Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bitters



I’ve been curious for a while now as to what sorts of bitters preparations might have been used in the Gaelic Materia Medica.   All the major healing traditions, Greek Medicine, Classical Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda ascribed certain physiological actions to tastes and used bitter herbs to promote digestion.  They were likely first eaten  after a meal like fennel and parsley in medieval feasts.   But by the time history takes note of them, they were primarily being used as ingredients in apertifs and digestifs.  I found it hard to believe that this practice didn’t carry over into Gaelic medicine, knowing that the earliest medical texts in Ireland were such Greek texts as the Aphorisms of Hippocrates translated into Irish in 1403 by scholars attending the Munster medical university.(Wilkinson, 2008)

Nocino Brewing
I had almost given up on the idea when I found a journal article on the Italian liqueur nocino.   The authors of the journal cite literature from an Italian monastery which also confirms the use of the preparation “as a tonic and digestive aid” and attributes the origins of their recipe for the drink to the Druids who traditionally collected “green unripe walnuts” (Juglans nigra) at the end of their summer solstice rituals.  (C. Alamprese, 2005)  In fact it is still traditional in Italy to gather the walnuts for this preparation on St. John the Baptist’s day which is the Catholic holy day that seems to have replaced the pagan solstice rituals.    I also verified that there was in fact a Gaelic name for Juglans nigra and found it referred to as Craobh ghall-chnὸ. (Cameron, 1900, p. 18) 
The following is the recipe for nocino as translated from a pdf published by the Ordine del Nocino Modenese, the monastery which claims to have originated the drink in Italy.   I am absolutely sure the recipe has been modified.   If this were the original recipe and it is indeed as old as the monastary claims,  sugar would not have been an ingredient due to the fact that honey was the only sweetener known in Ireland and Scotland until the late 16th Century.   

INGREDIENTS:

1 liter of alcohol 95 °

700-900 grams of sugar

1 kg of walnuts (33-35 nuts about depending on the size but always in number odd)



The nuts must be strictly locally sourced and free from any treatment. They also need to be , as tradition indicates , collected at the turn of the feast of St. John the Baptist .The right consistency of the nut should be assessed and pierce it with a pin and / or verified visually by splitting in half with a knife.


Optional: Cloves and cinnamon in small quantities and dosed in such a way that the aroma prevalent in liquor is always that of the walnut and the overall bouquet you create a harmonious result. 

PROCEDURE

The nuts, once harvested, they must be cut into 4 pieces and placed in a glass container (no rubber seals) together with the sugar. After being kept in the sun for 1-2 days and stir

Periodically, the nuts are ready to be added alcohol and any flavorings. The product thus obtained must be positioned in an area partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and shuffled, and not filtered before 60 days. It is advisable to bottling in glass containers dark and / or refine the product in small wooden barrels… can choose either chestnut oak that provided that the barrel has been properly treated before use. The preservation of the walnut must be carried out in a cool place and for a minimum period of 12 months if you want to fully appreciate all the characteristics of this liquor. 





 In searching around for this Gaelic term I came across another form of Irish bitter coirm or cuirm in Old Irish which we refer to as “ale” in English.   The brewing of ale is such an ancient skill that Tacticus mentioned curmi as a drink brewed by the Celts using barley.   The Crith-Gablach, an Irish law book compiled c 700 CE, also lists among the duties of a king that “he is not a lawful flaith (lord) who does not distribute ale every Sunday.”  Ale was the drink of choice for all Celts according to the Táin Bó Cúailnge and in the Senchus Mór which detailed laws governing brewing. (Curry, 1873, p. 28) This is pretty much thought to be because they lived in climates where grapes wouldn’t make it and turned to using grain crops for brewing instead. (Rees, 1819)   In his Social History of Ireland, Joyce explained that the knowledge of brewing was widely known and he described a typical “drinking-vessel, usually made from a bullock's horn, hollowed out and often highly ornamented with metal-work and gems.” (Joyce, 1906, p. 315)    If there is any doubt as to the importance to Irish society the following parable written in approximately 650 C.E by a Kildare monk should clear that up.
“On another extraordinary occasion, this venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.”

While one might not think of ale as a medicinal, herbal historians suggest that  bitter herbs were used in brewing due to the fact that the use of bitter herbs in malt liquors was meant to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations’  and to “render them, when taken in moderation, promoters of digestion.” (Paris, 1825, p. 146)

References



C. Alamprese a, . C. (2005). Characterization and antioxidant activity of nocino liqueur. Food Chemistry, 495-502.
Cameron, J. (1900). The Gaelic Names of Plants (Scottish, Irish and Manx) . Glasgow: John Mackay Office Blythswood Drive.
Curry, E. O. (1873). On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish Volume II. Dublin : W.B Kelly .
hAedha, C. U. (650 CE). The Life of St Brigid the Virgin,. Kildare.
Joyce, P. (1906). A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland. Dublin: Longmans, Green and Co.
Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia, al, The history of medicinal substances 6th Ed Volume 1 . Dublin: Hodges and McArthur .
Rees, A. (1819). The Cyclopedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Science and Literature Volume I. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What butter or whiskey does not cure cannot be cured.

