Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices -- Vanilla

Number seven in the Christmas Herbs and Spices is Vanilla.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because of the extensive labor involved in cultivating the pods. The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word vainilla which means little pod. But I thought I knew all about vanilla. Doesn't it come from a bean?

Actually, vanilla starts out as a vine-like climbing plant which produces an orchid- type flower. The "bean" is actually a fruit. It ripens gradually after flowering, taking 8 or 9 months to complete the process. When it has turned black in color, it gives off that wonderful strong aroma we're all so familiar with. There are thousands of seeds in each pod, but it is the pod itself that is used to create the vanilla flavor.

I took an herb class once and the instructor told us that we could easily make our own vanilla flavoring by putting a vanilla bean pod or two in a jar with a good quality Bourbon. Leave it in a tightly closed jar for a few weeks and voila - vanilla!!
Well, that might work, but after tasting some real vanilla that my daughter brought back from Mexico for me, I knew the difference! I made that bottle last for a loooong time.

I know for a fact that there is a high alcohol content in vanilla flavoring. Once when I was young, I had a cold and was coughing quite a bit. Our cough syrup was in a small dark brown bottle similar to the vanilla bottle. Just before I was to go out the door to school, my mother said " Wait - take some of this." She reached up in the cupboard and grabbed the vanilla by mistake. I got a large teaspoonful in my mouth before she realized what had happened. I promptly spit it out in the sink. What a shock! It's been a joke in the family ever since.

The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonics from the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in VeraCruz. Mythology states the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat had been forbidden by her father from ever marrying a mortal. As love would have it, she fell in love with a mortal anyway and fled to the forest to be with him. The lovers were captured and beheaded (what kind of father does that?) Wherever their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical vanilla orchid grew.
That's kind of sad for a Christmas tale, but the flavoring and aroma of vanilla can lift our spirits.
In cooking it is used it in cakes, cookies, and many other types of recipes. In aromatherapy, it's a great scent for candles and oils.
What better flavor is there than a good vanilla ice cream?
And did you know that vanilla also has medicinal properties? It can be used to control fevers and has been said to be an aphrodisiac!

So, my wish for you this Christmas is that you enjoy a glass of eggnog flavored with a good vanilla. A little rum would hurt either. Happy Holidays.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices - Peppermint

Number six in the series of Christmas Herbs and Spices is Peppermint. How could we possibly bake without a little peppermint in our cookies and candies? Peppermint oil, used as a flavoring for these delectable sweets, comes from the very invasive herb, Mentha piperita, which is actually a hybrid -- a cross between watermint and spearmint. It has been invading The Great Lakes region since 1843. We tolerate it because it has so many uses and is considered the world's oldest medicine.

Whenever I think of minty treats at Christmas, the first thing that comes to mind is Candy Canes, but where did they come from? And why are they used at Christmastime?

Well, back in the 17th century Europeans began using a Christmas tree as a decoration for their Christmas celebration. They decorated their trees with candy sticks and cookies. The sticks were white and straight, but in 1670 a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany bent the candy sticks in the shape of a shepherd's hook. He gave them to the children to help keep them quiet during the long Christmas nativity stories. Soon his custom spread throughout Europe and then later came to America in 1847. No one knows for sure who first added the red stripe but they can be seen that way on vintage Christmas cards around 1900. At that same time candy makers began to add the peppermint flavoring to the red striped canes and wintergreen to the green striped canes.

There have been many stories, all unproven, about the candy cane, but this is the one I like the best:
It is said that it was used as a secret symbol for Christians in a time of oppression. The "J" shape stands for Jesus, the red and white stripes are for Christ's blood and His purity. The three stripes stand for the Holy Trinity; the hardness of the candy represents the Church's foundation on a solid rock. The peppermint flavor represents the use of hyssop, another herb referred to in the Old Testament.

Every year we hang candy canes on our tree. Usually I forget all about them, but my husband always remembers his favorite peppermint candy, and adds them to the holiday grocery list. Now that we know the story of the red and white striped sweet, they will be more than just a decoration!
May your Days be Merry and Bright and may all your Christmases be "minty, red, and white."

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices - Mistletoe

The fifth in my series of Christmas Herbs and Spices is something that you probably hadn't thought of for this category but mistletoe is indeed an herb. No, you won't want to ingest it and shouldn't. Old Europe used it for epilepsy and other nervous disorders. Today it is being studied as a supplemental treatment for cancer. BUT it can be very dangerous and is best left to professional practitioners to prescribe. The berries are toxic to children and small animals, causing acute gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea combined with a low pulse. Beware if you are using one in your home as a Christmas decoration.

Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant that grows attached to branches of trees and shrubs. How the mistletoe got its name is uncertain -- perhaps from the German word Mist for dung and Tang for branch. Not a pleasant thought to a plant we associate with love but that name may have come about because it can be spread through bird feces as the birds hopped from tree to tree. More acceptable, to me, is the old English word Mistel which was also used for basil.

The fruit of the mistletoe appears at the time of the Winter Solstice, or the beginning of the new year. The Druids considered it to be a symbol of immortality. Both Celts and Druids thought it to be a remedy for barrenness.

I found this wonderful story of Norse mythology about the part that you are all most interested in -- kissing :)

Baldr was a god of vegetation. His mother Frigga made every plant, animal, and inanimate object promise not to harm him, but she overlooked the mistletoe plant. The god Loki took advantage of the oversight and tricked the blind god Hoor into killing Baldr with a spear made from mistletoe. Baldr's death brought the world to winter, until the gods restored him to life. Frigga then declared the mistletoe was sacred and ordered that from now on it should bring only love rather than death into the world. From that point on she declared that any two people passing under the plant would celebrate Baldr's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.

