Explorations

Roses on the Rhine

As always when I travel, I am on the lookout for herbs – unusual ones, common ones perhaps used in a novel way, and interesting historical or period gardens. My recent trip to the Christmas Markets of Germany was no different, and I was more than satisfied with my herbal discoveries.

As 2012 is the Year of the Rose, ™ I was particularly anxious to uncover Rosa and its usefulness to Europeans. Even though I traveled in late November, there was evidence of this favored flower in many places. As we motored in a cruise ship up the Rhine, we learned in a bridge commentary a traditional practice of using roses as a barrier plant. The hills of the Alsace region have been planted for centuries with grapevine, and home to the well-known Riesling wine. Instead of terracing the grapes in gentle horizontal slopes, the vines are planted vertically up each hill.. It seems like hard work to traverse the steep terrain, and cultivating and harvesting must be difficult. Roses are commonly used near the vines, planted thickly around the perimeter. According to our guide, these serve as a warning and a deterrent to both two and four legged creatures who might wish to help themselves to the ripening fruit. No doubt they use a formidable, thorny variety. However, when I researched the use of roses in vineyards, I found that it is common practice in France to use roses as an early warning system, as roses are so susceptible to powdery mildew. If the roses show signs of the fungus, the vintner knows it is time to spray the vines.

One of the Christmas Markets we visited was Baden-Baden. Strolling through the Market, I passed a cheese shop, and as I looked over their wares, I could not believe what I say – rose cheese! The wheel of the cheese was gorgeous, completely covered with red rose petals, adorning the outside and perfuming the cheese with the delicate scent of rose.

 

Many of the stalls in the market had interesting food products for sale, including herbs and spices displayed in a colorful manner. It was interesting to try and figure out the various herbs, as most were written only in German. Grills sizzled everywhere, and tantalizing smells of various wursts, steaks, and other meats filled the air. Some were cooking over a large, round suspended grill, which rotated slowly, keeping all the meats from burning and requiring less turning. There were several vendors with large, glass bottles of some liquors, I believe, which would be siphoned into whatever size container you wished. Again, I could not understand the labels, but whisky was discernible, as well as kirsch. Upon arriving home, I looked up some of the other labels, and found that Quittenlikor is quince liquor, Himbeergeist is raspberry brandy. However, I am stumped by Willi, whose translation is definitely not a liquor as far as I can tell. (Look it up yourself, as this is a G-rated article).

 

Though food and beverages were everywhere, the one consistent specialty of each Christmas Market was Gluhwein – or hot mulled wine. I was amazed at the number of stalls at each market which carried their own adaptation of this warming drink. Apparently, each one claims its own aficionados, and the prices were all basically the same. The favored recipe of our guides called for, of course, red wine from Alsace, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, nutmeg, and some zest of both lemon and orange. Each Market, and sometimes each vendor, had their own commemorative mug or cup, which if you didn't want to keep it, could be returned. As a souvenir, it was fairly inexpensive, usually costing 1 or 2 euros. A great exercise in recycling and reuse – foam or paper cups.

Many food products, particular to the holidays, were in abundance. Very large, decorated gingerbread cookies, designed for all members of  family, friends, and lovers seemed to be popular, as was stollen, the powdered sugar coated cakes that are symbolic of the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus. Herb-flavored honey, preserves – including rose confit – were there to tempt buyers. Clothing, children's toys, and wooden decorations, ornaments, nutcrackers and smokers were all available, bringing a wondrous array of sights, scents and sounds to put one in a festive mood. I even got to try some roasted chestnuts – warm and chewy, served in a paper cone – from a man in a little cart resembling a train.

My favorite find was a lavender wand larger than any I had ever seen. It was elaborately done with decorated ribbon, and the size of a small ball – about 3” tall and almost completely round. Called a Coeur de Lavande, it was made with over 50 lavender stalks and wrapped with rose ribbon. I know have a keepsake that will remind me of my travels on the Rhine.

