Monday, February 27, 2012

Wives, Herbs, and Beer.

In the days long, long, before the existence of agri-business and hyper-markets, food production and retail was often carried out by individuals on a very small and narrow scale. In those same days, employment options for women were very limited. One could sell one’s body, of course, or one could sell ... something else.

At that time also, the word ‘woman’ did not necessarily imply marital status, it simply meant an adult female, although with clear implications of lower societal rank – in other words, not a ‘lady.’ In compound form the word also came to refer to women engaged in the sale of some commodity’ (OED). Hence, one would buy the indicated product from an ale-wife, apple-wife, fish-wife, gingerbread-wife, milk-wife, oyster-wife, strawberry-wife, tripe-wife and so on.

Such gender-specific retail titles are non-existent nowadays, for pretty obvious reasons, but if there was to be a modern example -given the popularity of their product - perhaps it would be ‘cupcake-wife’?  We would of course, in these politically-correct days, also have to have cupcake-husbands too. Bring them on, I say.

Let us focus on the wares of the herb-wife today. As with ‘woman’, the usage of the word ‘herb’ has changed over time. Today, most of us, when we think of herbs, think instantly of green leafy plants used for their fragrance and flavour in cooking, or perhaps of their perceived medicinal value. Certainly in the past, in many of the references to ‘herb-wives’ there is an implied knowledge of herbal lore, and they would probably be called herbalists today.

We don’t generally refer to ‘pot-herbs’ nowadays, but these include ‘any plant having leaves that are cooked and eaten as a vegetable’ (OED). The OED is not quite inclusive enough here as pot-herbs also included many roots – which do not fit into the modern vision of herbs.

Common-usage is not the same as botanical definition however, and in botanical terms, a herb is a plant which does not have a persistent woody stem above ground, but which dies down after flowering (although it might regenerate from the root another year or few.) According to this definition, the banana is a herb, as is rhubarb.

For the recipe of the day, I give you an interesting idea from an interesting source. Cookbooks, newspaper columns, and magazines are not the only place to find recipes, you know. The recipe is for a ‘herb beer’, and it was supplied by a correspondent to The Christian Pioneer, (1856) edited  by J.F. Winks.

I Presume, Mr. Editor, that you will let us write about anything that is likely to be good for either the bodies or souls of our fellow-creatures. I noticed, with pleasure, what you told us about the roots of that troublesome weed called twitch being used to make paper, and it reminded me of another use that may be made of it. But I will tell you how I heard of this.

I was one day attending some religious meetings at a village in Nottinghamshire, and after they were ended, I called at a friend's house on my way to the station. Being thirsty, as well as weary, I asked, for he was a shop-keeper, if he had any "Ginger Beer," or "Imperial Pop." His wife replied that they had not, but she could give me some "Twitch Beer," which was quite harmless, and would do just as well or better. I tasted it and found it very agreeable, without, I believe, any intoxicating qualities. This led me to make further inquiries, and my friends told me that it was strongly recommended for its medicinal virtues, especially in healing the lungs ot young persons liable to consumption. My friend afterwards sent me directions how to make it. I copy his note:—

"As you have written to know how we make our herb beer, I send the receipt with pleasure. To make one gallon of it, take a double handful of Twitch, one handful of Cumfrey, one handful of Gill.* Wash them well in cold water, then boil altogether twenty minutes. Afterwards take them out and strain them. Then put the liquor in the pot again, with one ounce of ginger and one pound of sugar, and boil it ten minutes. Then let it stand till nearly cold, and add two table-spoonsful of barm. Let it stand about twelve hours, and then put in a quarter of an ounce of cream of tartar. Stir it up well, and put it in bottles and let it finish working. You may drink it any time of the day."

I only add, that one day, passing through a field, I examined a root of twitch to discover, if I could, its properties; and I found that inside it was glutinous or starchy, and therefore adapted to make pulp for paper, or a nourishing drink. I have said what I have with a good intent; and if these things be correct, then we shall again lind that there are many things all around us which we have regarded as curses—and this twitch was one—but which if we only knew their true properties would be found blessings. I am
*Is not this Ground Ivy?

I have done a little investigating of this plant called ‘twitch.’ The Oxford English Dictionary says it is an altered form of ‘quitch,’ or couch-grass (Triticum repens,) which is a nuisance weed, a medicine for bladder problems, or a popular lawn material, depending on your personal perspective. A cold beer being the traditional reward for the (at least) once-weekly chore of mowing your lawn on a ferociously hot summer day here in Queensland, this all suggests a rather interesting recycling idea for your lawn clippings, don’t you think?

[Please note: I do not suggest you actually make this recipe: comfrey is now known to be quite poisonous.]

Quotation for the Day.

A handsome pie was placed before him ... to illustrate the old saying ‘A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat 'em the better they be.’
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford.

1 comment:

Marcheline said...

Comfrey poisonous? I just bought a huge bag of comfrey tea, quite legally.... could they be different comfreys?