Nettle Seed & Dandelion Blossom Energy Bars: Wild Superfood Goodness

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Nettle Seed & Dandelion Blossom Energy Bars: dried apricots, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, candied ginger & a wee touch of cardamom.

My sister-in-law Gloria is an avid rower who races frequently with her Dragon Boat Team. Last year as a special request, she asked for a wildcrafted energy bar. I knew I wanted to make something with nettle seeds (tell you why shortly) but I could never find enough seeds on hand without decimating entire nettle patches. But recently someone offered to let me raid their gigantic nettle field (no joke) and I did so most happily!  So here Gloria is your bar – and it should keep you & and your team going right across that finish line!

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Now everyone knows Stinging Nettle is a nutritional powerhouse, packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids, even protein – but few realise the seeds also pack quite the nutritional & medicinal punch.  Herbalists Susun Weed and Kiva Rose believe they are adaptogenic which means they help our bodies deal with stress and support the adrenals.

In her book Healing Wise, Weed praises their ability to nourish the thyroid and endocrine glands and Rose writes “Nettle seed is fairy dust for your adrenals, and brings back sparkle, clarity and spring to the step”. Love that! She adds they “are especially effective for those suffering from severe burnout, resulting in profound fatigue, brain fog, chronic pain and alternating feelings of depression and intense anxiety.”

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Nettle seeds can be eaten fresh or dried but be warned – the fresh seeds can be “overstimulating” for some and shouldn’t be consumed before bed. Kiva recommends “In sensitive individuals, this may only be a small pinch and can range up to a tablespoon. Others may need to take a teaspoon per day for a week or so to notice significant effects, although results are usually noticed within a few days. I recommend starting with a small dose and working up as needed.” So keep that in mind before adding the seeds to the bars. She continues “Unlike simple stimulants, one does not “crash” on Nettle seeds when their effect wears off (usually 4-7 hours after ingestion), and appropriate rest and relaxation is actually often enhanced by their use.”

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Generally, it is recommended to harvest the seeds when they plump and hang straight down from the stem (see above) and just before they begin to darken and brown. Use gloves – remember they are called stinging nettles for good reason!  I cut the whole stems then hang them for a few days to give the bugs a chance to escape. Once dry, I strip off the strands of seeds and then rub them through these flat baskets which work perfectly! You can also use a sieve of course. 

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Dandelion flowers are my sister in law’s favourite weed which is why they made it into this bar. But they are also mildly sweet, a good source of vitamins A, B, and C, beta-carotene, iron, zinc, potassium and a superb source of lecithin – which is believed to support brain function and the liver.  But please only choose only dandelions you are certain haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. Try your own backyard or friends as roadside or park dandelions are not recommended! Also if you can’t find dandelions try calendula petals, they’re beautiful, add colour and taken internally are wonderful for helping soothe the digestive track. As is the ginger – which gives this bar a little tasty zing and heat! 

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Also please try to use organic un-sulphured apricots if you can get your hands on them. They’re not as vibrant orange and pretty, but better for you!  I used mine all up for my first batch of bars but when I went back to the store for more they were all out. All in all these bars are super easy to make, they just take a few whizzes in the food processor. You can add more or fewer nuts or apricots depending on how you like firmness and texture. But if they come out a bit too crumbly they make a super good energy ball too! And hopefully, my sister in law & her team will love them! Enjoy.

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Nettle Seed & Dandelion Blossom Energy Bars

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • ½ cup cashews
  • ½ cup almonds
  • ¼ cup sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons honey (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 4 -6 tablespoons nettle seeds (how much is up to you!)
  • 4 – 6 tablespoons of dandelion blossoms (or calendula)
  • 4 – 5 cubes of candied ginger
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Line and 8-inch baking pan with parchment paper.
  • Pulse nuts until crumbly, put aside in a separate bowl.
  • Pulse apricots until finely chopped. Add all other ingredients to the apricot mixture and process until well combined.
  • Add the nuts to the mixture and pulse until well mixed. 
  • Once the whole thing starts to stick together and ball up in the food processor you are done.
  • Firmly press mixture into the baking pan using something flat to press it down.
  • Place pan in the freezer for 30 min (or so) then remove and cut into bars.
  • Garnish w/ a few extra nettle & sesame seeds.
  • Place in an airtight container and store in the fridge for a month or so.

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Calming, Cleansing And Rejuvenating Herbal Treats For Yoga (or just anytime!)

