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

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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.

 

Summer Heat: Nasturtium & Sumac Hot Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Staghorn Sumac Cone & Seeds

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

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

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

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Nasturtium & Sumac Hot Sauce

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Piquant and Pretty: Daisy Capers

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“Oh, dear little daisy, come whisper me softly, And tell me a secret I’m longing to know…Oh, say does he love me, and whisper it low.”—Burton Egbert Stevenson,“He Loves Me, Loves Me Not”

The traditional British recipe for Daisy Capers uses the tall Ox-Eye Daisy that blooms in grassy fields each summer — but the common Lawn Daisy (blooming right now) is just as delicious and such easy pickings! Springing up in snowy white patches everywhere, they have a slightly sweet “carroty” flavour —  not to mention a nice crisp bite.

The daisy’s latin name “Bellis Perennis” means “beautiful flower” and these capers are oh so pretty, their rims edged in pink, with their yellow centres peeking out. Salty and piquant, I’ve tossed them into pasta, a ChickenPiccata and egg salad sandwiches, and yes – just eaten them right out of the jar.

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Easy to…

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Piquant and Pretty: Daisy Capers

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“Oh, dear little daisy, come whisper me softly, And tell me a secret I’m longing to know…Oh, say does he love me, and whisper it low.”—Burton Egbert Stevenson,“He Loves Me, Loves Me Not”

The traditional British recipe for Daisy Capers uses the tall Ox-Eye Daisy that blooms in grassy fields each summer — but the common Lawn Daisy (blooming right now) is just as delicious and such easy pickings! Springing up in snowy white patches everywhere, they have a slightly sweet “carroty” flavour —  not to mention a nice crisp bite.

The daisy’s latin name “Bellis Perennis” means “beautiful flower” and these capers are oh so pretty, their rims edged in pink, with their yellow centres peeking out. Salty and piquant, I’ve tossed them into pasta, a Chicken Piccata and egg salad sandwiches, and yes – just eaten them right out of the jar.

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Easy to harvest, you can find all the daisies you need for this recipe in an hour.  And getting the kids involved makes picking go even faster (well sometimes). Sitting in large patch of daisies on a warm sunny afternoon isn’t a bad way to spend some time either. Make it a picnic! And while you’re at it, share some daisy lore.

Maude Goodman "The Daisy Chain"

Maude Goodman “The Daisy Chain”

The word daisy comes from “eye of the day” because its flower opens at dawn and closes at dusk. And folklore says they will shut when bad weather is coming. Steeped in magic, the daisy is associated with the sun, fairies and the Goddess Venus and Aphrodite. To dream of daisies in spring is lucky, making daisy chains was a protective spell to keep children from harm, and placing daisy roots under a pillow will bring dreams of absent ones. And like the old custom of pulling petals (he loves me, he loves me not) the daisy is most associated with love spells.

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Anyway, as I said, Daisy Capers are easy peasy to make.  You simply pour a warm salted vinegar over the buds and let sit, ideally, for six weeks. (I admit I can never wait this long, mine are usually gone the first week). You can go with a white wine or apple cider vinegar or get more creative. For our Urban Wild Food Walk last spring I used a lovely floral Plum Blossom Vinegar and for our upcoming walks I’ll be using a Rosemary Vinegar I’ve got the capers infusing in right now.

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Spices can be traditional, peppercorns, allspice, mustard grains and garlic, or you can add wild herbs like lemon balm, crow garlic seeds or bulbs (commonly known as wild onion  or wild mint. You are the chef, and it’s up to you.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup unopened daisy flower buds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black peppercorns
  • 4 allspice berries
  • few sprigs of rosemary or lavender (whatever herb you’d like basically!)
  • 1 teaspoon of sea salt (I like mine salty so I used two, but please taste and salt as suits)
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard grains (or throw in a few bittercress seed pods or flowers instead)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely sliced
  • 1/2 tablespoon local wildflower honey
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • (I also tossed in a tablespoon of nettle seeds for an extra nutritional punch – but this completely optional)

Directions

  • Wash the daisy flower buds and trim the stems. Allow to dry thoroughly.
  • In the bottom of a two cup mason jar (500 mL) (or two one cup jars) place the black peppercorns, allspice berries, salt, mustard grains and garlic. Then pack in the daisy flower buds.
  • Bring the white wine vinegar to almost boiling. Take off the heat, then pour over the contents of daisies, filling the jar to the rim. Secure with vinegar-proof lids, label then store in a cool, dark, cupboard for four to six weeks to mature.

That’s it! You’re done!

PS. You can eat the leaves too. A handful of daisy greens tossed in a salad, pasta or veggie side dish are an excellent way to add vitamin C (the daisy has over 100 mg. of vitamin per 100 grams of fresh leaves – making it comparable to the lemon!) Medieval salad recipes often combined them with sorrel and dandelion. But take note, daisy leaves and sorrel contain oxalates, which consumed in large quantities can cause digestive upset, so go easy!