Karen O'Brien

The Boston Flower Show

Next week is the Boston Flower Show, to be held at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. In 1935, the newly formed New England Unit of The Herb Society of America exhibited at the Massachusetts Horticultural Spociety's Spring Flower Show, creating a Still Room and Gardens from 17th century England. To commemorate our Unit's 75th anniversary, we decided to interpret our own Still Room and Gardens, using much of the resources from the earlier exhibit. As Chair of the project, and with help from the Archive Committee, I researched and developed a plan for a small garden and room showcasing many of the useful "herbes" and artifacts from that time period. Another of our members, Gail Cromwell, took on the task of building a small structure that represents our Still Room. Invaluable advice was received from member John Forti, and Susan Anthony was instrumental in designing the garden area. Cynthia Chace took on the task of accumulating artifacts from many of our members.

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, still rooms were the place where medicinal preparations and other household necessities were created, using plants and flowers that were thought to be beneficial. Frequently, a distillation unit (the "still" in still room) was used to extract essences from flowers and other plant material. This was an excellent way to preserve the active properties of the flora, as water based essences were able to be kept for two years, and alcohol based even longer. One of the most important components of the still room was a book of receipts (which we now know as recipes) that were written down, amended and then passed down through the generations. Our exhibit is designed to show many of the plants, some common, some less so, that were used by people in the 17th century. The Still Room contains many of the implements used in the preparation of these formulas, as well as providing a glimpse into this earlier time.

If you come to the Show, held from Mar. 24 through Mar. 28, please take the time to stop by and view our exhibit. I will be there on Wed., Fri., and Sunday and would love to see you there. We hope to have the Still Room staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions and help the public enjoy our historical and educational effort.

Eastern Europe

Travel can be an eye-opening experience, as we encounter things both unfamiliar and similar to our lives. This was certainly true as I traveled from the Black Sea up the Danube. My trip took me through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. As my ethnic background is Lithuanian and Polish, this part of the world felt strangely familiar, from the language, to the food, to the people. Meals often included potatoes and cabbages, and homemade brandies made from plums or other fruits. In a home hosted meal in Croatia, we were served a delicious tomato soup, and fried patties made of beef and pork. Two types of cabbage side dishes rounded out the meal. Conversation ranged from information about the family (children grown but no grandchildren) to their pigs and chickens, and life after communism. Our host proudly showed off his equipment for distilling his brandy, which packed quite a powerful punch. He also provided us with homemade wine, which he claimed we could drink all night, since he diluted it with coca-cola!

The Danube Plain in the Balkan Peninsula is a very fertile area, and much of the land in these parts is devoted to agriculture. As in other regions during the Communist regime, many people were granted small plots of land that they intensely farmed for their personal use, all other land holdings being owned by the State. One can still see these small farms, with fruit trees, vines, haystacks, bee hives and vegetables. Since it was November when I visited, the only plantings still visible were the ubiquitous cabbage, and lots of tall mums. Since the fall of Communism, many of the state-held lands have been given back to the original landowners, though not necessarily on the same scale. Farms now range in size from 5 acres to a maximum of 300 acres. Cooperatives have been formed by many in this area, which allows for sharing of equipment and resources. Sunflowers, rapeseed and wheat are predominant crops. There has been a shift of people living in rural areas – some villages are all but abandoned as people move to the cities where they feel there is more opportunity. Population growth is negative in many parts, except among the Roma (or Gypsies).

Religion is a constant presence in life here, with Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia having a large Eastern Orthodox population. There are also a small percentage of Muslims, and the Greek and Turkish influence is seen in much of the architecture. In visiting the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest, I noticed that the icons (religious paintings) were shown “dressed” in fabric and adorned with sprigs of basil. I was unable to get a definite answer as to why basil was used. One guide suggested that it could be because basil grows in cemeteries and she thought it kept away evil spirits. A quick perusal on Google uncovered the following information on Basil. In India, it is considered a sacred herb, and if one is buried with a sprig of it, one is ensured entrance to Heaven. In England, it is used to ward off evil spirits, though in Italy it is associated with love. It is said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion, and in some countries it symbolizes protection and luck. In Greece, people bring it to Church on St. Basil’s Day (Jan. 1) to have it blessed. So it is possible that these interpretations could be the source for this custom.

