This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
The epithet "Henricus," which some persons suppose to be associated with Harry the Eighth, and his varicose legs, is more likely derived from "heinrich," an elf, or goblin, as indicating certain reputed magical virtues in the plant. This has a somewhat mealy appearance, and produces seeds useful for expelling round worms.
Familiar both in our gardens, and about our hedgerows, is the herb Tansy (tanacetum vulgare), conspicuous by heads of flat brilliant yellow flowers. Its leaves have a smell of camphor, and possess a bitter, aromatic taste; whilst young they were used commonly in times past, and they are still employed, when shredded, for flavouring cakes, puddings, and omelettes. This herb contains a resin, with mucilage, sugar, a fixed oil, tannin, a colouring matter, malic, or tanacetic acid, and water. Meat rubbed with the bitter Tansy will be protected from visitation by carrion flies. In Scotland, the dried flowers are given for gout: from half to one teaspoonful for a dose two or three times in the day; or an infusion is made therefrom to be drunk as tea. This has kept inveterate gout at bay for years. With us the plant has a rural reputation for correcting irregularities of the female functional health. The name Tansy is probably derived from the Greek word athanasia, which signifies immortality; either "quia non cito flos inflorescit," 'because it lasts so long in flower, or "quia ejus succus vel oleum extractum cadavera a putredine conservat," because it is of such service for preserving dead bodies from corruption.
It was formerly an English custom at Easter for Archbishops even, for bishops, and the clergy of some churches, to play at hand-ball with men of their congregations, when a Tansy cake was given as a reward to the victors, this being a confection with which the bitter herb Tansy was mixed. Some such a corrective was thought to be of opportune benefit, after having lived much on fish throughout Lent. The Tansy cake was made from young leaves of the herb mixed with eggs.
"This balsamic plant," said Boerhaave, "will supply the place of nutmegs, and cinnamon." Allied thereto is another old English herb, now almost obsolete, except in Lincolnshire, to wit "Costmary," known there locally as "mace." It is the "Tanacetum balsamita," or "alecoast," (so named because "put into ale to steepe"). "The conserve," says Gerarde, "made with leaves of costmaria and sugar doth warme, and dry the braine, and openeth the stoppings of the same; stoppeth all catarrhes, rheumes, and distillations, taken in the quantitie of a beane. The leaves of costmarie boyled in wine and drunken, cure the griping paine of the belly, the guts, and bowels, and cureth the bloudy flix." The whole plant is of a pleasant smell, savour, or taste. Some of the villages near the city of Lincoln, for example Burton, and its neighbouring hamlets, are singular in retaining for kitchen use, or for curative purposes, certain old English herbs, wellnigh forgotten elsewhere in the land, such as this excellent Costmary, Bergamot, and the Goosefoot Spinach, Good King Henry.
In Continental cookery the use of a fragrant kitchen-herb, the Tarragon, not so common in England, is advised "to temper the coldness of other herbs in salads, like as the Rocket doth. Neither do we know what other use this herb hath." But Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is gaining favour with ourselves, especially for making an aromatic vinegar therewith. Furthermore, fresh Tarragon possesses an essential volatile oil, which becomes lost in the dried herb. John Evelyn has said of the plant, " ' Tis highly cordial, and friendly to the head, heart, and liver'.
'French cooks usually mix their table mustard with the vinegar of this herb, which is sexually stimulating; the leaves make an excellent pickle. The volatile essential oil of Tarragon is chemically identical with that of Anise, and it is found to be stimulating to the generative functions, probably by virtue of its finely-elaborated camphor. For making Tarragon vinegar: Fill a wide-mouthed bottle with Tarragon-leaves fresh gathered, i.e., between Midsummer and Michaelmas, (plucking these on a dry day, just before the herb flowers). Pick the leaves off the stalks, and dry them a little before the fire; cover them with the best vinegar; let them steep for fourteen days, then strain through a flannel jelly-bag till fine; put it into half-pint bottles, and cork. Various other delicate vinegars for the table are much appreciated abroad, such as printemps, syringa, menthe, etc., the foreign cook being most fastidious as to the vinegar which he (or she) uses. The best white wine, or red wine vinegar, alone gives satisfaction, and this the cook personally flavours by infusing in it various herbs, or plants, either separately, or in combination. A good vinegar with us is made from the fruit acids of apples, or grapes; ordinarily it is got from sour beer, as malt vinegar.
