Category Archives: lavender

plantmatterwater

The elegance of water.

Water both scares and excites me. Unlike my husband who can’t stay away from the stuff, I have a healthy respect for it due to a. being a not-so-strong swimmer and b. two almost drowning incidents on the sea shore. I grew up on the water, some of my earliest memories are of the smell of boat, of the sound of water lapping against the hull as I drift off to sleep, of the sounds of halyards tinking against masts and seagulls squawking as the wind picks up. Of sea spray, and of the terror that overwhelms me when land disappears from sight. Even now, when the depth radar goes to ‘too bloody deep’ and there’s no land, I start thinking about being swallowed. Of things like the Marianas Trench with its crushing darkness. Of what exactly is and could be down there, and of the crushing fluidity of it all. Out on the sea, one is truly and absolutely subject to the elements. Water and air, colliding on a surface, and us, tiny people, on the frontier.

Water is in us and water is outside of us. Water that seeps through our skin and water that we drink to quench thirst. Water, life provider, water as the primordial ooze that we emerged from billions of years ago. Water as our great ancestral mother and water as the soothing coolness that fills our bodies from the inside. Water heals. Water is sacred. Water is one primitive drive that we all have both towards and away from, in longing and in fear. Water is gentle, water can kill in no time at all, and water can heal. From the salt that dissolves in it to the blood in our veins, to the healing springs that bubble forth from deep below the earths crust, to a handful of herbs sprinkled over a hot pot and left to infuse as the water ekes out the goodness, and then there it is, the beauty of the elements: they are as powerful as the hand that wields them.

And water can be medicine. Alone, its hydrotherapy: the use of hot and cold water to draw circulation to and from places. Got an injury? Jump in the shower and blast the area with water as hot as you can bear for a couple of minutes, and follow that with 30 seconds of cold. Repeat, a couple of times, and you’ll stimulate circulation to the area. I’d almost guarantee swifter recovery (especially if you use Busted Joint Ointment at the same time ;)).

There’s the cold sock treatment, and the cold wet rag on throat treatment*. There’s hot springs and cold springs and plunging oneself into an ice cold lake after a hot sauna. And then there’s my favourite: the bath.

My old apartment lacked a bath tub. I would curl up on my side onto the floor of the shower, blasting the hot water, pretending. It didn’t work. One of the reasons I moved in with Jam was that he had a bathtub. True story. In our bathroom, we have a few big buckets: Epsom salt (available in bulk here); Mustard salt bath. And then we have a shelf with bath scrubs– I like to take a big scoop, scrub myself down and then let the oils float to the top of the bath. My all-time favourite, however, is the herbal bath. With a big pot of water on the stove and a handful of herbs simmered until the water is dark and fragrant. There is magic in these baths, deep and powerful.

Skin is absorbent, and its our biggest organ. Like a giant waterproof lung creating a permeable barrier between our bodies and the world. Everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your blood stream. Absolutely everything. Sitting back into a hot kava bath, for example, and within minutes the effects of the kava have penetrated your skin. You feel relaxed, you feel slightly woo-woo, and you feel, well, good. I add meadowsweet, and do the two in combination. The kava relaxes and unwinds your mimd, while the meadowsweet eases aches and pains, and the result is a pretty darn relaxed, social and all around good-feeling night.

Conifer baths are a glorious thing- simmer fir, spruce or pine needles until they’ve made a strong brew, and add to your bath for a fragrant, anti-inflammatory and somewhat expectorant bath (really, if there’s grunge in your lungs, after bathing in the stuff you’ll hack it up). Lavender baths relax the liver, until you’re so comfortable with the present moment that you don’t remember what you were worrying about in the first place. Ginger and mustard baths warm and stimulate the circulation making your fingers tingle and your toes feel on fire which, in the middle of the winter, can be a beautiful thing. Chapparal baths smell like the desert, especially with a sprinkling of desert lavender in there. Its anti-fungal and kills anything it comes into contact with (jock itch, athlete’s foot, you name it), and I’m not sure how it’d smell to a non-desert lover but to me its glorious. Rosemary stimulates circulation and smells good to boot (though careful if you tend towards high blood pressure because it can give you a nasty headache), Bladderwrack is pain-relieving, slimy, good for the skin and chock full of iodine (and bathing in it is a lot more pleasurable than drinking it, in my opinion). Eucalyptus for your respiratory tract, Arnica for joint pain, linden because its sweet, relaxing, heart-opening and beautiful, and mugwort, for the aromatics, for the blood-moving, for the crazy dreams you’ll have afterwards and for the ache-easing of both body and heart.