In Bulgaria, all things “rose” are for sale. The Valley of Roses, which lies between the Stredna Gora and the Balkan Mountains, is one of the top rose producing areas in the world. In all the shops, one can find many products containing rose oil from Bulgaria – some say it is the finest oil in the world. If you like, you can purchase rosewater, rose perfume, rose liqueur, rose lotions and other cosmetics, rose jam and pure rose oil. Unfortunately, this particular tour did not provide access to the Valley of Roses, so I had to content myself with a small (.5 gram) bottle of the oil. Apparently, most of the oil is exported to France for making perfumes, and I could not locate any in a larger size.

This particular section of the world is starting to become tourist friendly, though large tour buses are somewhat of an anomaly in the rural areas. Romania and Bulgaria have just joined the European Union this year, and Croatia is in discussion. Serbia is still having issues with Montenegro, and until that is resolved, they cannot petition the EU to begin talks. Many vestiges of Communism are still evident, from blocks of ugly housing to bombed out or shelled buildings. People are hopeful, and elections take place, though it is a common joke that whenever five people get together they form a new party. They are still concerned that those in the Government are out for themselves, but in general they are rebuilding and planning for their future. It is clear that I will have to return, and spend more time learning about a part of the world in which so much has happened, and where I feel an affinity for the people and their culture.

Herbs in Thailand

On a recent trip to Thailand, I was enchanted by the sights, sounds and smells of this exotic country. My travels took me from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, with many interesting “discoveries” or glimpses of everyday life in this part of Asia. I was part of a small tour group, which prided itself on educating tourists about this charming land.

One of our scheduled stops was to an indigo dying shop in Ban Thunghong, a small village in the province of Phrae in northeastern Thailand. We were led down a small alley to a two story house. All the indigo dying, sewing and batik work was done in the lower level, which was open on all sides. Growing in the yard were several plants of indigo, which we learned were ready to pick when drops of blue dripped from the plant onto the ground. The plants mature in this climate in about two months. The pods and green branches of the plant are gathered up and tied in bundles. These are then placed in large urns of water for two days. Wood ashes are mixed with water in plastic buckets, which is slowly allowed to run out through a small hole in the bottom of the bucket, creating the lye which is needed for the fixative for this dye process.

Fabric (either ready made articles or whole cloth) is soaked in clear water for 24 hours. One part of indigo dye is mixed with two parts of the lye water, and a red paste made of herbs (tumeric being one of them) is also added, and the entire combination is placed in huge ceramic vats. The cloth is then dipped into the mixture, and when removed, is a pale green color, which changes to blue as the cloth dries. Fabric needs to be dipped and dried at least five times to acquire a true indigo color. Outside were several clotheslines with varying shades of blue cloth waving in the warm breeze.

This shop also used the batik method of decoration on some of the dyed material. A wood or wire form was dipped into melted beeswax, and then pressed firmly onto the cloth before dying it in the indigo. The wax resists the dye, and lovely patterns are created. This seemingly simple procedure takes a certain amount of skill – knowing how to apply the correct pressure evenly and to keep the wax at the right temperature takes about three months of practice to become proficient in creating clear and uniform designs.

The best part of this “discovery” was to take off our shoes (always done when entering a home in Thailand) and ascending to the shop above, where we could purchase any number of lovely hand-dyed and hand-batiked items, from small handbags to shirts and pants to bedspreads and tablecloths. Each purchase we made ensured that this traditional way of life, and this unique craftsmanship will continue. I certainly did my part!

Exotic Morocco

Morocco – a land unlike any I had visited before, a continent I had yet to explore. My decision to travel there was made easier when I learned of an herbal tour to that country, planned and led by an herbalist/aromatherapist.

I would be traveling in a small group, visiting herbal cooperatives and special gardens, making herbal discoveries, and interacting with the warm and wonderful people of Morocco.

