Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme … and Lavender

First, a pinch of etymology.

The Greeks called lavender nardus after the Syrian city of Naardus, from which comes the word “spikenard.” (More on spikenard in a second.) As for our word, “lavender,” we must once again thank the Latin language for lavare, meaning, “to wash.” A member of the mint family, and cousin to rosemary, lavender can be used like rosemary in many dishes. Its blossoms form little spiked shoots sprouting flowers of many hues, not just purple.

Cooking with lavender seems a little like extreme cooking, because most of us associate lavender with the toiletries we use every day: face cream, hand lotion, and soap.

But many of us already use lavender in cooking. It is one of the herbs included in herbes de Provence. When using lavender pure and simple in cooking, remember that the darker the blossom, the more intense the flavor, so a little dab’ll do ya, so to speak.

Like so many of our herbs, lavender carries with it ancient and religious overtones. Its appearance in early herbals — which I consider to be early versions of cookbooks just as much as books devoted to food — attests to its tenacity in culture as well as in the garden.

During Tudor times, on St. Luke’s Day (October 18), young girls placed lavender under their pillows and chanted

St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let my true love see me.

On St. John’s day (December 27), people tossed lavender sprigs on the floors of churches and burned it in bonfires to forestall evil spirits.

Artist's representation of Mary Magdalene

And course, how could we avoid mentioning Mary Magdalene? In the gospel of Luke, the story goes

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.

Lavender played a role in burial ointments, hence songs like “Scarborough Fair,” made famous by Simon & Garfunkel (see below), in which herbs carry a double meaning, as a cover-up for the reek of death.

Monks and nuns grew lavender in so-called “infirmarian’s gardens” in their monasteries, along with many other medicinal herbs. According to Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess who lived from 1098-1179, lavender “water” — concocted of vodka, gin, or brandy mixed with lavender — worked well for migraine headaches. And Hildegard would know, wouldn’t she? Modern interpreters believe that her visions and art came from the migraine auras she herself repeatedly experienced. Today, people, me included I’ll admit, still buy lavender pillows and lavender sprays for their much touted calming and sleep-inducing properties.

An Example of Hildegard's Art

But back to the questions raised in a previous post on lavender: Where did lavender come from and why was it important to the Arabs? How did it come to be such an important herb in Europe?

One place to start trying to answer these questions lies in cookbooks from the time periods in question.

Take the recipes from an anonymous Andalusian cookbook of the thirteenth century, translated by Charles Perry.

Savory dishes appear to have been more prevalent, rather than sweet dishes, which is what we today think of when it comes to lavender, if we think of it all, herbes de Provence notwithstanding.

The following recipes come from this source:


The Dish Mukhallal

Take the meat of a plump cow or sheep, cut it small, and put it in a new pot with salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, plenty of saffron, garlic peeled and diced, almonds peeled and split, and plenty of oil; cover it with strong, very pure vinegar, without the slightest bit of water; put it on a moderate charcoal fire and stir it, then boil it. When it cooks and the meat softens and it reduces, then put it on the hearthstone and coat it with much egg, cinnamon and lavender; color it with plenty of saffron, as desired, and put in it whole egg yolks and leave it on the hearthstone until it thickens and the broth evaporates and the fat appears. This dish lasts many days without changing or spoiling; it is called “wedding food” in the West [or the Algarve], and it is one of the seven dishes cited as used among us at banquets in Cordoba and Seville.

And there’s sweet version, too:

Sweetened Mukhallal

Take two ratls or more of good meat without bones, and cut it up small; put it in a clean pot with salt, onion, pepper and a little cumin, cinnamon and saffron. Choose as much strong vinegar as is necessary and enough good oil to cover it. Put it on a moderate fire and then add to it a spoonful of peeled, split almonds and a little peeled, split garlic and two or three citron leaves. Cook it and stir it, and when the meat is dry, then add to it strong vinegar, instead of water, and two ûqiyas or more of rose petal jam. When the meat is done, take ten eggs, broken into a dish, and add to them pepper, cinnamon, lavender, cloves, and plenty of saffron, until it has the desired color; beat them with a spoon and cover the contents of the pot with this and add to it whole egg yolks and leave it over the hearthstone until it thickens and the sauce dries, and use, God willing.

Many questions, many paths to answers (and more questions!), not at all possible to pinpoint in a few blog posts.

But for now I will plant more lavender plants on my sloping hillside this afternoon, in the warm sun, flicking gnats off right and left, struggling to keep from sliding down the mountain, dreaming of the purple blossoms that will perfume my nights and my cooking.

For more on lavender in medicine and cooking:

University of Maryland Medical Center

For recipes using lavender in cooking [be sure to use lavender labeled “culinary lavender”], there’s The Lavender Cookbook (2004) by Sharon Shipley and Cooking with Lavender (2008), by Suzanne T. Smith, plus many posts like this one by Algerian chef Farid Zadi: Lavender Couscous.

Scarborough Fair lyrics

Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt

(On the side of a hill in the deep forest green)

Parsely, sage, rosemary & thyme
(Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground)
Without no seams nor needlework
(Blankets and bedclothes a child of the mountains)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)
Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsely, sage, rosemary, & thyme
(Washed is the ground with so many tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
Tell her to reap it in a sickle of leather
(War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsely, sage, rosemary & thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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2 comments

  1. Combinations of lavender and ginger,cloves, costum or cloves, cinnamon, saffron and honey were common in Byzantine cooking, but since then the use of lavender has been limited to pharmacology and cosmetology. Thus, it was a big surprise το the Greek palate when a very gifted young confectioner used it in his creations.

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