Favourite combinations include kava+meadowsweet for either joint pain or stress relief or both (and if the pain is really bad a dropper of arnica tincture); Eucalptus+Rosemary for feeling like you’re full of grunge; Douglas fir + pine for inflamed and sluggish and desperately in need of some fresh air; Chapparal + Desert lavender for missing the desert so much my heart hurts; Bladderwrack for sore joints and wanting to play Siren for the night (it is, however, required to lie in the bath and sing); Ginger + mustard for the kind of cold that seeps to your bones and makes you think that you’re never going to be able to move properly again; Linden + lavender, for the kind of sweet relaxation that makes you smile dreamily all evening; and mugwort + motherwort for achy moon time when you just want to sink into the earth and close your eyes and bite the head off anybody who tries to disturb you.

Simmer the herbs in a big pot on the stove for at least 20 minutes. I do about 2 cups of herbs per 2 gallons of water; you can find your own amount as you might like more or less. Then strain through a sieve and add to the bath.

Candles and a dark room are, of course, a must.

Almost all the above are available from Mountain Rose Herbs; I recommend buying equal quantities of whatever you’re using, putting them all together with big labels in big jars in whatever blends you so desire.

And in April, for my Monthly Herbal Surprise Box I’ll be sending out a herbal bath infusion, so if you’d like to receive a special bath, you can sign up.

And if you’ve made it this far, tell me please, what are your favourite herbal baths?

*For flu: wet socks, covered with dry wool socks, to stimulate fever. For sore throat: cold wet rag over the throat until it warms: stimulates circulation to the area; works wonders.

lemon lavender polenta cake

Lemon Lavender polenta cake

(on livers, and letting go a bit)

I was standing in my friend Alysa’s back yard smelling the desert air– with snow falling up in the mountains, and rain clouds billowing their way across the valley, the smell was electric, and cold, and wet. She’d gone to work already. I was packing up, getting ready to head back to LA, and I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

This nostalgia, I’m used to it. I fall in love with places and then move away, leaving communities and friends and patches of earth that I’ve grown very fond of. I miss the streets of London and the hills of Scotland and the desert mountains and the Mediterranean sea and not just the places but everything that comes along with them. No matter how clean a break I try to make, there’s always a part of me that will miss wherever I was. Sometimes it feels like I’m even missing where I AM, because I know that it won’t stay there forever.

Alysa has a Meyer lemon tree. The boughs were so heavy with fruit that they were bent over with the weight, almost touching the ground. I picked a few. And then a few more. And before I knew it I had a bag full, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t just gathering fruit from a tree, but gathering a moment in time, and a specific place in that moment. I thought about how being connected to our food source isn’t just about knowing who our farmers are or what chemicals are sprayed, but on being connected to a place on the earth. And that each time you eat food from a specific place you’re taking that part of the earth into your body too- the raw minerals of it, but also the more subtle things about it like the wind and the light and the smells and the general mood of a place. I wondered about what happens to us on a subtle level if we eat fruit from Chile and meat from Wisconsin and Avocados from Mexico…

But immediately after that, it occurred to me that if you can unintentionally eat lots of different places, you can also intentionally put a place into your food, just as you can put your emotions or intentions into food. Maybe somehow eating food of a place means a part of you will be there always*. And then maybe, if there’s a place you have a special connection to, then eating of that place can connect you to it, regardless of where you are. I’ve had this happen, you know– a few weeks ago, when, I was gathering branches from one of my favourite trees, up in the Santa Rosa mountains. When I got home, I set about to process them, remove the needles, steep some in olive oil, others in honey, and by the time I was done, I was in such a dream-like state that I could have sworn half of me was back under the tree I’d harvested from, sitting against its trunk, feeling the cool breeze in my hair, smelling that mountain air.

Sometimes the weight of missing things is quite heavy. I see it primarily taking hold in the liver; it’s an inability to let go completely. Sometimes it’s as though it’s all of time that is being clung onto, and then sometimes it just feels as though it’s moments and places. Sometimes a liver will let go and relax a bit and allow things to move on, and then like a frightened cat, it will seize up again. ‘Liver, my friend, you’re not fooling anyone’, I say to myself, absent-mindedly. Time carries on. Movement carries on. Change, it happens. As does sadness, and missing things, and death, and age. But liver reacts to emotions, not to rational thinking. A tense liver can’t perform its functions properly- to filter things and break things down and make sure everything is running smoothly. A tense liver gives you headaches. A tense liver isn’t really something to strive for.