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Behold the Lemon Balm & Wild Rose Tea and Chocolate Rose & Dandelion Root Energy Bites I’ll be serving for Restorative Herbal Yoga For Spring – the very first session of The Yoga Apothecary. Because I’m so grateful that this very first class is full (and that so many others of you have wanted to attend) I’ve decided to share the recipes for the treats that we’ll be sampling in class, so you can also enjoy their healing and revitalizing gifts at home.

In these classes we’ll be marrying the benefits of cleansing, calming and rejuvenative herbs, with restorative yoga postures and breath. Our focus is on releasing the stagnant tension and toxins that get “stuck” in our bodies over winter – allowing the fresh life giving energy of spring to flow IN. And to help us to do that, we’ll be calling in plant allies like Lemon Balm, Wild Rose and Dandelion Root!  So before our practice we’ll sip a fragrant and uplifting lemon balm and wild rose petal tea – spiked with a grounding dandelion root tincture.

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Left: Dandelion Root Tincture  Right:  Steeping Tea

Lemon balm is a delicious lemony herb in the mint family that helps soothe anxiety and calm the nervous system, this will help us relax and release tension in our bodies as we practice. The loving energy of rose and her heavenly volatile oils also help us to enter a deeply relaxed state. Her anti-depressant qualities and ability to uplift the heart and spirits are also well known. These benefits in yoga therapy, and especially in restorative yoga, are important physiologically to healing – because without first feeling safe and relaxed, we cannot fully restore.

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Stress and chronic tension can often get held in the body, from our jaw, neck, shoulders, bellies, hips and most especially our psoas muscle (which connects our legs to our torso). This can keep our flight/fight/freeze sympathetic nervous system activated, and turn down the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Sadly this can bring a host of negative effects from hampering digestion, dampening our immune system, compromising cellular repair and exhausting our adrenals etc. So we’ll be calling on the power of our lemon balm and wild rose petal tea to help us release tension, deeply relax  and switch our healing parasympathetic nervous system back on. (more detail on this here)

In yoga, the First or Root chakra is related to issues of survival, security and feelings of being safe and stable. Located at the base of the spine, it governs our feet, legs, hips and psoas muscle, and is the source of our life-giving connection to the earth. And if we take a lesson from mother nature, she teaches us there is no standing strong without first rooting down. Feelings of being ungrounded, anxious or depressed, of never feeling truly safe in the world, can signal a first chakra imbalance.

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And so the perfect 1st chakra remedy is dandelion!  Because if you’ve ever tried digging up dandelion’s roots you know the true meaning of being deeply, firmly and stubbornly rooted in the earth. And there’s no doubt about why dandelion is a premiere root chakra plant, she’s truly a sunny survivor and prolific thriver!

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Her roots have been used for thousands of years to cleanse and revitalize organ systems of the lower body, from bladder, to kidneys, to liver. Dandelion also improves digestive system function and encourages the release of toxins from our blood. (This is especially helpful when chronic constriction in our lower bodies, impedes the fresh of nutrients, lymph and waste.)

Filled with vitamins A, C, D and B complex, minerals such as zinc, silicon,  iron, calcium and potassium, dandelion root contains more betacarotene than carrots!  And because it’s so packed with healing nutrients (which helps restore the optimal function of our cells and organs) we’ll end our class with a Chocolate Rose & Dandelion Root Energy Bites- to help nourish and fortify of course!

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Yes they’re pretty yummy! And don’t worry, you won’t even notice the dandelion. Gluten free and packed with almonds, sunflower seeds, chopped fresh dandelion root, cocoa powder, organic chocolate chips and all ever so slightly perfumed with rose water, they’re ready to root, cleanse and restore you anytime – not just after yoga!

Finding dandelion root is pretty easy, while digging her roots out may take some effort. Cut in deep around the centre of the plant with a sharp tool or trowel, then pull up the whole clump. Pull out roots. You’ll need to wash these thoroughly and then chop for use in the recipe. And if you can’t find any (how can that be?!) dried dandelion root can be bought at the store and whirred up in a coffee grinder to make a fine powder. You’ll just add this powder to your recipe.

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You can find fresh lemon balm peeking up in most gardens right now -and their tender first leaves are just filled with the revitalizing energy of spring! I’ve used dried wild rose petals from my own, but they can be purchased at most herbal stores, as can the dandelion root tincture. But if you can’t find all of ingredients, don’t worry, just use what you have, lemon balm or rose on their own will still do the trick.

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So if you’re looking to enjoy these herbal spring treats with yoga, remember before you practice to take some quiet mindful time with your tea. Close your eyes, and inhale the tea’s fragrance, then take a sip and taste. Note any feelings or emotions that rise. Now see if you can bring these sensations together to form a sense memory you can reimagine and call on in practice.