During my studies this semester one of my goals was to research some traditional methods of preparation and perhaps compare and contrast them to my more modern preparations. To be honest, I haven’t found that things are all that entirely different. We still make infusions, we still use poultices and ointments and have strange bottles of unidentifiable potions lying about. Some of us are still drying herbs on the rafters in our attic. It seems the folk methods of herbal preparation have been passed down the age fairly accurately. Even the use of mold as medicine is not an entirely new concept.  Scottish healers would allow mold to grow on the surface of milk to be used as poultices on ulcerations. (Beith, 2004, p. 179) Some ingredients have gone out of fashion. I’ve yet to meet a modern-day herbalist who is using earth from a mole hill to cure rheumatism, but I am sure I might come across something similar, someday.    The one thing that I wasn't certain about was the period use of alcohol as a medicinal.  

When I came across was this old Gaelic proverb: “An rud nach leigheasann im ná uisce beatha níl aon leigheas air”  I decided to investigate.   The proverbtranslates to “What butter or whiskey does not cure cannot be cured.”  Butter is referred to due to its frequent use in medicinal ointments. This simple proverb may well sum up Gaelic healing philosophy.
In fact, the statement still holds true today. Irish American immigrants brought with them the folk medicine practices of “drinking hot whiskey with cloves and honey for coughs or colds and rubbing Vicks on the chest.” (Rapple, 2009)

Source British Museum: Medieval Medicine
Source British Museum: Medieval Medicine
Legend has it that traveling Irish monks learned of distillation in the East and brought it back to Ireland as early as 1000 CE which is a plausible time frame.
It was used exclusively by monastery apothecaries for medicinal purpose well into the Middle Ages and probably a product of the distillation of barley beer. (McKeown, 2012) There are no Gaelic documents referring to early methods of distillation.  The first written documentation was reportedly written in the 12th century by an Anglo Saxon visitor upon his return home.   1512, German Hieronymus Brunschwig's "Liber de arte distillandi” also  mentions these monks briefly when detailing distillation methods and the medicinal uses of alcohol.(Brunschwig, 1512)


Uisce Beatha meaning “water of life” was the Irish Gaelic translation the aforementioned monks assigned to the Latin aqua vitae. (American Heritage Dictionary, n.d.) It is pronounced roughly "ish-ke-ba'ha" The Scottish Gaelic is uisge beatha. It was reported to be “considered to be almost a panacea, given for a variety of ailments but believed to be specific for smallpox.” (Mitchell, n.d.) There has been some argument amongst historians if the peasantry would have had access to distillation equipment. I believe the answer to this lie in the long history of Irish hospitals established to care for the poor.

According to the mythological cycles, “Queen Macha Mong Ruadh (who died 377 BC) established the first hospital in Ireland called Broin Bherg (the House of Sorrow) at Emain Macha” (Wilkinson, 2008)  Subsequently Brehon law codes, such as the Senchus Mór, governed these forus tuaithe (territorial house) which were to provide to all classes “sick maintenance, including curative treatment, attendance allowance, and nourishing food.” (Ellis, 1995, p. 215) By the Middle Ages, many of these hospitals were associated with monasteries. (Wilkinson, 2008) The fact that these establishments existed leads me to believe that the peasantry would have had access to uisce beatha as a medicinal preparation.

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Source British Museum: Medieval Medicine
Now I shall turn my attention to the second panacea mentioned, butter. The Celtic obsession with dairy products would make me laugh, if it didn’t rule my life. In fact, dairy products have been such a ubiquitous part of the Celtic diet that it may have influenced our genetics. A recent geographical study published in the journal Nature, illustrated the British Isles as one of the few places in the worlds where over 90% of the adult population exhibit lactase persistence. (Curry, 2013, p. 21) That is their bodies produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose.
It makes sense then that many sources on traditional Celtic herbalism document the use of butter in making ointments. Beith mentions many such preparations including two ointment the first ” St. John’s wort, germander speedwell and golden rod cut small and mixed in butter and grease” (Beith, 2004, p. 220) and the second in which “golden rod was mixed with all-heal and fresh butter” both of which were used to mend broken bones. (Beith, 2004, p. 221)

Folklore is full of reference to the use of ointments by healers.
References can be found in the earliest myths. In the Tain bo Cuailgne a group of liaigh were said to accompany each army, each wearing a bag known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle. (Ellis, 1995, p. 214) An old folk remedy for the plague involves invoking a charm three times and then “take butter, breathe on it quite close, and give to chafe himself therewith.” (Wilde, 1887, p. 85)

One of my favorite things about studying historical herbalism is that I am usually able to take a  widely used practice and find some science to validate it.   After all even leeches have their place.  In this case it is the fact that lipids enhance transdermal absorption of medicinal herbs.