I arrived home in the late afternoon. The light had started to go orange again, and as I flung open the doors and windows to let in all that light, the afternoon breeze picked up and I was struck in the head by a cloud of the scent of lavender.

It’s one of the first plants I put in when I move places. Because, as far as I’m concerned, having a lavender plant by the front door is excellent luck. Having a sage plant right next to the lavender makes for protection, good health and delicious tea. But that afternoon, the lavender was licking my senses. And I smiled; nobody can be a nostalgic grouch when there’s lavender on the table. This, my friends, is a little known fact of kitchen witchery. Because lavender tickles things. Not just things, but livers. Your liver. My liver. It’s like rosemary’s playful younger cousin- where rosemary is a little old Italian lady who smacks you on the bottom with her broom, lavender has purple hair and colourful skirts and a sparkle in her eye and just when you think you’re going to explode a blood vessel because you’re holding onto things too tightly, she reaches out and tickles you, and you start to forget why you were holding on to it all in the first place. It’s not the weight of the world in worry and sadness- there are different herbs for that. No, it’s the weight of the world in tension. It’s a clenching on the right side of the body. It’s fear of loss of control, and nerves that are tightly wound because of it. Sound familiar? Maybe you need a tickle too…

What happened next was a bit magical. I picked a few lavender sprigs, and they found their way into the drizzly sauce of the lemon cake entirely (ok maybe not entirely) of their own accord. Lemon juice and lavender bubbling away in a saucepan, while a lemony polenta cake cooks in the oven. It smells of the past, of the Southwest, and of distant hills somewhere in the future. It confounds your senses, and tickles your smile reflex, and although you’re supposed to wait for it to cool to eat it, if you can manage such a thing then you’re stronger than me, and stronger than Jam, because we devoured a quarter of it standing up, at the stove, before dinner. And what occurred to me, as I was standing up at the stove eating things from one of my favourite places and from the spot right outside my front door, was that clutching on to everything for dear life might be missing the point entirely. Maybe it isn’t possible or preferable to have a clean break.Maybe the whole point isn’t to not miss places, but to experience them with every fiber of your being, and then when (if) you move on it will be without regrets. Maybe the pain doesn’t come from being away, but from trying to hold on to what is no longer there. From the tension created by trying to be everywhere at once instead of exactly where you are, wherever that might be. And with that in mind, with the nuances of my garden hanging out with the lemons from the desert, I understood: you can be somewhere and let go at the same time. Love it without holding onto it. And each time you do, you get just a little bit bigger. Maybe even a little bit wiser. And that, to me, right now, is what it’s all about.

Lemon-lavender polenta cake

(not adapted at all from Nigella Lawson’s recipe except for the addition of an extra lemon and the lavender)

200g soft unsalted butter

200g sugar

200g almond flour

100g fine corn flour (masa)

1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2  tsp salt

3 eggs

zest of 3 meyer lemons

For the drizzle:

juice of 3 lemons

125g sugar

2 tsp chopped fresh lavender (or 3 tsp dried lavender)

 

Preheat the oven to 350.  Mix together the flours, salt and baking powder. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon zest. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, mixing thoroughly, then one egg. Repeat until all the flour and eggs are gone, then scrape the batter into a 9′ pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes. It might not look entirely set in the centre, but the edges will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.

In a pan on the stovetop, bring the lemon juice, lavender and sugar gently to a boil. Remove from heat immediately. Prick tiny little holes over the top of the cake with the point of a sharp knife, and drizzle the syrup over the cake (strain it first if you don’t want lavender bits everywhere). Try to allow it to cool before eating….

 

*Which reminds me of the stories you hear about the land of faerie: never, ever eat anything while you’re there, or you’ll never be able to leave.

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Cornmeal muffins

A vendor handed me a big bunch of lavender at the Farmers Market on Wednesday. Since I was already so close to Malibu, I decided to head up into a favourite canyon and look for some elderberries. Last year I missed them completely- came home dejected and empty-handed, with sunstroke and eventually had to drive up into the Sierras to find some. This year I went on a whim and it happened to be just the right time, as they were everywhere, dripping from their branches like little black raindrops*. The sun was getting low, and the light was getting orangey, and the ocean breeze was blowing through the little canyon carrying the scent of alder and bush mallow, and it was all a bit perfect.

