Sweet Magic: Summer Solstice Honey Cookies

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Then followed that beautiful season… Summer…
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Looking for a festive way to celebrate the upcoming summer solstice? Well these aromatic sunny cookies may be just the ticket.  Made with sacred herbs and flowers of the sun, they’re filled with the gathering magic of midsummer traditions. And served up at a summer solstice picnic, they will delight young and old. After, all doesn’t everyone love a pretty cookie?

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And what better way to capture the magic of the longest day of the year? This is the day (June 20th) the sun’s powers are at their peak, from now on the sun will recede from the sky a little earlier each evening. For our Northern European ancestors, summer solstice was the turning point between the waxing and waning cycle of the great year. And they marked the occasion, as they so liked to do, by throwing a party. Feasts, bonfires, and dancing, all in celebration of the glorious midsummer sun. And they still do today!

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Across old Europe summer solstice had many different names. In Britain it was known as Midsummer, in Latvia it was Kupala Day or Herb Evening, and in Scandinavia it was celebrated as Litha.  For women this was a “Gathering Day”, an important day of ritual first harvest. Wearing ceremonial clothing adorned with symbols of the sun, they would weave flowers into garlands and crowns. Then they would go into the fields and forests to gather plants and herbs.

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On this day plants were believed to be vigorous with the heightened life force of the sun – so it was common knowledge that a curing or magical herb plucked on midsummer doubled its powers! Folklore tells if you picked nine flowers or the leaf of plantain and put it under the pillow – you would dream your future spouse.

St. John’s Wort, with its solar yellow flowers, is the herb most associated with Midsummer. According to old herbals, it blooms on this day, and along with it’s many healing abilities, it brought protection from fire, disease, disaster and the evil eye.

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St. John’s Wort

While it was renamed by the Church after St. John ( it’s bright red red sap mimics the blood of St. John) it’s association with female powers and witchery is strong. It’s flowers were left at the feet of statues of Greek and Roman goddesses, such as Hecate, the goddess of ghosts and sorcery, and Circe, who distilled its leaves and flowers for potent charms. And my favorite herbalist, wise woman Susun Weed, steadfastly refers to this herb as St. Joan’s Wort.

Other herbs bearing the magical power of the sun include rosemary, vervain, hyssop, fern, mullein, basil, lavender, thyme, fennel, and wormwood. These herbs were associated with powers of invigoration, healing, purification and protection, and the flowers (rose, daisy, marigold, cornflower, calendula and more) represented beauty and love.

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Petals were scattered in water or dried in love charms. In Bohemia, girls wore chaplets of mugwort while dancing around the Midsummer bonfire. And on Midsummer’s Eve Italians washed their faces in bowls of water containing flowers, rose petals and herbs.

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And of course, this herbaceous solstice bounty was also consumed! Fresh herbs and traditional midsummer feasting are a long standing culinary tradition. They were used in dishes made from the first harvest of the season; vegetables (peas and mint, new potatoes and dill), fresh cheeses (like the Latvian Caraway cheese) and alcoholic libations (the Scandinavians made Aquavit with dill, fennel and coriander). And in Provence five sacred aromatic herbs-rosemary, thyme, marjoram, hyssop and sage, are gathered to make an “infusion aux herbes de Saint Jean.” 

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Herbed New Potato Salad & Latvian Cheese

In Nordic countries midsummer feast included “sun breads”, cakes or buns made with honey (also a golden sun food) believed to bring fertility, prosperity and abundance to the community.  One Scandinavian folk tradition recommends including midsummer dew in the dough to cure diseases! Roman’s had their own summer solstice celebration Vestalia, during which priestesses Vestales made sacred cakes with water from her holy spring.

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So inspired by these many summer solstice food traditions,  I decided to a do a little baking ritual of my own – midsummer sun cookies! Infused with herby aromatic flavours and flowers of the sun (like rosemary, thyme, lavender and sage) then coloured golden with a few drops of orangey St.John’s tincture and adorned with symbols of the sun – they would be food magic indeed.