One of the leaders of the group was an education representative for an essential oil company. She gave us a brief presentation on some of the oils produced from plants grown in Morocco, including neroli, rose otto, and juniper. Neroli (Citrus auarantium) comes from the bitter orange flower. In a hydrosol, it is said to be good for hot flashes, as well as an antifungal. The rest of this citrus produces different essential oils, such as petitgrain (from the leaves and twigs) and bergamot (from the fruit). We learned from one of our guides that bergamot is used sometimes to cure olives in Morocco, imparting a delicate flavor.

In addition to the formal gardens and herbal businesses we visited, we were fortunate to witness a burgeoning new agricultural venture – cooperatives.  These businesses have helped tremendously to increase the economy of rural communities, and are especially effective in helping women of the area produce an income. Though women have gained more rights recently (2004) it is still largely a male dominated society. These cooperatives have afforded women an opportunity to better control their own lives, while still giving them the support and sense of community. There are cooperatives in many areas of agriculture, producing such items as herbal soaps from Moroccan herbs, honey from various plants, and oil from the argan trees. The success of these cooperatives has given rise to a better appreciation of the indigenous plants of Morocco, and so are fostering protection of native plants and greater sustainability.

Argan is a tree that grows only in the barrier forests of the Sahara. The forest belongs to the king, but Moroccans are allowed to harvest the nuts, which is done in two different ways, producing oils for different purposes. The nuts are eagerly eaten by herds of goats, who climb into the trees to feast on the fruits. When they expel the remains (the kernel), women and young children gather the nuts which are then brought to the cooperatives to be made into the cosmetic argan oil. The fruit that is harvested directly from the tree (without passing through the goat’s digestive tract) is made into a highly regarded dipping oil. The argan nut is still extracted from the hard shell by hand, and women sit on the floor, cracking the nut by striking it with a small stone against a larger stone. The rest of the process has been modernized with machinery (expelling the oil from the nuts, bottling, etc). The oil is expensive, but delicious, with a nutty flavor unlike any I’ve ever tasted.

Other cooperatives, such as the Cooperative Feminique des Plantes Aromatiques, concentrate their efforts on the production of herbal soaps. They are proud of their composting, which must be rather difficult in a land experiencing their seventh year of a drought. They grow many varieties of herbs native to the area, including thyme, rosemary, marjoram, mint and lavender. They are also experimenting with vetiver as an erosion control crop, planting it on slopes in an attempt to stabilize the soil. The vetiver plants develop long, fibrous roots, which are woven into window blinds, mats and fans with a pleasing aroma, doubling the value of this tough plant. Because of the harsh, drought conditions, the oils of many of these plants are very concentrated. The farm is irrigated by drip lines, which must be labor intensive in areas where there are still communal wells from which Moroccans must draw their water.

Wherever we went, the hospitality of the Moroccan people was evident. A visit to any one of the cooperatives or businesses included refreshments before anything else (which was tough when we visited three in one day!). An elaborate ritual was required, beginning with the washing of our hands by the host. A large kettle was brought around for our ablutions, and the water was captured in a basin. However, a communal towel was used, negating somewhat the cleansing effect. A typical repast (and this was just a snack) would include bread, with dipping oil, boiled eggs, nuts and fruit, as well as highly sweetened mint tea. Only after partaking of this hospitality could we then conduct business, or tour the facility. It certainly made each visit longer than expected, so we tended to be always on “Morocco time” – late!

Morocco is a fascinating country, a place to embrace with eyes and heart open. From the early morning call to prayer, to the very late night bustle in the souks, there is adventure around every corner. Bargain in the marketplaces, where heaping mounds of spices and herbs abound, along with food and goods of every description. Take in the visual experience of veiled and hennaed women, clad in long robes and shoes with upturned toes and be enthralled by the amazing architecture. Taste the tagines, mint tea, couscous of every kind, and the ubiquitous watermelon. Inhale the scent of pungent thyme and fragrant lavender, and the crisp, citrus tones of the bitter orange tree. Rely on your senses and you will truly discover the essence of Morocco.

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