When I got back to the car, the scent of the lavender in the trunk had filled the whole car. It gets into your head, that smell, sticks in the air and onto your clothes, and all I could think about was how I wanted to infuse it in honey and drizzle it on absolutely everything. And that’s what I did when I got home- I made a big batch of lavender honey. Another batch of lavender tincture (one of my favourite things for liver-tension and headaches!), and then used what was left to make cornmeal muffins, because the honey wouldn’t be ready for a while and I really did want to eat it.

These muffins are ridiculously easy. I separated the batter before adding the flavours, and made half with elderberries, and half with lavender and lemon. The recipe is the same for each kind, you just mix the ingredients in at the end.



Elderberry cornmeal muffins/ Lemon-lavender cornmeal muffins

2 tb butter, at room temp
3/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour (I used an all purpose gluten free flour mix)
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, or soured raw milk

2 cups elderberries (fresh or frozen)

or

1/2 cup chopped lavender flowers and
rind of 3 lemons plus the juice of two

 

A few hours before cooking, put the cornmeal and milk in a bowl. It’ll be a thick mixture, but you just want to hydrate the cornmeal a bit so that it’s not so crunchy when you cook it.

In the bowl of a mixer (or by hand) beat the butter and honey until fluffy and light. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the buttermilk-cornmeal mixture. Once incorporated fully, add the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in 2 batches.

Add the dry ingredients- or do what I did and separate the batter, mixing in half the quantity to each.

Pour into a greased muffin pan and bake for about 30 minutes, until a knife inserted comes out clean.

Serve hot out the oven, sliced in half with a big dab of butter on top.


*Elderberries, by the way, make me want to talk in an Olde English accent. So I do, often to myself, while wandering around gathering them. When I run into people I get funny looks, especially if I’m mid-sentence. Sometimes I do it while I’m driving and forget that the window is open. More funny looks. But if you haven’t tried it, it’s really fun. I highly recommend hunching over and pretending you’re a little old witchy lady while you do it. Throw in a ‘boneset’ too, because it makes you sound legit.

 

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Lavender-honey ice cream

I kinda have a thing for lavender.

It started when I was at university in Santa Barbara. I was a junk-food vegan. That is, a person who is vegan who eats nothing but vegan junk foods– vegan cookies, vegan muffins, vegan pasta dishes– and assumes that they’re healthy because of the vegan label. On one of my health-food store trips, I discovered these vegan lavender shortbread cookies, and I was hook line and sinkered. I mean really, I’d eat about a box of them every two days. Something about that lavender flavour infused with a bit of sweetness just makes me crazily happy. It still does– I’m a sucker for anything with lavender.

Yesterday morning, as I was wandering around the garden in pre-dawn bliss (being up at that time of night/morning when the rest of the world is asleep makes me really happy… probably because it’s the only time it’s remotely quiet in Los Angeles) I walked through this cloud of lavender and was so inspired that I picked all of the flowers and ran inside to make ice cream. I don’t know how my poor neighbours tolerate all of my crashing and clanging first thing in the morning :).

Lavender-honey ice cream

2 cups cream

2 cups milk

1 cup lavender flowers

1/3 cup honey

5 egg yolks

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

a pretty sea salt, for garnish

Place the lavender flowers in a saucepan, and cover with cream. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and then remove from heat and allow the lavender to infuse for an hour. Don’t leave it for any longer than that or it will go bitter. Bring cream back up to a simmer, then strain out the lavender flowers.

Whisk egg yolks together in a bowl. Ladle in a few scoops of the lavender-infused cream, while whisking the egg yolks, then pour the whole mixture back into the saucepan. Add the honey, salt, and vanilla. Cook on low-medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to a custard– about 10 minutes usually.

Remove from the heat. Pour in the milk and incorporate it fully.

Taste the mixture– since lavender flowers vary in strength and flavour, yours might need more milk or honey (if it does, add them a tablespoon at a time until it tastes right).

Put in a bowl and refrigerate until fully cold (I actually put mine in the freezer because I’m always in a hurry to make it. Well, to eat it.).

Once fully cold, and I mean REALLY cold, pour into ice cream maker and freeze according to instructions.

Serve with a sprig of lavender on top, and a sprinkling of black sea salt. The salt really brings out the flavour.