By Mikael Häggström, based on work by Wbensmith
By Mikael Häggström
Now granted today's science has found chemical agents which work better than oils but they are generally petroleum products which I prefer not to use.
One can’t help but wonder what sort of trial-and-error process led the ancient folk healers to begin making their preparations with oils? Questions like these will likely never have an answer come to light, but I have a better understanding of why the original proverb became popular.
References
Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.
Brunschwig, H. (1512). Liber de Arte Didstallandi. Retrieved from Turning the Pages Online: National Library of Medicine: http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/flash/brunschwig/brunschwig.html
Curry, A. (2013). The Milk Generation. Nature, 20-22.
Ellis, P. B. (1995). The Druids. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
McKeown, M. (2012, May 25). History of Irish Whiskey. Retrieved from History of Ireland: http://hubpages.com/hub/History-Irish-Whiskey
Mitchell, R. (n.d.). Celtic Medicine in Scotland. Retrieved from Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh: http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/library-archives/celtic-medicine-scotland
Rapple, B. (2009, December). Irish americans. Retrieved from Countries and their Cultures: http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Ha-La/Irish-Americans.html
Ratna Mehta, P. (2004, September). Topical and Transdermal Drug Delivery: What a Pharmacist Needs to Know. Retrieved from Archived Articles of INET Continuing Education: http://www.inetce.com/articles/pdf/221-146-04-054-H01.pdf
whiskey. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved November 24 2013 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/whiskey
Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm
Wilkinson, S. (2008, November). Early Medical Education in Ireland. Retrieved from Irish Migration Studies in Latin America: http://www.irlandeses.org/0811wilkinson2.htm

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Let's play "Is it period?"

So as I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog,  I am a real life herbalist too, for what that is worth.    One of the  tasks ahead of me now is to decide what puzzle out which of  my concoctions are "period" and which are more modern.    I took two  of the more ubiquitous preparations in herbals and attempted to trace them back to see how the legends stood up to scrutiny.  I wrote an article about this that will be published in the March/April issue of The Essential Herbal, but I thought I would share some of my research here:


Source- The Saturday magazine Volume 18 -1841
Queen of Hungary Water- The legend here goes is that it was a recipe originally commissioned by Elizabeth wife of Charles Robert King of Hungary or it was named this by the gypsies. What I discovered is that the formula can be dated back to an herbal published in 1586  but the link to Queen Elizabeth is not mentioned in that manuscript (see left).    Reference to this relationship  can be found recorded in  an herbal published in posthumously 1656.  The author, John Prevot,  who died in 1636, Prevot reports that it was in the year  1606 that he  saw the receipt in a breviary in  the library of Francis Podacather.  It was reportedly handed down in his family having been given to his ancestor by said Queen who would have written it in perhaps, 1380?  (Beckmann)  However, no one has found this document in the subsequent years, so taking Prevot at his word, the earliest we can confidently date the receipt to is 1606.   Some scholars in early publications question if distillation would have been known in Hungary at that time, but as the alembic was most likely  invented by the  Arab Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi  (or someone who studied under him)  who  lived from 721-815 C.E.  and aqua vitae has been distilled since the late 9th century, it seems a safe assumption to me.    I wonder if those people who question the timeline are confusing  Queen Elizabeth wife of Charles,  with St. Elizabeth, an earlier queen of Hungary.   Or perhaps people confuse the history of distilling alcohol as a beverage, with earlier distillations used as medicines in apothecaries which were in fact alcohol, but not served socially.   For example in Irish history it is difficult to distinguish this because aqua vita or "uisce beatha" as the Irish called has come to be known as Irish whiskey, however the  the first preparations were probably used medicinally by the monks who produced them.  

While the formula is "period"  It should be pointed out that this  preparation  in no way resembles the acetum formula that Rosemary Gladstar has popularized in modern herbalism.  It is a fairly typical rosemary water which are mentioned in herbals as old as Bankes Herbal published in 1525 and making it requires distillation of an alcohol preparation. 



Source : Pharmacologia Vol. II -1825   John Ayrton Paris
Four Thieves' Vinegar  -  The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt on the left.   Another publication around this time attributes the formulation of this preparation to one Mr. Robert Forthave who lived in 1749,  claiming the name of the preparation is just a "corruption" of his name.   (Limbird)  
 Jean Valnet, a noted aromatherapist,  claims to have found the original formula in the archives of the Parliament of Toulouse 1628-1631  as follows:  3 pints white wine vinegar, a handful each of wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper berries, wild marjoram and sage with 50 cloves, 2 oz each of elecampane root, angelica, rosemary, horehound and 3 grams of camphor.   (Valnet).   I've not been able to locate a translation of these documents, so cannot verify his source.    So if  Valnet is to be believed, the story may be true.   Regardless the use of these aromatic vinegars such as the  "Acetum Aromaticum"  has been documented  as "period" preparations.  I would probably opt for that name as being more appropriate for SCA purposes.



Beckmann, J. (1846 ). History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins. London: Henry G Bohn.

Hartshorne, H. (1881). The Household Cyclopedia. Thomas Kelly.

Limbird, J. (1828). Four Thieves' Vinegar. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction.
Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia: corrected and extended.... Volume 2. New York: Samuel Wood & Son.
Valnet, J. (1980). The Practice of Aromatherapy. London: White Crescent Press Ltd.