But why is it associated with Christmas? An old Christian tradition said that mistletoe was once a tree and furnished the wood for the Cross. After the Crucifixion, the plant shriveled and became a parasitic vine.

Whatever story is accurate or myth you choose to believe, I hope your Christmas season is filled with much love and perhaps even a kiss or two!

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices - Nutmeg

Part four of my Christmas Herbs and Spices series is about nutmeg. Where does this little nut come from? Sometimes we just use different plants, trees, and herbs in our gardens and kitchen and never give a thought to how it got to us. Well, nutmeg has quite a story.

We know that as early as the 700's monks were sprinkling this aromatic spice on their pease pudding. The Elizabethans thought it could ward off the plague, and since that was a major problem of the times, it was very popular.

But how did they get it in the first place? The Banda Islands were the only known source of nutmeg in the world. Later it was discovered also on Run Island. Traded by the Arabs and sold to the Venetians, like cinnamon, the location of the crop was kept a secret and no European was able to discover it.
Finally, in the 17th century The Dutch were able to control the trade on Run Island, struggling regularly with the British and after giving the British New Amsterdam (New York) in exchange for peace.

The Dutch continued their control over the Banda Islands with a military campaign that ended in a massacre of the inhabitants in 1621. But once again the British took temporary control and succeeded in planting trees on their holdings of Zanzibar and Grenada. Today, Grenada's flag shows a spit-open nutmeg fruit.

So that's only a small part of the history of nutmeg. Enjoy it and use it freely but the next time you sprinkle some of that fantastic nutmeg on your eggnog, or mulled cider, or mulled wine, pies and cookies, remember the struggle it took to get to this point in history where we can now easily acquire nutmeg whenever we wish.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices - Cinnamon

Who doesn't love the smell of cinnamon wafting through the house when the Christmas baking has begun? Or the fragrance of a cinnamon scented candle? It brings feelings "of comfort and joy."

The third in my series of Christmas Herbs and Spices actually comes from an evergreen tree that was native to Sri Lanka. It was first brought to Egypt in 2000 BC. Soon the Arabs began harvesting cinnamon as a crop, and having a monopoly on this highly prized spice, they tried to conceal the whereabouts of their trees. Ships belonging to Alexander the Great merely followed the wonderful scent along the coast of Arabia until they discovered the secret woodlands. It was the Dutch East India Company that cultivated these trees instead of just harvesting in the wild, beginning a business that thrived into the 1700s.

Cinnamon comes form the bark of the tree, but it's quite a task to bring you this fragrant spice. First the tree is cut to the ground. Shoots form around the base of the trunk; they are allowed to grow for a year or two and then those shoots are stripped to the inner bark which are then allowed to dry which causes the curling. It is then cut into 6-12 inch strips.

Cinnamon is mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Victorians used it to represent forgiveness of injuries. It's no wonder it's a favorite at Christmastime.

May your Holidays be blessed and may you smell and taste the many wonders of the Christmas Season.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices - Ginger

Part two of Christmas herbs and spices is about ginger. The botanical name for ginger is Zingiber Officinale.

Ginger is a favorite of mine. It's spicy aroma and pungent taste brings back childhood memories, making pies and cookies with my mother, and
I'm sure many of you have had fun making gingerbread houses.

Ginger is a native plant to Asia, but it is now grown throughout the tropics and America. This exotic plant can grow to 3 or 4 feet high and produces beautiful white, yellow, and purple flowers. But the spice as we know it comes from the brown root, also called a rhizome.

Ginger was a highly sought after prize and traded between Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. This was probably because the rhizome is in the shape of the human digestive tract. Early doctors believed this meant it was to be used as a cure for stomach disorders (possibly a divine sign to help us guide our way through medical mysteries?) The Chinese knew this to be true for centuries, and we are just now acknowledging the fact here in the West. I know my mother, and maybe yours too, often gave me ginger ale at the first sign of an upset stomach. It was probably the best part of being sick for me.

So feel free to use ginger in all of your favorite dishes and desserts. Besides the fantastic taste and smell, it's good for you too.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices -- Cloves

I decided to do a series on some of the herbs and spices we use at Christmastime. I know a lot of you are experts on this subject already, but I have many new subscribers and maybe some of them are herb and spice novices.
Let's start with Cloves (Eugenia Caryophyllata) since it's the standby use most often from Thanksgiving right through New Year's Day.

Did you ever wonder where cloves come from? It's actually dried seeds from an evergreen tree also called a clove. It's native to the Spice Islands, and requires so much water that no other plant or tree can grow near it.

Cloves are used medicinally (such as for a toothache) as well as for cooking purposes, but one of the favorite uses today is still to decorate an orange covered with cloves in intricate patterns creating a very aromatic pomander. This practice goes back to Renaissance England.

So whether you're using cloves for a cake, a pie, cookies, or a festive Holiday punch, you will know that this is one kitchen item that ties you to your ancestry - connecting us to Christmas Days of yore.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Green? I'm Going Brown This Christmas!

Yes, I have finally given up on the green-thing. This Christmas I'm going brown! Am I terrible? I don't think so and you won't either when you see why!
Here's my Christmas and anniversary present.
Meet Teddy, my three month-old Shih Tzu!

And there's lots more brown to come, if you know what I mean. Fertilizer for the yard -- if we ever get the potty training down. It's pretty difficult for a little guy to learn in the snow when it's as deep as he is!

Thank you, Duane, for the best Christmas, whether it's green, red, or brown.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.