Category Archives: Ingredients

Indigo or no indigo?

Marieke Hendriksen

Fermenting indigo at Ock Pop Tock, Laos. January 2018.

When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.

The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.

Wash the freshly picked leaves…

While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.

…give them a good pounding to create a dye.

Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.

The end result: a beautiful scarf

As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.

'Valerian'. Credit: Wellcome Collection:
‘Valerian’. Credit: Wellcome Collection:

Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’.[1] This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.

But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.

Remedies for 'Mygreyn' in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:
Remedies for ‘Mygreyn’ in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:

Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.

[1] Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6

Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.

There and Back Again: The Trans-Atlantic Tomato

Kelly Sharp

Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.
Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Cold winter nights have me craving warm and filling meals and nothing pairs with a slice of my husband’s homemade bread like a bowl (or two!) of tomato soup. Used in dishes, sauces, salads, drinks, and eaten raw, thousands of cultivars of the tomato are grown worldwide to meet modern consumption demands. However, this culinary vegetable was not originally warmly received by Anglo-Americans, who didn’t think it was easily adapted to their palates.[i]

Though a “New World” cultivar, the tomato had quite a journey over time and space before becoming a consistent cultivar of antebellum American Southern cuisine. The cultivated tomato originated in Central America and was a late addition to the food supply of Mesoamericans, for no pre-Columbian archeological evidence of its cultivation has been uncovered. It first appears in written record in 1519, mentioned in Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés’s diary of his infamous conquest of Mexico. Although cultivated in Continental Europe since the 1540s, fundamentally altering foodways of the Spanish and Italians, Englishmen remained wary of the tomato for over two hundred years, growing them only for curiosity and for the beauty of the fruit. The Central American fruit’s first appearance in a published English recipe was under the name love apple and used to dress haddock “after the Spanish Way” by Hannah Glasse in the 1758 supplement to The Art of Cookery.[ii] By the 1780s, other tomato recipes appeared in British cookery manuscripts and the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica announced the tomato was “in daily use; being either boiled in soups or broths, or served up boiled as garnishes to flesh-meats.”[iii]

James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Despite their late bloom in English cuisine, white colonists rather commonly ate tomatoes in Jamaica and probably throughout the Caribbean. In the early eighteenth century, English naturalist Henry Barham confessed that he had eaten five or six raw tomatoes at a time in Jamaica, “full of pulpy juice, and of small seeds, which you swallow with the pulp, and have something of a gravy taste.”[iv] The first known reference of the tomato in the mainland British North American colonies was by English herbalist William Salmon on his 1710 expedition of Carolina.[v] Linguistic evidence suggests the tomato was likely introduced to the American South from the Caribbean. Late seventeenth-century English, French, and German manuscripts all refer to the fruit as the love apple. and in fact the word tomato did not receive linguistic prominence in England until the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast, almost all eighteenth-century Southern references used some variation of the Spanish- and Portuguese-origin-word for tomato.[vi] Part of indigenous gardens throughout the Caribbean, tomatoes were slowly adopted into the mélange of colonial cooking.

Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society
Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society

Contrary to prominent Southern food historian Sam Hillard’s claims in his Hog Meat and Hoe Cake that the “tomato was little used as a vegetable in antebellum times,” tomato usage is well-documented in the early nineteenth-century American South.[vii] Among recipe manuscripts of antebellum Charlestonians, tomato cookery paralleled that of English cookery–tomatoes were stewed with other ingredients such as fish, shrimp, beef, or egg dishes. Tomatoes also stood alone–served fried, stewed, baked, or chopped. The most frequently reoccurring recipes for tomatoes, however, called for them to be preserved. For example, the receipt book of Mary Motte Alston Pringle includes three recipes for preserving tomatoes–two for pickling and one for canning–as well as a recipe for tomato catsup. In her recipe “to Preserve Tomatoes,” Pringle advocates scalding ripe tomatoes in hot water to easily remove the skins, boiling them in sugar or salt, then drying inch-thick cakes in the sun before packing the slices away in bags to hang in a dry place. This preparation suggests a later use for application in a dish calling for stewed tomatoes such as “Knuckled Veal” or “Baked Shrimp and Tomatoes.”[viii] Such recipes suggest the considerable effort required to transcend seasonality because of the centrality of tomatoes to dishes consumed in the antebellum South; women like Mary Motte Alston Pringle found the tomato a valuable component to their cuisine patterns and therefore practiced several methods to ensure its availability out of season.

If this article has got you hankering for tomatoes in your next meal, an antebellum Southerner would advise you get a move on! In her recipe book, The Carolina Housewife 1847), Sarah Rutledge notes “the art of cooking tomatoes lies mostly in cooking them enough. In whatever way prepared, they should be put on some hours before dinner.”[ix] To this twenty-first century academic, that means simmering on low in the crockpot! For my favorite out-of-season tomato soup recipe, check out this slow cooker tomato basil soup.


[i] Though botanically a fruit, the tomato is legally classified, for tax purposes, as a vegetable. See the court decision of Nix V. Hedden (Supreme Court, 1893).

[ii] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, UK: Printed for the Author, 1758), 312.

[iii] Encylopedia Britannica (Edinburgh: A. Bell & C. Macfarquhar, 1797), vol. 17, 597-598.

[iv] Henry Barham, Hortus Americanus: containing an account of the trees, shrubs, and other vegetable productions of South-America and the West India Islands, and particularly of the island of Jamaica (written 1711) (Kingston, Jamaica: Alexander Aikman, 1794), 20.

[v] William Salmon, Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (London, UK: I. Dawkes, 1710), 1356.

[vi] Andrew Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1994), 200.