Restorative yoga should be slow, movements should be gentle. Any sudden or quick moves can cause the body to tighten – which is what we don’t want!  You might want to begin lying on the floor, taking time to settle down and feel all parts of the body supported by the earth. Using belly breath (place both hands over the navel area and slowly breathe in feeling the belly rise up and then on exhale feeling the belly fall under your fingers) begin to relax into the floor, allowing yourself to deeply sink into the earth’s supportive energy…

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Using postures like knee to chest (apanasana) and happy baby (ananda balasana) use the exhale of the breath to soften your hips, gently releasing the tops of the thighs and psoas muscle. (see illustrations below) Don’t wrench your knees up close to your chest all at once, take your time, calling in the fragrance memory of the rose and lemon balm, as you breathe.  Allow their calming energy to move through you. Remember also to soften your mouth, neck, shoulders, chest and belly.

And if you’d like to release deeper, try Garland Pose (malasana). You might want to sit on a block  or high firm pillow if your heels come up off the floor, you want your feet on the ground for this posture. Concentrate on feeling the rooting through the toes, heels feet, legs, and breathe, allowing the pelvic floor to open, bringing in fresh blood flow to the lower body. Call on Dandelion root’s cleansing and nourishing powers to help revitalize your root chakra area.

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Top image from ktrnaaa

But remember – you can enjoy Lemon Balm & Wild Rose Tea anytime you feel stressed or overwhelmed. And following your tea up with one (or two) Chocolate Rose & Dandelion Root Energy Bites will help ground you after.  And remember, just taking some quiet time for self care, even if it is gifting your senses with aromatic tea and a tasty, nourishing treat, is pretty rejuvenating! So relax, release and restore, and invite in the revitalizing energy of spring!

Lemon Balm & Wild Rose Tea w/ Dandelion Tincture

(makes enough for two cups)

  • Couple of handfuls of fresh lemon balm leaves.
  • One handful dried rose petals
  • Add two cups of boiling water and let steep (covered!) for about 10 -15 minutes.
  • Strain and serve.
  • Add 2 droppers full of Dandelion tincture to each cup (about 10 ml total)
  • Enjoy!

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Chocolate Rose & Dandelion Root Energy Bites

Makes about 1 dozen

  • 2 heaping tablespoons of chopped fresh dandelion root
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup organic chocolate chips
  • 4 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons coconut butter or oil
  • 1 tablespoons rose water

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350
  • Mix all ingredients well into a wet dough (it will be very sticky)
  • Form into little balls best you can and place in mini-cupcake tins
  • Bake for 20 – 25 minutes
  • Cool and serve!

Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd “Tassies”: Here Comes The Sun!

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Nothing says Imbolc better that the bright yellows of lemon, butter and egg yolks. So what happens when you infuse a sweet, zesty, creamy, lemon curd with the aromatic herbs of the sun? Glorious food magic is what!

Lemon Tassies are old-fashioned dessert tarts filled with easy to make citrusy curd. And while no one is sure where they first originated, the word Tassie is believed to be derived from the old Scottish & French words for small cup. And since France and Scotland were once Celtic lands (from which Jennifer and I both descend) I decided they were perfect to bring to her Imbolc Soirée, where we will once again celebrate with neighbours and friends, the return of Brigid, the Celtic maiden goddess of the sun.

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Imboc occurs somewhere between Feb1st or 4th (when the sun hits the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox) a time when days grow visibly longer, and deep in the earth seeds begin to stir. And with the promise of spring, as new shoots and buds begin to appear, it was a time of preparing the ground and beginning the agricultural work of the new year.

Magically, Imbolc was a time of purification and protection symbolized by Brigid the goddess of fire. Bonfires were lit to cleanse the fields, hearth fires were put out and re-lit, and lit candles were placed in each room to guide Brigid and her blessings to their home. Special foods symbolizing the power of the sun were made, offered and eaten, to help Brigid spread her green cloak of new life, across the land.

Long associated with the sun, butter has long been served at Brigid’s Feast. Legend tells when Brigid was sent to help the dairymaids churn butter, she prayed for abundance and the butter doubled. This she took and fed to the poor. Today people still leave out butter as a special gift to Brigit for Imbolc so that she will bless them with prosperity and abundance.

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Eggs (with their golden round orbs) have long been symbols of fertility and new life, and the lemon’s bright fresh, cleansing yellow, the colour of spring. Add to this the purifying and protective powers of rosemary and lavender, herbs both sacred to Brigid, and you’ve got some sweet treats I’m sure will please her tastebuds and help spread her sweet warmth over the wintry land.

