

vinegamedievalkitchen.jpg

So I invite you celebrate the autumn equinox and create a Venus Vinegar of your own! Take a basket outdoors and gather what mother nature provides in this season of plenty. You’ll likely find different fruits, seeds, herbs that I’ve used in mine, but that’s just right. Differing landscapes have their own unique foods and medicines – just be sure to use a combination of plants that reflect the energies at work in the season. And remember to include Venus’s signature plants if you can, red fruits like apples and rosehips, and green plants like plantain and thyme.

cropped-cornucopia31.jpg

Autumn harvest basket: Horn of Plenty 

You can use this vinegar in many winter recipes, to pickle dandelion capers and nasturtium buds, brighten up a pan sauce, a vinaigrette, or to marinate meat, as a glaze for winter vegetables, cooked whole grains, baked beans, roasted winter squash, soups and stews.

14374058_1419704104725295_6955151064253333504_n(1)-001.jpg

Nasturtium pod capers soaked in Venus Vinegar

VENUS  VINEGAR

Ingredients (just a rough guide for your own blend!)

  • 3 or 4 crabapples, sliced (if you can’t find any use any small crisp tart apple)
  • handful of oregon grape berries
  • handful of barberries (optional)
  • handful of rosehips
  • 3/4 cup of nasturtium flowers minced
  • handful of nasturtium seed pods
  • handful of mixed greens (young nettle shoots, chickweed, dandelion, plantain, bittercress)
  • four or five yellow Ginkgo leaves
  • sprig of rosemary, thyme or sage (or all three)
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons Sumac Seeds
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons of lightly ground Wild Mustard seeds  (Honesty Plant/Lunaria Annua)
  • 2 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of sea salt
  • 1 quart apple cider vinegar

Directions

  • Fill a quart jar with your plant material.
  • Pour room-temperature apple cider vinegar into the jar until it is full. Cover jar with a plastic screw-on lid, or use a square of wax paper underneath your metal lid (vinegar disintegrates metal) held on with a rubber band.
  • Store your mixture away from direct sunlight at room temperature.
  • Your Venus Vinegar will be ready in six weeks!
vinegarharvest

From front to back: fuzzy sumac seeds, red barberries, blue oregon grape berries, pale green nasturtium seed pods, baby conifer cones, hawthorn berries, yellow ginkgo leaves.