Chestnuts, Neruda & A Recipe For Crème de Marrons


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


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.


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.


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,
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.


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


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.

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)

fresh chestnuts
organic cane sugar
vanilla bean
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

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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?


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. 


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.


Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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?


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.

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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.”


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.


Fudgey Burdock & Rose Brownie Cake


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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! 


Burdock Root & Rose Brownie Cake


  • 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)

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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.


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!


Beautiful Venus Vinegar: Autumn Medicine & Magic


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


Nasturtium pod capers soaked in 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


  • 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!

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.


Harvest Magic: Invoking The Horn of Plenty


This season of the season of harvest, I’m going to take a page from my ancestors and craft a little old-fashioned cornucopia magic. Because if “gratitude attitude” is the key to prosperity nothing says it better than the ole’ horn of plenty.  Spilling with fruits, grains, gourds and flowers, this beloved emblem of earthly abundance, pleasure, healing and good fortune has been presiding over harvest festivals, feasts and revelry – since time immemorial.


Today it still adorns Thanksgiving tables, but we’ve forgotten that for our ancestors it was once a revered ritual object symbolizing the unlimited procreative powers of mother nature. And as such it was held high by fertility and harvest goddesses such Fortuna, Ceres, Demeter, Abundantia and Flora, who brought forth growth and plant life.


 Linked to medieval legends of the Holy Grail, the mystical chalice that returned green to the wasteland, it the source of life itself.  In Norse mythology, the horn was carried by goddess Idun, “The Glorious Maiden Who Knows the Age-Cure of the Aesir’  who dispensed the elixir of immortality and the eternal regeneration of youth.


Cornucopia were also carried by the Mothers or Matrones of ancient Gaul. Countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, depict the Mothers (divinities associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s) holding cornucopias filled with fruits and grains. Scholars generally agree this “Cult of the Mothers” was a pagan expression of female divinity in nature.


Some believe the cornucopia’s origins date to the upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic, when animal horns were placed on stone altars to evoke invoke the blessings of the bountiful all giving mother, the great goddess who in her cow incarnation, nourished the world through her horns of plenty.


I find this association with horns fascinating. The spiralling structure of horns, like the cornucopias, reflect the spiral patterns of energy manifesting through the natural world, as seen in water, sea shells, the spiral of galaxies, and DNA.

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Perhaps in the old goddess/earth worshipping traditions, these horns might have been seen as receiving and broadcasting the life-giving energies of nature, especially considering “broadcast” was once an agricultural term for spreading seed. And as the womb is also composed of spiralling muscle tissue, I think the horn also reflected women’s biological powers to give birth and new life.

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So were the “horns of plenty” once seen as vessels for channelling earth’s life-giving energy?  Could they have been used during harvest rituals for consecrating plants or objects placed within it?  Or to receive prayers that were chanted or spoken into it? Who really knows? But I like to think so.

So in honour of the great mother of all, her goddesses, The Mothers, the herb chanters, plant healers, and wise women whose ritual acts of “thanksgiving” created a horn of plenty, a prosperity magic to bless themselves and the land, I will go into my local woodlands, fields, shores and backyard, with a ceremonial basket.


And in the next few days leading to the Autumn Equinox (known to contemporary pagans as Mabon, Harvest Home, the Feast of the Ingathering and Witch’s Thanksgiving) the day the celestial clock ticks from summer into the official arrival of fall, I will like my ancestors, harvest. And I will give thanks for the abundance of herbs, berries, roots and seeds, provided by mother nature to fortify us in the coming winter.


Then like my foremothers of old,  I will take a ceremonial moment to call on the horn of plenty, the holy chalice, to bless this basket. And then of course, also like my ancestors, I will get to work transforming my bounty into a literal cornucopia of delicious fall foods and healing medicines, for myself, family, and community!


So far, I’ve gleaned nettle, milk thistle, wild mustard, lambs-quarters, sheep sorrel, motherwort and wild mugwort seeds, and these along with herbs of rosemary, sage and thyme, will be used to create tasty, nutrient rich seed salts.

Rose-hips and berries, spicy nasturtium blossoms, liquorice fern and burdock roots, will create vitalizing vinegars and nourishing tonics. (Stay tuned I’ll be posting recipes in an upcoming Cornucopia themed post.)


And there will be delicious hawthorn ketchup, acorn cake, crabapple chutney, sage infused honey, wild fennel crackers, Staghorn vodka and wild vermouth as well. Oh and there will be Yarrow and California Poppy tincture too. And this is only the beginning.


But so far the best part of my autumn equinox harvest is this. In this time when the geese fly overhead and the landscape shimmers with the reds and yellows of dying foliage, my basket fills me with “gratitude attitude” for the never-ending ability of the earth to provide. And in the darkening days of encroaching winter it’s a good faith to have.