And that’s why these Lemon Curd Tassies are the perfect offering. Buttery rich, lemony fresh, and suffused with the aromatic herbaceous notes of rosemary and lavender, they’re brimming with the magic of the sun. A perfect addition for any Imbolc celebration right?

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Plus Tassies are easy to make! Making the curd is a fairly simple procedure, and it begins with infusing your butter with your herbs on low heat for a few hours. Then you strain out the herbs and put butter aside. After that the most arduous part is grating the lemon rinds and squeezing of juice. This juice whisked together with sugar and eggs until light and frothy. And it makes a sunny pretty picture indeed!

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Then this mixture is put in a saucepan on low to medium heat to thicken and cook. Slowly  stirring, watch for when the consistency of the curd becomes thick enough that it hold its shape and doesn’t run back together with you a put spoon through. Once ready,  your infused butter is added, and gently stirred until melted. In a few minutes a beautiful creamy curd appears.

This is cooled for a few hours so that the curd takes on a thicker, even creamier consistency, and is then spooned into prebaked golden tarts. I used store bought mini-tarts because I wanted their perfect sun like appearance, but of course you can use home-made pastry or even a shell of buttered nuts and seeds.

Voila the delicious food magic of Lemon Curd Tassies!  Bring on the sun!

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Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd Tassies

Makes about 2 cups.

INGREDIENTS

  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of 2 medium lemons
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup organic cane sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 4-inch stems of fresh rosemary
  • Teaspoon of dried lavender buds
  • 5 tablespoons butter

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Put butter in small sauce on low heat. Once butter is melted, add your rosemary and lavender. Let infuse on lowest setting for an hour. Strain herbs from butter. Set butter aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon juice, zest and salt until frothy and light.
  • Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and place over medium low heat. Stir constantly, until the curd thickens, about 5-7 minutes or so. When you can run your spoon through and it leaves a clear path without running back together in the pan, remove from heat.
  • Press the cooked curd through a strainer to filter out any cooked zest pieces and/or tiny lumps.
  • Then turn the heat all the way to low and stir in the butter. Cook and stir until the butter is melted and fully incorporated.
  • When the curd is cooked, allow to cool on the counter to room temperature before refrigerating overnight, or at least 4 hours. This will allow the curd to fully thicken to its proper consistency.
  • Once cool spoon into small pre-baked mini-tarts and adorn with blossoms of rosemary and lavender.

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Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for a Midwinter Festival of Light

I’m relatively new to Imbolc. In fact, I’m not even 100% comfortable calling this ancient February festival by it’s Gaelic name despite my Scots/Irish heritage. Gaelic blood hardly makes me privy to old customs. The geography of my foremothers aside, I am drawn to this midwinter festival of light with it’s irresistible magic, food and lore.

For my European ancestors, this time of year, between winter and spring, would have been a time for cautious optimism. Provisions would be running low, but as the days grew longer and the earth began to warm, animals would be mating or birthing (depending on your locale) and the fields would begin to thaw. This meant that larders would soon be filled again with milk, butter and eventually meat—that is, if everything went well. To hedge one’s bets in a world considerably harsher than our own, it would be wise to appeal to the goddesses who controlled such things, often with a festival. And you can imagine how welcome a celebration would be as the weight of a long cold winter began to shift.

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Star of Heaven (detail), Edward Robert Hughes

Customs vary but there are similarities across agricultural communities. Most rites included offerings to the land or to the goddesses of the land to ensure fertile crops and families for the coming years. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on cake, but obviously there was a whole lot more to these festivals. Ceremonial cakes, usually round (to mimic the sun?) were made by women. The cakes were made with the women’s hopes and desires for the coming year along with the best of what remained in their cupboards. Often a cake was made for feasting and another or a portion of the family cake was left for a goddess or taken to the field to bless the crops-to-be.

“Cakes, in the ancient world, had ties with the annual cycle, and people used them as offerings to the gods and spirits who exercised their powers at particular times of the year…Agricultural peoples around the globe made offerings of cakes prepared from the grains and fruits that arose from the soil. The types of ingredients used to make these cakes contributed to their symbolism…The cake’s size and shape were equally symbolic of its ritual purpose…round cakes symbolized the sun or the moon…All of these cakes had definitive links to the myths the people embraced.”
Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara CA] 2000 (p. 52-54) via foodtimeline.org

According to Bede’s De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time)the Anglo Saxon month of February was called Sol-monath, which can be translated to mean “cake month”… or “mud month”.  As round cakes and loaves were made to mark the occasion regardless, I feel like we can make a solid case for “cake month”.  We have the Anglo-Saxons and the Gaels making round cakes in and around early February, or at least around the time that we now call February. Around the same time in Sweden, the Disting or dísaþing (“Disir-Assembly”) was held to honour female spirits known as the Disir. I couldn’t find much information about what happened during this festival, but I’m going to go ahead and assume there would be feasting and sacrifices to these female deities and to the land…and you know, probably cake.