The test advised by the College of Physicians for insuring the integrity of British vinegar, is a solution of one part of chloride of barium to eight parts of water. Ten drops of this should serve to precipitate all the sulphuric acid permissible in an ounce of lawful vinegar. If, after this precipitate has settled down, the test solution still continues to form a cloud, such sample of vinegar ought not to be used in the preparation of food.
The French have a proverb, "On prend plus de mouches avec une cuillerde de mid qu'avec un tonneau de vinaigre; (on reussit mieux far la douceur, que far la hauteur, et la fierte)"- "Gentleness goes further than harshness, or severity".
A fragrant and exhilarating tea may be made from the leaves and blossoms of the Sweet Woodruff, the same proving useful for correcting sluggishness of the liver. This (the Asperula odorata) is a favourite little plant which grows commonly in our woods, and gardens, possessing a pleasant odour, which, like the good deeds of the worthiest persons, delights by its fragrance most after death. The herb is of the Rubiaceous order, and derives its botanical adjunct from the Latin word asper, rough, in allusion to the rough leaves owned by its species. It may be easily recognized by the small, white flowers set on slender stalks, with narrow leaves growing around the stems in successive whorls. The name Woodruffe has been whimsically spelt Woodderowffe, thus:-
Double U, Double 0, Double D, E, R, 0, Double U, Double F, E.
Its terminal syllable rofe signifies a diminutive wheel, or rowel, like that of an ancient spur; and therefore the plant is known also as Wood-rowel. When freshly gathered it has but little smell, but on being dried it exhales a charming, and enduring aroma, like the sweet scent of meadow grass, or of peach blossoms. This agreeable fragrance is due to a chemical principle, "coumarin," whilst the herb further contains citric, malic, and rubichloric acids, together with some tannic acid. The small verticillate leaves of this Woodruff serve to remind us of good Queen Bess, and the high, starched, old-fashioned ruff which she used to wear, as shown in her portraits.
As a result of his experiments on animals, Dr. Maignan concludes that Absinthe (concocted from Wormwood) determines tremblings, dulness of thought, and epileptiform convulsions, if it be taken habitually, or bo any excess; and these symptoms will not be produced by alcohol alone. Hence it is to be inferred that Absinthe contains really a narcotic poison, which should prevent its being employed as a dietetic liqueur, or as an indulgence, with any freedom. The French have been drinking their "Amers" for many years, and an infernal concoction it is. "This habit," said Daudet, "was acquired by the French soldiers in Algeria, and Tunis, during the wars there, and was brought back by them to their own country; before which wars the French were a very sober people." Dr. Laborde attributes the special dangers of drinking Absinthe to the various essences which are added to the alcohol (of 70 per cent strength), such as essence of absinthe, of china anise, and of benjamin; fourteen distinct poisons entering into the composition of the superior Absinthe liqueur which is retailed at the best cafes. "Absinthe has not become common so far with the people in England, but it will do so before long if the growing evil be not promptly checked; the importation of Absinthe into this country should be stopped before such a prohibition becomes too late".
Sixty or seventy years ago the Mugwort of our hedgerows, and waste grounds, which is closely allied to Wormwood, (but lacking the volatile essential oil thereof), had its dried leaves substituted for tea of foreign growth by the working classes in Cornwall. Tea itself then cost seven shillings a pound, and was therefore afforded by them only for use on very special occasions, one being when there was an increase in the family. Sometimes a burnt crust of cake was got as a substitute for tea, either from the Squire's Hall, or the Vicarage, or a farmhouse, and an infusion called tea was brewed from this; or a charred crust of wheaten bread, when it could be had, sufficed for a day or two to concoct the brew. The flesh of geese is declared to be more savoury when stuffed with Mugwort (which contains "absinthin," and is scentless). The Mermaid of the Clyde is said to have exclaimed when she beheld the funeral of a young maiden who had died from consumption, and decline: -
"If they wad drink Nettles in March, And eat Muggins (Mugwort) in May, Sae mony braw young maidens Wad na' be gang to clay".