May you be blessed with prosperity and abundance this season of harvest!


Boozy Preserves: Wildcrafted Berry Compote


Yes, the cold snowy nights of winter may seem a long way off, but you can be sure, they’re coming.  But if you get picking now – I guarantee this boozy, dark, thick wild berry compote will bring the heady luscious flavours of high summer back to your winter table.

Using alcohol and sugar to preserve the fruits of the summer is a centuries old tradition. My Oma made Rumtopf (literally meaning Rum Pot) into which she would add fruits and berries as they came into season; strawberries, blueberries, cherries, red and black currants, sliced apricots and pears. This concoction then sat until winter, when it was poured over ice cream for our families traditional Christmas Eve dessert.


My Oma didn’t like rum, so she used vodka instead. And so I’ve followed her tradition by using vodka as well- though I’ve wildcrafted her recipe by using salal berries, blackberries and oregon grape. (Click on the links if you’re not sure how to identify.)

And it makes a dark, tangy syrup of wild berries that is absolutely delicious over winter custards, puddings, cheesecakes, pancakes, even french toast. But possibly my favourite way to enjoy Wild Berry Compote is to strain off the fruits (which can be baked into tarts, cakes and desserts) and serve as a Yule liqueur.

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Now as much as I enjoy consuming homemade berry jams and jellies, I’m far too lazy for the work serious canning. So aside from freezing, I love that this is by far, the easiest and most tasty way to preserve your berry bounty.  There are many methods but the basic premise is the same — simply mix fruit and sugar with enough hard spirit to keep the fruit well soused, and let it sit. (I’ve been substituting honey for years and it works just fine).


My Oma made her Rumtopf in one large crock, layering in fruit throughout the season. I make mine in the large pot pictured above (which was handed down to me from my mom) but I also like to make smaller batches as well. I fill mason jars with different combinations of berries, foraged fruit (plums and pears) and alcohol (vodka, brandy, rum). Often I’ll infuse herbs and blossoms into the mixture, rose petals, fennel fronds, even Queen Anne’s Lace.


The only downside is, of course, the waiting. This allows the full flavours to mellow and slowly develop, and can take a few months. (That said, I do occasionally dip into mine far earlier). But the upside is that you’ll have summer in a crock – ready for savouring by a blazing winter fire.  And it will warm more than your tummy and bones, it will nourish and revitalize your entire body as well.


After all, wild berries are far more nutritious than their domesticated counterparts, brimming with important vitamins, phytochemicals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. And because many medicinal tinctures are made from soaking herbs and berries in alcohol, (which break down cellular walls, releasing their healing components) I like to think this compote as an enlivening winter tonic.

But for me, the best part of making compote is the magic. I begin picking the berries on the first of August, which in old Britain was the traditional time of the “Festival of First Fruits” better known as Lammas or Lammastide or Lughnasa. This represented the first harvesting of the growing season’s bounty, and was often referred to as the berry harvest.

In Ireland it was also known as Bilberry Sunday, the time to climb the mountain sides to collect wild berries. Bilberries were baked into pies, cakes and became part of ritual feast held alongside bread and other fruits of the first harvest. And it marked the traditional time to start making preserves in preparation for the coming dark months.

I love these old nature celebrations, and so making this compote from wild local berries has become a seasonal ritual. It connects me to my ancestors, to the bounty of nature, to the earth and the seasonal energies of the land. And when I crack open the compote pot to celebrate the fruit of my labours, I know the deep dark flavour inside will transport me back that moment I stood in the hot summer sun, popping ripe succulent berries into my mouth. And that’s why, when the dark winter nights roll around, this boozy wild berry compote is magic.


Boozy Wildcrafted Berry Compote


  • Approximately 1 & 1/2 cups blackberries
  • Approximately 2 cups salal berries
  • Approximately 1 cup oregon grape berries
  • (you can also use wild blueberries or huckleberries if you like)
  • 2 cups of honey
  • 1 750ml bottle of vodka ( if you like you can infuse the vodka with rose petals or other blossoms. Simply soak them in the vodka for a week or two before straining them off)


  • Rinse your berries of dust and debris and let dry.
  • Place in large ceramic crock or large pickling jar.
  • Pour over with vodka and honey. The berries should be completely submerged. If you still have room – add a few more berries.
  • Stir gently.
  • Then put away for the winter i.e. two to three months.Give a gentle stir every now and then. If you want to sample it earlier – wait one month at least!
  • When ready, just spoon over whatever you want.


Summer Heat: Nasturtium & Sumac Hot Sauce

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Every summer I fall in love with the flavour, aroma and healing properties of a particular plant. Last year I swooned for the anise scented lacy blossoms of wild fennel and put them in everything from crackers, cookies and cakes, infused honey, ice-cream and vodka.