P.P.S. The Daisy is one of the first flowers for bees in early spring, so harvest responsibly- no buckets!

Savory Hawthorn Ketchup: Reviving a Traditional Recipe

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Thick and robustly tangy, my favorite condiment discovery this season was Haws Ketchup. Made from the bright crimson berries of the Hawthorn tree (which you can find a stone’s throw away from where ever you stand in Victoria) it compliments meats, eggs and a big basket of steaming homemade fries equally.

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A mainstay in the hedgerows of the British Isles, hawthorn berries were used to make jellies, wines, preserves, chutneys, pies and sauces. Today they are a forgotten food source which is sad considering they are packed with powerful antioxidants like proanthocyanidins and flavonoids and medicinal properties that promote cardiovascular health. Enhancing the heart’s ability to contract while gently relaxing blood vessels, hawthorn has been shown in countless studies to not only make arteries more pliable but repair damaged vessel walls.

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On their own, hawthorn berries aren’t anything exciting, they’re fleshy, verging on bland, though slightly sweet. But when cooked — well their magic comes out. Last year I turned my hawthorn berries into a Yule Liqueur. Brewed up with rose-hips, aromatic spices and rum, it was indeed a heart opening experience. But the best part of serving up this mellifluous jewel colored elixir on a cold winter night was knowing it would soothe, heal, strengthen and warm the weary hearts of those I loved.

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This year, lured by an especially tasty looking recipe posted by Cauldrons and Crockpots I decided to expand my hawthorn repertoire with a traditional Haws Sauce. I headed out to Beaver Lake to harvest from the plethora of trees that are the remains of old hedgerows brought here by the early settlers to divide large tracts of farmland.

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Today their arboreal descendents have spread everywhere into virtual orchards of their own. And they are beautiful! With a dense round head of branches, their bark is silvery grey or tan, and gnarly, often laden with thick green moss or lichen.

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The berries are easily picked, but be careful the thick branches are dotted with thorns — old Crataegus is from the rose family after all. These strong thorns are part of hawthorn’s magical lore, and were used as protective charms against malevolent spirits. (For more on hawthorn’s enchanting properties – and a recipe for Hawthorn Blossom Cordial — click here). All hawthorn berries are edible. Though they have cross pollinated over the years to form new varieties all can be eaten. We do have our indigenous Black Hawthorn (much treasured by the First Nations) which produces a deep blue-black fruit, but these ripen earlier in late summer.

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Non-native hawthorns should be picked around October and November, though in Victoria’s mild climate some are still available through December. But before you pick be warned, hawthorn is classified as an invasive species so they have been targeted for extermination in some of our local parks, i.e. “treated” with herbicides. So a phone call to your local park to check first is recommended.

😦 So anyway. The process of making Haws Ketchup is no more consuming that regular ketchup (aside from the picking). After gathering my basket of berries (about 3 cups) I took them home and gave them a wash, removing the stems from the heads of the fruit. These I then placed in a large saucepan that I filled with 1/3 cup apple cider and 1/4 cup of water. These were simmered for 20 -30 minutes until the berries turn an orange brown and the flesh began to split.

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After cooling came the most onerous part — pushing the berries through a sieve or food mill to remove the pits. (I’ll spare you the pictures.) This takes about 10 minutes of patient effort but the result is a thick tomato-like sauce which I embellished according to taste. I added sea salt, then honey and black cherry juice to sweeten, a few fragrant spices like allspice, nutmeg and cardamom, and a touch of cayenne pepper for warmth. And it turned out spicy, fruity and lovely — if I don’t say so myself.

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Hawthorn Berry Ketchup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups hawthorn berries
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of water
  • 1/4 cup of brown sugar, honey or birch syrup (you may want less or more, so slowly add and taste)
  • 1/4 cup black cherry juice (or apple if handy)
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt (or as you like)
  • Freshly ground black pepper or dash of cayenne
  • pinch of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg

Instructions

  • Remove the berries from their stalks then rinse in cold water.
  • Place in large saucepan, adding the vinegar and water. Gently bring to boil and simmer for about 25 minutes until the skins start to split.
  • After cooling, push the mixture through a sieve or pass through a food mill to remove the pits.
  • Return the mixture to the pan, adding your sweeteners, and slowly heat, stirring frequently. Add spices or flavorings.
  •  Bring to a low boil, then simmer for a further 5 -10 minutes, until the sauce thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.
  • Remove from heat, then add, little bit at a time, the black cherry juice, stirring until you find just the right consistency you prefer in your ketchup. (Remember the sauce will thicken once cooled and you want to be sure it will be able to leave the bottle!)
  • When happy with your result, pour the ketchup into a sterilized bottle. Refrigerate and use within 3 months.