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And I think they turned out beautifully.  So if you’re looking for a way to mark the turn of the seasons and connect with mother nature, celebrate Gathering Day. Summer solstice festivities traditionally occurred somewhere between June 20th to early July according to differing calendars. So you have plenty of time!

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Girls celebrating summer solstice in Rakov in Russia. Note the solar emblems on her neck and sleeves.

Wear something sunny, and take the children (or not) for a flowery, herby harvest.  But however you decide to enjoy nature’s midsummer bounty, remember that above all, “On Midsummer we eat and dance with abandon, leaving all worries behind. The sun never sets and there are flowers everywhere.”

Seems a good a reason as any to celebrate with cookies!

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Summer Solstice Herby Honey Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 & 3/4 cups of flour
  • ¾ C. softened butter
  • ¼ C. honey
  • ¼ brown or cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon minced thyme
  • 1 teaspoon lavender buds
  • 1 teaspoon minced rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon minced sage
  • a few crushed cardamom seeds
  • pinch of salt

NOTE: I used more like a tablespoon of each herb in my cookies, but this might be too herbaceous for some, so adjust accordingly. And I also added 3/4 cup oatmeal to another batch of cookies and cut back on the flour. Feel free to experiment or use whatever cookie recipe you like…after all it’s not the cookie that matters as much as the spirit!

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Summer Herbs: thyme, lavender, calendula, hyssop and sage blossom

Icing:

  • 3 teaspoons milk
  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • wee bit of grated lemon rind. ( I also added lavender buds to a second batch of icing)
  • Colouring. I used a combination of golden beet juice, St. John’s Tincture and a pinch of turmeric powder, but of course you could use a storebought natural food dye. Recipe for a carrot-based colored icing here.
  • Combine your milk and icing sugar. Slowing add in your colouring and mix until you find the desired colour/consistency

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Directions:

  • Preheat Oven to 300
  • Beat flour, sugar and soft butter together until creamy.
  • Slowly drizzle in honey while beating until mixture pulls together.
  • Add minced herbs and petals, mix well through the dough.
  • Divide into four balls and chill for an hour or so.
  • Roll out and cut into round shapes. Add flour as needed.
  • Bake at 300 for 10-15 minutes.
  • Let cool.
  • Decorate using the flowers and herbs of the sun: petals of calendula, daisy, St. John’s Wort, rose, or sprigs of rosemary, thyme and sage.

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Wildcrafting the Shrub: Osoberry Delight

Ripening now in the Pacific Northwest – the Osoberry. Like a cross between cherry, cantaloupe and cucumber, its flavour is unique. Here is a recipe for Osoberry” shrub,” a kind of vinegary cordial popular with the cocktail set. I ended up using it more like a syrupy balsamic vinegar in salads, marinades and glazes. Not to be missed!

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This year our warm and early summer not only brought us an abundance of Osoberry but unusually luscious ones. Trailing branches over every roadside, every forest path, and every park trail, were hung so fat with plump blue-black clusters that they practically begged to be picked. But the big question – how to preserve the bounty?

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I had sampled but never harvested the “Oso” before. I knew there wasn’t a lot of meat on the pit, but I also knew that at the height of ripeness popping one into your mouth, still warm from the sun, well it’s a little piece of heaven. Living up to its species name (meaning “cherry like”) it fills the mouth with dark cerise intensity before settling at the back of the tongue with the sultry velvet of melon. And it’s all permeated by a fresh crisp cucumber flavour. So how could I best highlight…

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Dandelion & Calendula Breakfast Egg Cups: The Perfect Marriage of Health & Flavour

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These egg cups were inspired by Jennifer’s upcoming nuptials. Because ever since she and my brother announced their upcoming wedding, the women in the family and invited close friends have been “watching their weight”. Including me. Normally I don’t pay much thought to the extra padding one accumulates around the middle (from consuming too many possets) but there is something about a summer wedding that motivates one to look their best, which sigh, sadly in this day and age, means slimmer.