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The Dises (1909) Dorothy Hardy

So, we know the ancients made cakes for feast days throughout the seasons.For more fascinating cake history, Danielle goes more in-depth here.  We’re still trotting out ceremonial cakes, though today’s edible oil “ice-cream” monstrosities and $800 wedding cakes are a bit of a departure from the magical, symbolic rounds of yore. We can do better.

Right, so now that we’ve established the cake thing, there are many other beautiful rites for this loveliest of cross-quarter holidays that I won’t go too far into here. Danielle and I usually host an Imbolc celebration and try to incorporate the traditions that strike us as beautiful and meaningful. Generally, we have a lot of candles (like, a lot) a fire and a feast featuring many gorgeous ceremonial dishes like ewe’s milk hung yogurt cheeses, herbal butters, milk punch (note the dairy theme: milk=purification), braided seed breads and of course, cakes! We also weave Brigid’s crosses/sun wheels using local greenery and set intentions for the coming spring. You can see photos of our past celebrations here and here. Pretty, right?

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Imbolc altar with handmade lanterns and…cake! Albeit, not barmbrack…

And here is where I finally get to the barmbrack AKA barm brack, barnbreak, bairín breac/ bairínbreac, or bara brith (Welsh). No matter how I mispronounce any of these names, they all mean a yeasted or fermented “speckled bread”, as in bread speckled with dried fruit.  I opted for an unleavened version. I fancy the idea of a more ancient cake, before they figured out how to easily extract yeast from brewing. I know if I were an ancient Celt, I certainly wouldn’t bother with wild yeast in a cold February kitchen. I suspect this isn’t a terribly historically accurate notion of mine. I should also add, that not all sources associate barmbrack with Imbolc, but I found enough do to support serving this for a pre-spring festival. Also,  I was out of yeast…

No matter, I wouldn’t change it for the world. This recipe is to die for (a good pun, if you know that barmbrack is popular treat during Samhain). It’s rich and flavourful and really quite beautiful to behold. I made it for a previous Gather Imbolc workshop and it was well-received. My fruit cake-hating six-year-old even liked it. Thank you DoChara.com for the basic recipe. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to include ancient/older grains, however you can easily use whole wheat or all purpose flour. When you’re making your barmbrack, put some intention into it. Think about your hopes for the coming year. Think about the friends and family you’re going to serve it to. And maybe keep a piece to crumble into your garden to bless your own fields.

Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for Imbolc

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Adapted from dochara.com 

Keep in mind you need to soak the dried fruit overnight, so adjust your timing and expectations accordingly!

You’ll need a 7 or 8″ round tin – I doubled and made one 10″ round + a 6″ round

1 cup cold strong tea (I used Irish Breakfast because I’m all about congruity)
1/2 cup of bourbon or whisky of choice
1/2  cup organic soft brown sugar
1 tablespoon unsulfured molasses
1 fresh organic egg
3 cups mixed dried fruit (I used foraged wild blueberries, currants, mulberries and a few sultanas)
1.5 cups of organic red fife flour
1/2 cup of organic einkorn flour (if you can’t find einkorn, increase your red fife flour or whole wheat/all purpose to 2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon mixed allspice
1/2  teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2  teaspoon grated orange peel

Put the tea/bourbon, sugar, citrus rind and dried fruit in a bowl. Stir well, then cover and leave to soak overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350ºF and grease the tin with a little butter. Beat the egg and mix it thoroughly with the fruit & remaining liquid. Add the molasses. Sieve the flour, spices and baking soda together and stir well into the fruit mixture.

Turn the batter into the tin, place in the oven and bake for 90 minutes. Allow the brack to cool for about 20 minutes in the tin before turning it out to cool on a wire rack.

This loaf, if sealed up properly, keeps for a good 10 days. It also freezes like a dream!

Grand Fir Dark Nougat: A Touch of Solstice Magic

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”     

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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

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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!

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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!)

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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.

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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)

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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!

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“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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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  • 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.  

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

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Happy Hallowtide!

Chestnuts, Neruda & A Recipe For Crème de Marrons

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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

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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 end 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

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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.

Beautiful Venus Vinegar: Autumn Medicine & Magic

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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!
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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.

 

Boozy Preserves: Wildcrafted Berry Compote

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Boozy Wildcrafted Berry Compote

Ingredients:

  • 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)

Directions

  • 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.

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