[vii] Sam Hilliard, Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1972), 173.

[viii] Alston-Pringle-Frost papers, 1693-1990 (bulk 1780-1958). (1285.00) South Carolina Historical Society.

[ix] Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife or, House and Home: By a Lady of Charleston (Charleston, SC: W.R. Babcock & Co., 1847), 102.

Kelly K. Sharp is a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of California, Davis. A native of Encinitas, California, Kelly earned her BA in History at Willamette University and volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker with Community Housing Works in 2012-2013. Her dissertation, entitled “Farmers’ Plots to Backlot Stewpots: The Culinary Creolism of Urban Antebellum Charleston,” is a culinary history of race-making in the urban center of the South.

Kelly has experience teaching survey courses in United States history, women and gender history, and material studies at University of California, Davis. She has been active in public history, including editorial and curatorial work for the Blackville Historical Center and at the University of California, Davis, and mentorship initiatives within the Coordinating Council of Women Historians.

Outside of her academic work, she enjoys hiking, traveling, reading, and eating.

Water to Drink: Fit Only for Invalids and Chickens?

By David Gentilcore 

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730) © Bibliothèque nationale de France

When the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste Labat was captured by the Spanish in the 1690s, and offered water to drink aboard ship, he informed the chaplain that ‘only invalids and chickens drink water in my country’ (Labat 1722). Perhaps this comes as no surprise. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, historians generally assume, this was because the water was risky and potentially unhealthy, perhaps even fatal. But that is to project our own modern conception of water – for example, as a disease-carrying agent – into the pre-modern past. Labat’s aversion to water as a beverage, as expressed in this anecdote (and as the teller of the stories he always gets the best lines!), was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture. As a drink of the lower classes (and animals), water was often described in unflattering terms, especially when compared to what was considered the beverage par excellence – wine (Squatriti 1998). And indeed, in his account, wine is exactly what Labat goes on to request.

However, if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Not only does Labat then proceed, very laboriously, to temper his wine with water, as was the usual way of drinking wine in much of pre-modern Europe; his very successful published mixtures of travelogue, memoir and natural history positively abound with references to water. Every place he visits, Labat describes the nature of the fresh-water supply, and the varied techniques used to harvest, store and access it. In Labat’s eyes a town without its own reliable supply, like Cadiz, is one that would not be able to survive a siege. He is impressed by the technology of water, in particular aqueducts, but even more by water as display. This is evident in his detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of the ornamental fountains present in many Italian towns and cities. And he gets so carried away by his instructions on how to construct a rainwater cistern, the fruit of his own experience overseeing the establishment of a Dominican monastery in the French Antilles, that he repeats them in at least two separate works (Labat 1728; Labat 1730).


The Tivoli waterfall, as Père Labat might have seen it (not to be confused with Niagara Falls).

Even limiting ourselves to his account of Spain and Italy (Labat 1730: in eight four-hundred-page volumes!), Labat’s knowledge and curiosity regarding water and its uses is amply evident. How the clean, clear and pure water of Tivoli’s waterfall, which he compares to Niagara Falls no less, becomes full of silt and mud when it rains, making it unhealthy, or how the bouillantes (boiling) waters of a spring on the outskirts of Viterbo remind him of the spring of that name in Guadeloupe (French Antilles). Siena’s ‘magnificent’ fountain in the main square (the Fonte Gaia) provides a ‘prodigious quantity of very good water’, whilst the numerous fountains of Rome are both delightful and necessary, since the water from the River Tiber ‘is good for nothing’. He notes the high number of itinerant water-sellers in Naples, despite the public fountains on every street, and how in Spain they are registered and taxed, like all other shopkeepers and pedlars. He praises the ‘light’ waters of Bologna and the ‘admirable’ waters of Naples, in tune with the eighteenth-century Hippocratic revival of the importance of ‘airs, waters and places’ in the pursuit of health. He describes various healing springs and the different diseases they are good for, whilst noting that local doctors were rarely much in favour, since ‘nothing disconcerts doctors more than natural remedies’. He remarks on the priest so afraid of water that he wouldn’t even wash his hands, or the doctor who quickly realised that the best remedy for disease was fresh water to drink, rest, a change of air and, most of all, plenty of patience.

We know from a wide range of other sources that communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works, like aqueducts, conduits and fountains, to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in larger towns. If I gave drinking water rather short shrift in my recent study of food, diet and health (Gentilcore 2016), it at least means that I can now devote a research project entirely to the ‘water cultures’ of early modern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is already evident from work in progress that doctors went from being circumspect in their advice regarding drinking water, during the Renaissance, to great enthusiasts for table water as a ‘universal cure’, effective both in preventing and treating disease, during the eighteenth century.

Whatever his own personal drinking preferences might have been, the widely travelled Père Labat turns out to be a connoisseur of waters. Although his enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him – the water-sellers of Naples were actually a necessity in a city perennially short of fresh water – Labat provides a generally reliable and entertaining introduction to the importance of water and its provision throughout the early modern world.

David Gentilcore is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy. He is the author of seven books and his most recent monograph is Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (Bloomsbury, 2015). Our blog readers interested in the history of food might also be interested in David’s books on the potato and the tomato in Italy.


Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage aux Isles de l’Amérique (Paris: Pierre-François Giffart, 1722), 6 vols. A heavily abridged translation by John Eaden was published as The memoirs of Père Labat, 1693-1705 (London: Frank Cass, 1970 [first ed. 1931])

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris: Guillaume Cavelier: 1728), 5 vols.

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730), 8 vols.

Paolo Squatriti, Water and society in early medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

David Gentilcore, Food and health in early modern Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)