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And it was to the egg cup I turned. High protein, low carb, its reputation as the perfect diet and convenience food is well known. I found oodles of recipes online. Described as a “natural choice for a healthy, active lifestyle”, “guilt-free, fast, and easy” and ready “to eat on the go”, they are clearly a fuelling favourite for busy women everywhere. And packing them with spinach and chopped vegetables, makes them doubly good for you.

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But in the end it wasn’t cutting carbs that convinced me to explore the glories of the breakfast (in my case more brunchy) egg cup, it was the many mouth-watering recipe images I discovered on Pinterest.  And now I’m sorry to say that it took me so long to give them a try!  The rich eggy flavour, the savoury feta cheese, the flavours of fresh herbs – all combined in a perfect storm. And eaten warm from the oven, these cups are no mere convenience but a comfort food extraordinaire.

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And yes, they are super healthy. Especially this version which is filled with the wild super-greens of the season like dandelion and wild mustard, not to mention tasty healing herbs like lovage or the antioxidant and flavonoid packed calendula petals.  But it is lovage’s distinctly celery like taste which gives this egg cup its wonderful flavour.

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Upper Left Corner: Lovage, Bottom Left: Dandelion. Strewn throughout Calendula & Dandelion petals

I chose lovage for no particular reason other than it was just so abundant and vibrant. In our community herb garden one plant is well over 6 feet already!  Lovage is a member of the parsley family, and its aromatic flavour has been described as celery, anise and curry like, which has long made it a favourite herb for soups, stews and stock.

And not only did it work to season this egg cup beautifully, I’ve discovered since that it can help aid weight loss. Well, according to the internet anyway.  Billed as a cleansing herb that helps expel toxins from your body, research suggests it works as a diuretic that encourages water loss without losing electrolytes in the process.

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Bottom left corner: Lovage leaves

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From bottom left to top right: field meadow mustard greens, calendula petals, dandelion leaves

Dandelion too is a renowned diuretic, used by herbalists to detoxify the liver and support kidney function. Its bitter qualities, like the pungent qualities of mustard, also stimulate and support digestion. And the better your food is digested, the more nutrients you’ll absorb from your food. Plus studies have shown that better digestion leads to better metabolism  – which helps us burn fat more efficiently!

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But in the end, I love these egg cups not because they are so healthy, but because they are just so warming, yummy and pretty.  Recently I served them up to my visiting mother and sister and law for breakfast – and they absolutely loved them. So much so we ended up eating the whole dozen. Some diet. Who cares? Sometimes there are more important things in life that watching your waistline!

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Dandelion & Calendula Breakfast Egg Cups (With Feta & Lovage)

(serves 6)

Ingredients

  • 6 eggs
  • Splash of cream
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2 tablespoons minced dandelion leaves
  • 2 tablespoons minced wild mustard greens
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh lovage leaves
  • 3 tablespoons of calendula petals
  • 1/4 of large onion or half of small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • tablespoon of olive oil

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Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • Grease cups of a muffin tin.
  • In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, salt, and pepper until smooth.

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  • Lightly saute your greens with olive oil, garlic and onion, add in the feta, give a stir.
  • Remove from stove and fill your muffin cup with the mixture (about 3/4 full).
  • Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until the cups are solid and slightly brown on top.
  • Let cool 10 minutes, and then remove from muffin tin. Eat warm if you can!

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A Super Easy Old-Fashioned Creamy Dessert: Honey Lilac Posset (Or Rose, Elderflower, Peony, Lavender…)

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“Be cheerful knight: thou shalt eat a posset to-night at my house”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Dating back to the middle ages, the posset is making a comeback. Perfect for when you want to whip up a special dessert with minimal effort, it’s made with three ingredients, honey, cream and lemon juice. These are boiled together and chilled overnight. That’s it. And if that isn’t wonderful enough, try infusing your posset with spring flowers like lilac, wild rose or elderflower. Simply divine.