But this year I’ve fallen hard for the spirited peppery bite of Nasturtium, adding her bright orange, red and yellow petals to salads, pestos, omelettes, and savoury muffins. But this recipe for Nasturtium Hot sauce is my hands down favourite. It’s easier than pie to make, eye-wateringly delicious and beautiful to behold.

Now I’m a hot sauce aficionado (Louisiana, Tabasco and Smoked Chipotle are only a few of the staples in my kitchen). And this Nasturtium Hot Sauce does not disappoint. So far I’ve enjoyed it’s unique flavour and spicy zest in salsa, dips, devilled eggs, cocktails and even a wildcrafted kimchi. And packed with nutrients and medicinal properties – it’s oh so good for you too!


You can find nasturtium (Tropaeoleum Majus) anywhere. Its vibrant blooms and lush tangled foliage are a summer favourite, planted in gardens and pots – but they can often be found growing wild along the Pacific coast, especially in sunny dry ground.

High in Vitamin C (which explains why they were once used as a cure for scurvy) nasturtiums contain many important vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, carotenoids, iron, sulphur, manganese and amino acids. And they contain a walloping amount of lutein, wonderful for keeping the eyes healthy. Their mustard-like oil is antibacterial, and it’s antibiotic properties are believed to be helpful in treating colds and flu. (see more here)


Introduced from South America into Europe in the 1600s, it’s sharp radish like-flavour soon became a culinary favourite. Recipes for nasturtium include chopping their arugula-like leaves into egg salad and sandwich spreads, stuffing the blossoms with cheesy fillings, making young buds into capers, and roasting and grinding the mature seeds like black pepper.


From the 1797 edition of  “The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook”

I adapted this hot sauce recipe from one found in an 1886 book called “The Country House: A Collection of Useful Information and Recipes.” It called for a pint of nasturtium flowers, a quart of vinegar, 4 teaspoonfuls of Cayenne pepper, 4 cloves of garlic, and 8 shallots. “Put the flowers, garlic, shallots, and pepper, into a pickle jar, and pour the vinegar boiling hot upon them, and cover it up for a week or ten days; after which, strain off through a cloth, as you would ketchup. It will improve by being kept a little.”


Too this I improvised by adding a minced jalapeno pepper, a few “crow garlic” bulbs for wild terroir, and the red, tart, slightly fruity, seeds of Staghorn Sumac.  (The Staghorn Sumac tree is found in many neighbourhoods and in early august the ruby hued cones are ready for harvest. They stand upright on branches and are covered with velvety fuzz like the horn of a stag. To harvest the seeds you simply pull them from the cone, but you want to catch them before they brown and dry out, and you want to pick them before a rain which washes away their flavour).

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Staghorn Sumac Cone & Seeds

If you can’t find any nearby, don’t worry, toss in a few lemon rinds instead. But aside from Sumac’s tangy flavour (often used in a wildcrafted lemonade) it’s seeds bring their own medicinal powers. High in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties  they promote tissue healing, lower blood pressure, and are helpful in treating many rheumatic and cardiovascular conditions.

And of course you can’t have “hot sauce” without peppers – which bring their many healing benefits as well. For example chilli peppers contain carotenoids flavonoids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and are high in capsaicin (a compound responsible for “heat” with analgesic properties). Today they are often used in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, weight loss and cancer.

So by soaking our nasturtium, sumac seeds and peppers in vinegar (which helps extract their many nutrients and healing components), this Nasturtium Hot Sauce is sure to bring a medicinal punch to your meals. But if you just plain love hot sauce as I do – then you won’t want to miss this unique botanical variation on a beloved culinary classic.


Nasturtium & Sumac Hot Sauce


  • 2 cups of Nasturtium blooms (preferably harvested in the morning before wilted)
  • 1 teaspoon young Nasturtium buds (these are hotter than the flowers)
  • 3 cloves of chopped garlic (or crow garlic if you can get your hands on it)
  • 1 minced jalapeno pepper
  • 2 cup of apple cider or white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of Sumac Seeds (or a few slices of lemon rind)
  • 1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of sea salt


  • Pack dry ingredients into a 1 pint sterilized mason jar.
  • Heat your vinegar in a saucepan and fill your jar.
  • When cool, shake and refill with more vinegar if necessary. (Make sure the vinegar covers the plant material)
  • Cap and store in cool, dark place.
  • Give it a good daily shake for one week.
  • After one week, strain through through muslin or coffee filter into a sterilized bottle. Or whir it all up in a food processor for a thicker texture- which I did.
  • Store in refrigerator for up to six months.