Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bitters and Bitter Ale

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 were after medieval feasts.   But by the time modern cookbooks take note of them, they were primarily being used as ingredients in aperitifs 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 earlier 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 monastery 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.   


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. 


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 Irish Gaels according to the Táin Bó Cúailnge and in the Senchus Mór which detailed laws governing brewing (Curry, 1873, p. 28). This is understood to be because they lived in climates where grapes wouldn’t make it and turned to using grain crops for brewing instead. 

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 of ale to Irish society the following parable written in approximately 650 C.E by a Kildare monk should illustrate it, well.

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 added to the brews were meant to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations’  and to “render them, when taken in moderation, promoters of digestion” (Paris, 1825, p. 146). 

Of course all this means is that we have to start acquiring some brewing equipment, because Morcant wants to learn.


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 .

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What butter or whiskey does not cure cannot be cured.

One of my projects  in college was to research some traditional methods of preparation and perhaps compare and contrast them to my more modern preparations. 

To be honest, I didn't find that things are all that different.  We still make infusions and decoctions. 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 traditional methods of herbal preparation have been passed down the ages.  If anything we are a little less adventuresome.  In the 1500's, they made essential oils by distilling hydroethanolic extracts. 

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.

I came across was this old Gaelic proverb: “An rud nach leigheasann im ná uisce beatha níl aon leigheas air” which translates to “What butter or whiskey does not cure cannot be cured.”   

This simple proverb may well sum up Gaelic healing philosophy.  In fact, the statement 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) 

Legend has it that traveling Irish monks learned of distillation from the Arabs and brought it back to Ireland as early as 1000 CE.  This is actually pretty plausible given what genetics has taught us about Spanish settlement in Ireland.   Remember that Spain was part of that  which is a plausible time frame given what genetics

It was used exclusively by monastery apothecaries for medicinal purpose well into the Middle Ages and was  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.  The German physician Hieronymus Brunschwig's Liber de arte distillandi also  mentions these monks briefly when detailing distillation methods and the medicinal uses of alcohol.(Brunschwig, 1512)

Monks were primarily responsible for all manners of brewing and distilling in the early Medieval period.

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.

Source British Museum: Medieval Medicine

Now I shall turn my attention to the second panacea mentioned, butter. The Gaelic 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 Gaelic 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 continue to produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose into adulthood.

It makes sense then that many sources on traditional Gaelic healing 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 seems likely they noticed that lipids (particularly saturated fats)  enhance transdermal absorption of medicinal herbs.

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.

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