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If you follow Gather’s fb page you’ll likely have noticed we’ve become smitten with possets. This began when I discovered this amazing recipe for Lemon Lavender Posset. Because lavender wasn’t yet ready, I decided to use what was in full bloom at the time -the glorious fragrant blossoms of lilac. The results were delicious.

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This inspired Jennifer to create Elderflower Posset (she tossed in a few of our native red elderflowers as well) and now we’re both enamoured with rose. Lately I’ve been eyeing the peony which is reputed to make a delightful jelly.

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Elderflower Honey Posset

Today’s posset is very different from the one often referred to by Shakespeare, a drink made from curdled milk, sugar, alcohol and sack, (a fortified wine or sweet ale similar to sherry).  I like this 1596 recipe from The Good Housewife’s Jewel Take a pint of thick cream, and season it with sugar and ginger, and rose water. So stir it as you would then have it make it luke warm in a dish on a chafing dish and coals. And after put it into a silver piece or a bowl, and so serve it to the board.”

Bthe 18th century, possets are made from milk, but thickened with egg yolks (like custard) or bread (like a trifle). But the modern posset recipes now making the rounds, are more like basic puddings (no, not the Jello). And they’re often served slathered on scones or with shortbread biscuits.

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Wild Rose Posset

Puddings today are not thought to be good for the health, but possets certainly were. Used as a general “restorative” to fortify the body, or as a curative to banish colds and illness, possets were a delicious way to make the medicine go down. A 19th century recipe mentions a black pepper flavoured posset that will ‘promote perspiration’ in order to sweat out a fever.  Flowers of course, bring their own healing properties, elderflower and rose for example are both known for their anti-inflammatory constituents.

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Elderflower

Possets were often served at weddings and used in toasts at all levels of society.  Which means you just might find them served at upcoming Gather nuptials.  Like, lets say a Rose Posset made with rose brandy and a yarrow infused honey (good for ensuring love, fidelity and marital bliss).

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Posset Pot

Sometimes a wedding ring was thrown in the posset pot and the person who found it was next to head to the altar.  You would use a spoon to eat the top layers and then drink the wine through the spout in the cup. With an alcoholic base at bottom and creamy layer on top, it actually sounds quite delicious. Needless to say I’ll be experimenting with a boozy wedding-inspired posset shortly.

So if you’re in a part of the country where lilac still blooms, you’ll be enchanted by this Lilac Honey Posset. But is you’ve got roses, well that’s heavenly too. I’m moving on to lavender, whose buds are plumping and readying for harvest. But whatever floral you choose, I’m willing to bet you’ll soon find yourself (like us!) enthralled with the old-fashioned charm of the posset.

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Lilac Honey Posset (with a lilac infused honey spooned over the top)

Lilac Honey Posset (or Rose, Elderflower etc.)

Makes about 6 portions.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 cups cream (heavy or regular whipping cream both work)
  • ½ cup honey
  • ⅓ cup lemon juice
  • 1-2 cups fresh blossoms (be sure to remove all stems, especially from Elderflower…and if you’re using lavender, you’ll need just half a cup!)
  • wee pinch of salt & cardamom (if you’re so inclined)

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Bring cream and honey to boil over medium-high heat. Stir continually until honey is fully combined.
  • Keep at a low boil for 3 full minutes, and keep stirring!  Then add lemon juice and stir some more.
  • Remove from heat and mix in your blossom thoroughly. Allow to infuse for an hour.

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  • Strain off flowers and pour into small jars or ramekins.
  • Cover tightly and chill overnight.

Some say you can stick in the freezer for 30-40 minutes (if you’re in rush to sample your just desserts) but we’ve both found they won’t decently set unless left for 24 hrs.

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Savory Sage Blossom Pesto: A Culinary Spell for Youth, Beauty and Wisdom

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“Why should a man die who has sage in his garden? ” Medieval Proverb

There is an old English saying that eating sage every day in May will grant immortality. So it’s not too late to partake in this sage pesto and enjoy the many medicinal, age-defying properties of this magical herb. And while it might seem strange to eat sage in spring, it was once relished in practically everything, from stews, meats, wine, cakes, puddings and yes, even pesto – all year long.

