Common yarrow (achillea millefolium)

Herba millefolii

You have probably seen this plant thousands of times, because – on the Northern Hemisphere – it grows pretty much everywhere. It’s a modest, unassuming plant, though the deep green colour is rather nice. The small, white flowers aren’t decorative enough to make bouquets of them, and the smell is sharp, a bit “medicinal”. No wonder, really – it’s a very valuable medicinal plant, and one worth keeping.

You can easily recognize yarrow for its leaves : slim and feathery, with a mass of tiny strands (the Latin ‘millefolium’ translates to ‘thousand-leaf’, which is actually one of its common names). The stem is tough and stiff, so if you’re planning on harvesting some, don’t even try to break it by hand. The right way to harvest yarrow is to take a very sharp knife and cut the blossoming stem roughly in the middle – taking half away and leaving half to grow. Yarrow grows back very quickly, which is why it is prized as a pasture plant, said t o “grow back right under the beast’s teeth.”

  • Medicinal uses

    Close-up of the characteristic leaf

Yarrow’s most interesting qualities are those of a medicinal plant. Fresh or dried plant (millefolii herba) can be used –  in decoctions or macerates – both internally and externally. Drinking yarrow infusions is generally advised in gastrointestinal trouble, as its healing properties can alleviate inflammations and cramp pains (although with serious cramps, fennel is a better choice.) Externally, yarrow preparations can be used in compresses and poultices to speed the mending of wounds, in which task it is very effective. This property is so well known that most yarrow names deal, in one way or another, with healing wounds : nosebleed plant, herba militaris, sanguinary, soldier’s woundwort… and not just in English, either. I have come across one extreme case – a solitary person wounded in the wild – who found yarrow growing nearby, chewed it into a pulp in his mouth and put the resulting mass over a cleaned wound. This was very smart of her, I must say. Even if it didn’t miraculously close the wound in seconds, it was still the best thing she could have done.

  • Culinary uses

Yarrow has a bittersweet taste, and a strong, sharp smell. It does not come to mind as the best foodstuff when you pass it by in the park, but it used to be quite a popular vegetable, used similarly to raw sorrel – in soups, and salads of boiled leaves. Nowadays, we have more interesting vegetables and yarrow is hardly ever consumed, but it’s still worth you attention from time to time. Especially if you have any kind of skin trouble – acne or suchlike – you will often hear how it can be treated with zinc pills and drugs, many of them quite expensive. Whereas yarrow leaves, and especially flowers, contain a large concentration of this valuable mineral which can be ingested when eating the plant. Tea-like infusion is one good choice, but seasoning a salad with the small, white flowers is even better, because you get a medicinal, cosmetic, gastronomic and aesthetic effect all at once. Yarrow leaves can also be chopped and added to quark cheese with tasty results.

  • Magic uses

Due to its healing properties, yarrow in herbal magic is best used to symbolise just that – healing, mending and closing of wounds. Herbal talismans containing yarrow are often made to help with hurt feelings and aid in moving on with one’s life after a traumatic event, searching for closure. Dried flowers are the best choice for these purposes, due to their sharp smell and pleasing appearance.

Cinnamon Oil

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the simplest means to prepare an herbal extract is by maceration. These macerates can be used for many different purposes, which of course have to be kept in mind during their production.

Oil macerates are rarely used in medicine, although some can be potent remedies. They are relatively common in cooking, though, and there’s hardly anything simpler to prepare.
Of the substances that lend themselves well to oil maceration, the most common and desirable are aromatic herbs. Their essential oils, themselves lipids, dissolve in oil easily, thus lending their properties and often preserving it from spoiling as well.

The most common oil macerate is made similarly to an alcoholic tincture – the ingredient in question is placed in a disinfected receptacle and oil is poured over it. The receptacle is then closed and stored safely while chemistry does its work.
However, unless You use an extremely potent ingredient, such as garlic, it takes over a month to feel any noticeable results, so sometimes people speed up oil maceration by using the great power of fire. That is to say, heating it up.

In this particular case, I took two spoonfuls of ground cinnamon, one star anise and a quarter of nutmeg for good measure, put it all in a small pot and poured a glass of oil over it. Of course, the better quality oil, the better result. For these kind of ‘sweet’ spices, like those usually put in gingerbread, sunflower or grapeseed oil are good choices. Olive oil, on the other hand, will clash with their aroma unpleasantly.

The pot is then put over a small fire and heated up until tiny bubbles appear on the surface. Once this happens, keep it on heat but stir it constantly, for about two minutes more. Take out the whole spices, if You’ve added any, and put them in a disinfected bottle : I kept both the star anise and the nutmeg, adding two whole cinnamon canes for good measure. The oil should then be filtered into the bottle to remove the dregs. Since ground cinnamon is a very fine powder, the best thing to use here is… thin pantyhose. Yup, that’s right, a scrap of old thighs You’ve made a hole in is a good friend in the kitchen (washed, of course). Failing that, a paper handkerchief is a good choice. I advice against using cloth, even very thin will still be too thick for the oil and filtering will take forever. It does even if You use paper tissue.

