The Herbs in Spain Grow Mainly on the Plain

Many times when I walk through the nearby woods, I marvel at all the plants hiding under rotting logs and peeking out from the boulders. These plants, sharing the same earth and respiring the same air as we do, live and die nameless to most of us. How far away we’ve traveled from the days when we could walk out the door, into the forests and fields, and confidently pick a plant, knowing its name, its properties, and how to prepare it to save a child’s life, heal a putrefying flesh wound, or even glue together a broken heart.

I often come away from these peaceful walks with a feeling of loss, to be honest.

Last night, reading the Hemingwayesque prose of Ferenc Maté in The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, I felt that sense of loss once again when Maté described how a city-dwelling friend named Giovanna stayed with them. “You have no herbs,” she announced looking in the cupboards. “I’ll have to go find some.” She fashioned a make-shift lantern out of an upturned pan lid by fastening several candles down with melted wax, lit the candles, and walked out into the dark Tuscan night, searching for herbs for dinner.

Like a sorceress at some medieval rite, she kept along the ditch, stopping, gathering. She came back with her hand full of leaves and sprigs and dessicated stems. “Fennel for the rabbit stew, she announced, “and malva (mallow), borragine (borage) and rosemary for the paste.”

Herb Burner in London museum, originally from Spain

And that’s why a torrent of thanks showers on the compilers of herbals — monks, nuns, and others — those who recorded herbal lore, thus passing down knowledge that now seems to be less mythical and quaint than previously believed by modern experts.

Like many herbals, the sixteenth-century Spanish herbal, The Manual de Mugeres (Mujeres) (“The Manual of Women” or “Women’s Manual”) (see below for a number of links), spills over with recipes for both food and medicinal treatments, including cosmetics. Like many such books in Spain, Mugeres owes a debt to the Arabs. And to Mestre Robert’s (Ruberto de Nola) possibly 15th-century Llibre del Coch, originally written in Catalan and pirated heavily from an earlier (likely 14th-century) cookbook, The Cookbook of Sent Soví.

Quince Deconstructed

Ointment for abcesses
Take a half-ounce of quince-seeds put to soak in four ounces of orange blossom water at midday. Remove the gum with a somewhat thin cloth. Three ounces of the fat of a capon, or duck, or a hen which is fresh, and another three ounces of almond oil and three ounces of white wax. Melt all these things and put them in a warm mortar. And put with them one of the seeds, and mix it well with the pestle that is also warm. And once it is cold, get out the well-beaten whites of two eggs and put it in to mix well. And keep it in a vessel of glass. It lasts thirty days in cold, and in warm fifteen days.

Because of the nature of the seasons, preservation of food demanded inordinate amounts of time and thought, too, as well as healing.

Recipe to keep peaches fresh until Christmas
Take the half-ripe peaches with their stems, so that the peaches will not be hurt. And put them in a glass vessel, the stem above so that it will not be too tight. And put in honey to cover them. And put this glass vessel under the earth and cover it with another glass vessel. And cover the gaps in the glasses well with plaster, so that air won’t get in. And leave them as long as you’d like. And when you remove them they will come out as if you had just taken them from the tree.

In this process, the honey acts to prevent air and water from reaching the peaches, thus stalling bacterial growth. Hydrogen peroxide results from the reaction of an enzyme in honey called glucose oxidase. Sensitive to light and heat, this enzyme would be preserved, too, if a cook followed the recipe in the Manual de Mugeres.

Borage

To read the Manual de Mugeres yourself, go to any of the following links:

Manual de Mugeres, from the Cervantes Virtual Library. Other versions:  .pdf file HERE and an English translation HERE.

And for more on honey as a preservative, take a look at some of these sources:

Chen, L., Mehta, A., Berenbaum, M., Zangerl, A. and Engeseth, N. Honeys from different floral sources as inhibitors of enzymatic browning in fruit and vegetable homogenates. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 48:  4997–5000, 2000.

Mundo, Melissa A., Padilla-Zakour, Olga I. and Worobo, Randy W. Growth inhibition of foodborne pathogens and food spoilage organisms by select raw honeys. International Journal of Food Microbiology 94 (1): 1 -8, December 1, 2004.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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