Today we’ve mostly relegated the flavour of sage to heartier fall dishes, like Thanksgiving stuffing, which is sad, because we’re overlooking one of the most widely used and beloved herbs in human history. Believed to grant longevity and wisdom, everyone from the Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks, to the Chinese, considered sage a cure-all herb, and turns out they were pretty bang on. Today we know sage works to soothe chronic disease, support digestion, cool inflammation, boost our immune system, and sharpen the mind. Sage does indeed, help turn back the ravages of time.

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Belonging to the aromatic Lamiaceae (mint) family along with other culinary healers like oregano, lavender, rosemary, thyme and basil, it bears gray-green edible leaves and flowers that can range in color from blue and purple to white or pink. And right now, many varieties are aburst with aromatic blossoms. I found these in our community herb garden, heady with the sap of spring, their tall stalks buzzing with bees.

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Now every kitchen witch knows that spring flowers are a powerful form of plant magic, enhancing youth, romance and beauty – and the blossoms of herbs are known to be especially potent. And who doesn’t want a little of that? But vanity aside, it was the sage blossoms deep sweet scent that inspired me to explore their culinary pleasures. And what better recipe for spring magic than pesto?  

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Herb and herb blossoms pestos are a spring tradition in Italian cuisine. And with their liberal addition of cheese, garlic, roasted nuts and plenty of oil, a pesto seemed an ideal complement for sage’s potent flavour. But make no mistake, this is no light green pesto, this is a full palate sensation. It deserves a heavier bread (like the pumpernickel pictured above) otherwise its rich flavours threaten to overwhelm.

But together their full-bodied flavours are so satisfying, you’ll feel like you’ve eaten a meal. And afterwards, I encourage you to sit back, rest a moment, and savour the healing magic of sage.

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Sage Blossom Pesto

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sage flowers
  • 1/4 cups roasted nuts (cashew, walnut or pine nuts)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup of onion coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  • Remove a few leaves and the blossoms from stalks
  • Pulse the blossoms and leaves with the rest of the ingredients in a food processor until you get the consistency and texture you like (i.e. chunky or smooth)
  • Place in a serving dish and top with a dollop of olive oil and squirt of lemon
  • You’re ready to eat!

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Yarrow: On Love & Marriage & Ale

Yarrow is blooming here on Vancouver Island! It’s one of my favourite herbs and I’m so happy to see it’s all at once delicate and sturdy white blossoms again. I plan to incorporate a lot of yarrow into my upcoming summer nuptials. And this is where I segue into my big announcement: I’m getting married in July…in the woods at the lovely Cedar Haven Weddings ..to Danielle’s brother, Christian. This promises to be Gather’s biggest project yet—so if wedding stuff bores you, you may want to avert your eyes for a couple of months. Though we will try to make it interesting. Promise.

Now where was I? Yarrow! It’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is attributed to the Greek hero, Achilles who was said to use it to heal his warriors wounds—at least according to Pliny the Elder. Turns out Achilles’ relationship with Yarrow is a little muddy… Here’s an interesting read on that, if you’d like to know more. Greek gods aside, yarrow’s been an important healing herb the world over for a very long time. And so it should come as no surprise that it has an equally long magical history. After all, our ancestors didn’t put nearly as much effort into separating magic and medicine as we do.

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Yarrow detail from Rima Staines’ Weed Wife

From casting the ancient I Ching in China to rounding out the seven herbs sacred to the Irish, yarrow has always been an important herb for protection, love, fidelity and divination. It was hung in doorways and on cradles to repel evil spirits, held against the eyes to bring on the second site, worn in shoes to give travellers fluency of speech and sewn into clothes to fend off…well, everything. And then there’s the love charms!  Singletons of yore sewed yarrow blossoms and leaves into little sachets, said a little prayer and tucked them under their pillows in hopes that their future betrothed would appear in their dreams.

Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.

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Scottish girls silently gathered yarrow in the fields and then with eyes closed, recited:

Good morrow, good morrow
To thee, braw yarrow
And thrice good morrow to thee:
I pray thee tell me today or tomorrow 
Who is my true love to be. 

Upon opening their eyes, they’d scan the horizon for a male figure AKA their future husband (Dictionary of Plant Yore, D.C. Watts). Similar divination love charms and rituals involving yarrow were practiced across Europe and in colonized America. I wonder how many less than desirable bachelors cottoned on to this and scheduled their morning strolls accordingly… Of course, with such a long relationship with humans, yarrow also got dragged into the witch hunts. Graveyard yarrow was said to help uncover a witch and or protect someone from falling in love with one. Handy stuff, old yarrow is.

Beyond love divination and charms, yarrow was also a token of fidelity. Sprigs were tucked into wedding wreaths and hung over the newlyweds’ bed to guarantee seven years (and not a day more) of fidelity. Yarrow ale was also commonly served at medieval wedding festivals called bride-ales. And yes, this is where our modern word “bridal” comes from. These sometimes multi-day celebrations clearly involved a lot of ale drinking and sparked a tradition of brewing special bridal beers for the occasion.

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Also known as “Field Hops”, yarrow was commonly used as a bittering agent pre-hops, and was considered to make a headier brew than others. There is evidence that yarrow has mild psychotropic properties or “a thujone, hypnotic cannabinoid compound” (Green Man Ramblings) that scientifically explains these claims. Many herbalists have documented shifts in perception like colours brightening and heightened hearing after consuming certain yarrow plants—combine that with the inhibition-relieving effects of a fermented beverage and now you have a party. If anyone’s ever had to host the in-laws, never mind the entire village, you can see why a yarrow ale might be popular.

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And it’s in this tradition that David Woodward, head brewer of Axe and Barrel Brewing Co. is infusing his lovely IPA in yarrow and wee bit of rosemary (another important marital herb and possible future blog post subject) to create a special small batch brew for our wedding. David’s known for creating unique beers using foraged ingredients and interesting flavour combinations and I LOVE the idea of a special wedding ale, particularly when ancient herbs with all their healing properties and folklore are incorporated. Yarrow blossoms will also appear in my bouquet by local sustainable flower grower, Wild Edge and it’s fragrant sturdy white blooms will be tucked into one special boutonnière. With luck, our caterer Nature’s Chef will use a bit of it to flavour a dish or two (nudge-nudge, hint-hint, Tom). And while our bride-ale will run only a few short hours, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to ring in our marriage than with loved ones and such a magical plant ally!

Post Script:  While researching the history of herbs and beer, I stumbled across the fascinating history of women brewers and the convenient association with witchcraft that wiped many of them out, leaving the craft almost exclusively to men and pleasing the church in the process. I plan to explore further in a follow-up post already cleverly titled “Brewmasters & Broomsticks”. But that’s another story for another day… 

Wild Rose Cupcakes & Buttercream Frosting: A Divine Confection

A rose may be a rose be a rose, but this cupcake is much more than just a cupcake! ~ Danielle

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“Mystery glows in the rose bed, the secret is hidden in the rose.” 12th Century Persian Poem

Don’t underestimate the power of this demure, pretty, little cupcake. Behind its girly facade lies a scent and flavor so compelling, so transporting, that it has been from time immemorial associated with magic, mysticism, esoteric secrets, sacred sexuality, the unfolding of higher consciousness, and most especially – divine feminine power.

The story of the wild rose (from which all our domesticated roses descend) could fill books – and has. Reputed to be millions of years old, the five petal rose (Rosa canina) blooms in late spring in woodlands and fields across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America.

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Here in the Pacific Northwest, our native species are known as the Nootka and Wood’s Rose and were harvested by our First Nations for both food and medicine. Not much is known because, as…

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