Even filtered, the oil will still get slightly opaque. That’s normal. Keep the bottle shut for some time, allow it to digest in peace – the longer You keep it the stronger aroma You get. Of course, it won’t be as strong as the essential oils you buy for aromatherapy, but that’s not the point – the point is to have cinnamon oil that’s edible.

It’s great to use in baking, when a recipe calls for oil, and in magic, naturally. Oil macerates made of aromatic herbs are also very good for seasoning salads.

Back for good. Rearranging the spice rack this time

The pentagram of spices! Beware!

Whew. This was a pretty hectic holiday, all things considered. Between my time in the mountains (no, not of madness), the fantasy convention – great as always but hard on the poor ol’ heart, as always – the damn house renovation and Death paying a visit to the family, things were pretty crazy. It’s all over now, though, and now I’m facing the dear drab everyday existence. It’s become so unfamiliar lately that I’m still having a kick out of boredom, but I know myself. This won’t last long.

The house is a little strange, what with me getting unaccustomed to it. It needs a solid scrubbing and I’m happy to oblige, as it takes my mind off… everything. And it’s a good way of making it mine again. There are numerous ways of marking Your own territory, and a good cleaning has the additional advantage of making things, well, clean. And now that I have successfully refurbished two rooms, I’m probably going to hit the kitchen pretty soon. Which leads me to the spice rack.

I don’t know what it is with a clean, orderly row of spice jars, but they are one of the most decorative sights I know while still being useful. There’s just something about all those shapes and colours and smells that makes me want to hoard them like some sort of foodie dragon. Huh, I guess I just like herbs and cooking. Who would have thought?
You can buy all sorts of stuff now to make that easy, like magnetic receptacles with rewritable labels, but I don’t really hold with that sort of thing. I stick to the little jars that my Mother used, which are over a twenty years old and already their shape looks original in a retro kind of way. And who needs labels? They detract from the thing itself, and if You need them to tell what is what then clearly You keep those herbs just for show.

So, do I have any advice to You spice hoarders? Sure, although I don’t really think anyone needs it. Keep the jars clean and shut. Use the same kind of receptacle for maximum contents exposure. Keep those spices that You actually use, otherwise they’ll go stale and unappealing. Always make sure the jars are absolutely dry before putting something in them – and, for this reason, avoid pouring the spices into pots directly from the jars when cooking. They get damp from the steam and that’s not good for the contents. Spoons were invented for a reason. Some spices may not like being exposed to sun – check it out beforehand. And remember – there’s nothing wrong with suddenly grabbing a jar of, say, cinnamon, and just taking a sniff. No, that does not mean I’m weird. I mean You.

It’s good to pick KW up again. And there will be recipes, although probably no cake.

Thyme (thymus vulgaris)

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
Midsummer Night’s Dream

The common thyme. Strong, fresh scent, beautiful, small leaves and the resilience of something much bigger and tougher. This ancient herb has been used by many nations throughout the world since antiquity, respected for its antiseptic and preservative qualities that could be profited of by cooks, medics and even embalmers. Even nowadays, many throat remedies are still made of thyme, coltsfoot  and marsh mallow, despite all the progress in pharmacology.

Thyme is an easy herb to keep, even in a pot on your windowsill. It likes sunny spots best, but will actually make do anywhere, as long as there’s some direct light. It does not need a lot of water – indeed, too much of it can hurt the plant – and will struggle along even if You forget about it for a week, which makes it a good start for beginner herbalists. Even dried up and brown, the plant will regain almost all of its strength when taken care of.
If You want to have some fresh thyme at home, the best way to go about it is to buy a live plant. Thyme is very difficult to raise from seeds and is usually propagated by cuttings, even by professionals. If You bought a plant and want to put it in a pot, remember that thyme is a survivor ; it has evolved to withstand harsh conditions and those are the ones that suit it best. The most important thing here is to keep the soil well-drained. But don’t worry : just take the intended pot and fill the bottom with a 3 to 4 cm layer of stones (gravel or sea pebbles, anything small) and the rest with soil. This will make Your plant feel right at home.
Thyme can also be used to great effects in gardens, as it really is rather decorative, very resilient and can take severe cold well. An interesting fact is that ants like to make nests among thyme roots, and gardeners have successfully drawn ants away from an undesirable spot by planting thyme bushes somewhere else.

  • Culinary uses

Because of the strong aroma, thyme herb is a great seasoning for all those dishes that need an extra zing. Meats of all kinds can benefit greatly from being marinated in olive oil and thyme (and will keep longer).  It’s a great ingredient for all kinds of salads and casseroles where the taste would otherwise be too bland. The only problem is that the leaves are very small, and if You have a live plant, You’ll have to pick quite a lot of them and it becomes tedious after a while. But that’s hardly a real disadvantage.

