Landscapes and weeds take centre stage in Honey from a Weed, the work of one of my favourite authors Patience Gray. This is much more than a cookery book as it records the way of life in the landscapes of the Mediterranean during the 1960s and 1970s. It gives details of how those landscapes provided plants for food and medicine that had not changed for centuries–if not millennia!
Gray embarked on a Mediterranean odyssey that took her to Carrara, Catalonia, the Greek island of Naxos and, finally, to southern Italy. She immersed herself in the landscapes she travelled as she moved from place to place noting that at that time that she “was reading the landscape and its flora with as much attention as one gives to an absorbing book”.
Her comments on Edwardian Englishmen laughing at French governesses picking wild chervil, dandelions and sorrel in Spring for salads, and for cutting nettle heads for soup is a fascinating insight into how knowledge such as this passed through generations. The Englishmen who found the governesses’ practice strange and were eating rhubarb, were themselves continuing a long tradition of purging.
Gray also notes that “Everyone in Apollona (on Naxos) but more especially women and children, wandered about in February and March before Spring declared itself, in search of weeds”. While in the Carrara she was shown how to collect a wide range of edible plants from a vineyard. Her guide, a little girl, had an amazing, yet simple weed vocabulary, which was “culled from the vineyard where her father worked”: as she picked her plants and stashed them away to take home she simply said “this is for cooking” or “this is for salad”.
Around seven centuries earlier an Anglo-Norman writer in England was in the process of translating a Latin work, for those who had no Latin, and in doing so he also recorded the virtues of plants to sustain life and heal. In reading his landscape the compiler of this thirteenth-century recipe and remedy collection known as the Physique rimee (MS Cambridge Trinity College O.1.20) notes that herbs and plants grew ‘everywhere’.
Like the small girl in Tuscany, he didn’t differentiate between what was good to eat and what was medicinal: all came under the portmanteau term of ‘erbes’. For him these plants were to be found flourishing throughout the landscape for all to collect and use: women, children and men. “Herbes ont mult tresgrant virtue, De Bois, de pré, et de palu”; they were found in “the woods, the meadows, and in the marshes”. He points out that the seeds, flowers, leaves and roots were all invaluable and even goes as far as to remind his readers, or perhaps listeners, that “you might know of these plants, their leaves, their seeds and their flowers” but not know (my emphasis) of their qualities, their virtues or that they are “a gift which is freely given”.
Encouraging his audience he asks them “Why not benefit from these when it is so expensive to go and buy them? Pointing out also that, should his reader not have need of them, they should share this knowledge with their good friends or, for that matter, anyone else.
The variety of plants and herbs cited throughout the manuscript is vast and the remedies can only be described as eclectic. For giddiness, dizziness, or vertigo he suggests a simple kitchen remedy to wash the sufferer’s head containing rue and common ivy, oil and vinegar mixed together. There are numerous recipes to staunch blood where pretty purple periwinkle, wood betony, or yellow cinquefoil, are cited.
There is also a recipe to increase lactation that calls for fennel and verveine, lettuce (lactuca–wild lettuce), pungent rue (probably goat’s rue) and the pretty flower of white hawthorn: “Si ele use c’est beivre et fait, Mult graunt plenté avra de lait”. (If she takes the drink that is made, she will have great quantities of milk). In Tuscany Gray notes that wild forms of lettuce Eruca were so valued that it was also grown in gardens, along with borage (with its fresh cucumber taste), peppery rocket, and pimpernel.
The advice for using milky-sap producing lettuce for lactation is also found in a number of herbals such as the well known late thirteenth-century manuscript MS British Library, Egerton 747 and copies of the widely disseminated herbal known as Macer floribus. The earliest known verse vernacular copy dates to the second half of the thirteenth-century and is notable for its comment that no physician “should scorn the plants brought by the local ‘wise woman’ in good faith. For her faith and the patient’s hope are powerful factors in the healing process”.(1)
The edible contents of the foragers’ baskets on Naxos and in Tuscany, as noted by Patience Gray as she walked the ancient landscapes, are the same as many of those that appear in the Physique rime: the knowledge of their uses crossing time and geographical boundaries. All that it took was a simple wash under the nearest fountain followed by boiling in water, then the water was drained off and the harvested weeds eaten with olive oil and wine vinegar–a tradition and a dish that defies both time and place.
(1) Tony Hunt, An Old French Herbal (2008), p. 13.