It’s the time of the year when the sun’s powers are at their height and plants are brimming with life-force energy. This is why I’m sharing this very special libation from the Gather Victoria ECookbook, Black Balsam. Inspired by my Latvian ancestry, Black Balsam is hailed “true taste of a Baltic Summer” and is the national drink of Latvia. Balsam means herbal liqueur and the recipe for this potent bittersweet balsam is a closely guarded secret. The shortlist of suspected ingredients includes linden blossoms, birch buds, roses, cornflowers, daisies lemon balm, chamomile, peppermint, wormwood, motherwort, valerian root, and St. John’s Wort. Dark berries like blackberry, bilberry, and black currant, are often added, which gives the Balsam its “black” color.
Used as an invigorating tonic, Black Balsam is said to improve mood, boost the immune system, and improve digestion. And with those delicious and powerful medicinals, it’s easy to understand why. According to legend, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia became ill during a visit to Latvia but was cured after drinking Riga Black Balsam.
I make my version every year during Summer Solstice, known in Latvia as Līgo Day or Herb Day. While it includes many of the aromatic herbs and healing wildflowers found in the ‘original” recipe like lemon balm, peppermint, and chamomile it goes heavy on the roses and linden blossoms that were especially sacred to Latvian goddesses associated with Midsummer lore.
At dawn on Herb Day women still dress in special clothing and enter the forests and fields in a ceremonial first herb harvest. This is the day the plants are said to contain double their curative and magical powers. Singing traditional songs, and offering special prayers, they thank Māra, Mother of the World, Mother of the Earth, the Mother of the Sea, the Mother of Water, and the Mother of the Forest. According to Latvian folk songs called Daina, she is in charge of healing herbs and magical plants such as the legendary fern blossom linked in Latvian folklore to the summer solstice.
As Mother of Water, she is symbolized by the zigzag sign. The symbol of Māra as Mother Earth is a level line depicting a horizontal plane, its edges look to the northwest and northeast, the directions where the sun sets on the summer solstice and rises on Midsummer’s morning. She wears green or gilded robes and is often seated at a forest spring near sacred stones or a tree. (Māra’s church) During the summer solstice, women bathed in Māras springs to gain fertility, health, and energy. In 1606, a Jesuit Father Jānis Stribingius reported that the Lativians offered milk, butter, and cheese at Māras holy tree during the Līgo or Midsummer Feast.
Today the Līgo feast is still celebrated in honor of the sun goddess, Saule. She was the ligo “the rolling sun” a”golden wheel” or a “golden circle” that rolls down the mountains. Round golden cakes and braided “sun breads” were made and consumed to enhance her powers. Saule travels in a golden boat and on summer solstice she danced on the hills wreathed in red flowers. In Latvian songs, the rose is her most important symbol, “Saules Garden” is filled with roses, and the rising and setting sun is depicted as a rose, a rose wreath, a rose bush, and a rose garden.
Other blossoms like Oxeye Daisy and Linden associated with midsummer are also sacred to Saule. Oxeye Daisy is the national flower of Latvia and on Ligo Day it was the custom to gather daises before dawn and weave them into crowns for luck and protection. Oxeye daisy flowers, leaves, and roots are harvested for tea and medicinal purposes. As a tonic, oxeye is similar to chamomile, a steadying and calming influence on the nervous system.
Linden tree was associated with Laima, the Latvian goddess of fate which many scholars consider to be just another form of Māra. Linden is a graceful, stately tree in the genus Tilia. Hundreds of its tiny creamy white blossoms hang heavily from the branches and fill the air with an intoxicating fragrance often compared to honeysuckle or jasmine. Linden blossoms are best known for their calming, sedative effect and feature powerful anti-inflammatory properties. There are many magic beliefs regarding Linden’s curative powers during the summer solstice. Laima is often invoked in a toast: ‘Oh, Laima, thou art healthy; give me thy health.’ ]
So I invite you to indulge in some herbal healing and summer solstice gathering magic with this divinely feminine version of Black Balsam. Traditional recipes include seeds, various grasses, roots, barks, bark oils, and spices, so feel free to include whatever botanicals that inspire you. According to Latvian lore, on the eve of the solstice, plants will whisper the illnesses they are meant to cure!
Summer Solstice Black Balsam
- 1 750 ml. bottle of a hard spirit of choice (vodka or brandy are nice)
- 2 cups of fresh or dried linden blossoms,
- a few springs each of lemon balm, peppermint, chamomile
- a sprig of mugwort or motherwort (touch of bitter)
- 1 cup rugosa rose petals (any variety will do as long as it is fragrant)
- a handful of oxeye daisy flowers
- 2 tablespoons of berries ( I used Mahonia Berries, but any dark berry will do)
- The peeled rind of one lemon
- a wee touch of honey (to taste)
- spices of your choice (cardamom, vanilla pod, green juniper berries)
Macerate (roughly chop) your fresh herbs. Place plant material and all your other ingredients in a very large jar. Cover and let sit in the sun for a few days. Sieve off spent plant materials and then using a coffee filter or fine muslin cloth strain off any remaining sediment. Store in a beautiful bottle and sip whenever in need of a shot of summer sunshine.
Final Note: You can find more info on these plants and goddesses in the updated 2023 Summer Edition of Wildcrafting Culinary Magic up now at Gather Victoria Patreon. This Ecookbook is a working draft for what will eventually become a real live hardcopy cookbook and inside you’ll find a literal smörgåsbord of ancestral foods, wild plants, herbs, and blossoms brimming with the plant and food magic of the season.
I hate the idea of all my new content being behind a “pay wall” so I’m going to start posting more content and recipes here from Patreon and the “cookbooks in progress”. It may seem as if I’m shamelessly promoting my Patreon site but it’s all I got – and that said, there is a lot! From wildcrafted recipes to herbal remedies to ceremonial dishes celebrating the “culinary goddess” found throughout history, folklore and myth – there are close to 1000 pages of content in the Seasonal Ecookbooks and hundreds more recipes on the Patreon site. Completing these seasonal cookbooks is an all-consuming job, never mind creating new content for the Gather website or updating what I’m doing on social media. So over the summer, I’m going to share previews for some of the recipes from the cookbook and ask you to cast a vote on which you’d most like to see.
Let’s start with Rose Petal Jam. These are beloved across Eastern Europe, but probably the most famous is Bulgarian Rose Petal Jam. It is made during June as part the Bulgarian Rose Festival – one of the most celebrated in the world.
Accompanying this rose-picking ritual is folk dancing, a parade, the crowning of the Rose Queen and the making of rose petal jam. I used the Rugosa Rose which is highly scented – and in one batch I added some chili pepper to make a rosy red hot pepper jelly. This is wonderful with cheese and crackers and makes a super duper easy canape I call Spicy Rose Cocktail Bites. I used the regular (non spicy) Jam in No Bake Rose Swirl Cheesecake Bars, a Rosy Butter Cream Cake, a Rose Petal Jam “Eton Ness” and in Rose Jam Tart “Kolacky.
I’ve also got Rhubarb Rose Coconut Pudding, Rose Sugar Donuts, Rose Petal Couscous, Rosy Hemp Heart Pudding, Rose Syrup Cocktails Rose Petal & Lemon Balm Cucumber Salad, Rose Jellies and Dried Rose Petal Cupcakes.
What would you like most to see? Let me know!
Meanwhile, I wish you all a most happy and blessed Summer Solstice! xoxoxo