  • Medicinal uses

Thyme is most commonly used as an antiseptic, due to high concentration of essential oils. Most common use for it are throat infections, which can be treated with infusions, thyme oil (it’s hard to make as it has to be distilled twice, so at home best stick to infusions) or some more complicated recipes I will not dwell on right now. It is also used to stimulate the digestive system and can raise blood pressure, although not enough to be any danger to patients suffering from hypertension. Usually. Of course, ultra-high concentration of thyme oil should be avoided by them, but then again, it’s not likely to come across that sort of dose anyway.

  • Magic uses

In magic, thyme can be used to great effect. Due to the strong and persistent nature of the plant, it can be used in charms  to grant courage and resilience. The potent, healthy aroma invigorates the spirit and clears thought similarly to lavender, but with more emphasis on action – for this reason, it’s a great protective herb because it shields You while not letting You stagnate. Thyme can also be used to ward off nightmares, be it the fresh herb, the dried herb used in a witch bag, or incense. It is definitely worth to keep this small, but noble bush at home.

Cheese

‘Cheese is good. Cheese is alive’.
– Granny Weatherwax, in The Wee Free Men

CheeseThere might be something more to life than eating cheese and drinking wine, but quite frankly, there isn’t much of it.
Fame evaporates and so do lovers (metaphorically speaking, I hope), but a good cheese will wait in the fridge faithfully, intent only on being eaten*. It may not be as glamorous and exciting as some exotic fruit, or as showy as caviare or some fancy dessert. But it’s damn tasty, that’s for sure.
Right at the start of this little blogging folly of mine, I promised to explore the cheese subject in-depth. A good opportunity has just presented itself – my love of cheese is well-known to those close to me, so they’ve been presenting me with many dairy delicacies lately. It’s not every day You find five different kinds of cheese at home, so I couldn’t let this pass unnoticed.

Cheese is one of the oldest foods in the world – older than bread, surely, because milk-giving animals have been domesticated before humans learned to grow crops. Nothing conclusive is known about the exact place of its origin, but it seems logical that cheese originated more or less everywhere: all humans need to eat and are likely to experiment widely in that field, and milk was available pretty much to every ethnic group out there.  So if You’re feeling like giving Your respects to the ancestors, cheese is a good bet.

There are thousands of types and varieties of cheese, since all those Peoples who got the idea have been working on it ever since. They can be classed by many different criteria, such as type of milk used (cow, sheep, goat etc.), texture or type of fabrication process and so on. Since all this is not really that useful and can be read elsewhere, I will stick to my own examples. As seen on the picture, we have:

The blue vein

Made using a special variety of mould, these cheeses have a very characteristic apparition and a peculiar, strong taste. Can be made from any milk, but the most famous one, roquefort, is only allowed to bear the name if made from sheep milk and in the caves near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
When dealing with those, it’s important to remember that they are, for all intents and purposes, covered with mould. Do not wrap them up with other cheeses, even other “mouldy” ones. It’s also a good idea to wash the knife before using it on something else, unless You do want to spread the mould everywhere.
Strong, dry red wine is necessary – anything weaker will lose to the taste of cheese immediately. Incidentally, the “vein” can be anything from blue to green to red to even purple at times.

The ‘standard’ semi-soft

There’s actually nothing standard about them, seeing as the category is only semi-valid by itself, but those cheeses are the most popular around the western world – Gouda, Edam or Maasdamer, those are the cheeses that You will put on a sandwich most often. They can vary greatly in tastes and shapes, and their biggest advantage is being as close to ‘universal’ cheese as possible: they can be sliced for toast, grated for pizza or pastas and cut in large bits for fried cheese cutlets.
These cheeses keep well and start spoiling from the surface, so the places in question can be cut off without losing the rest. Just remember not to leave them unwrapped as they dry out and become unusable.

The soft-ripened cheese

Made of most varieties of milk, using a special kind of mould, but having almost nothing in common with the blue veins. Amazing, isn’t it? Those are the brie, camembert, coulommiers, or brique (all French examples, because I’m writing what I know). This kind of cheese does not, usually, keep at all, as it is intended to be eaten in one sitting. Tastes range from mild and creamy (brie) to sharp and piquant (ripe camembert). Always with red wine, dry or semi-dry, never sweet.
Mostly eaten individually, just like the blue veins, but some salad and pasta recipes call for them.

‘Hard’ cheeses

Those are the ones that crumble rather than cut and go ‘knock’ when You tap them. Grana padano, parmiggiano, peccorino – Italy is the leader here, as this kind of cheese is intended to be grated and used as a condiment for pasta (sometimes roasted meat). Assembled in big molds and aged for years, sometimes, they can be undistinguishable from their thick wax crust, until tasted. There is no mistaking their taste, and I’m not going to attempt to describe it. They are expensive, but worth the price.
Can be eaten individually, but are at their best with pasta. Indispensable for more “modest” types of spaghetti sauce, like aglio e olio or puttanesca, where a lesser cheese will make a dissonance.

I can go on much longer like this, but feel obliged to stop now for the sake of my dear Readers. And for a bite of brie.

ΦΦΦ

* I don’t need love,
For what good will love do me?
Cheddar never lies to me,
For when love’s gone,
Cheeses last on…
😉