Thursday 7 August 2014

Sweet smells of summer: Meadowsweet tea

I try to explain to new students that arrive here that Ireland is beautiful, like no other country around. It's unique in the smell of its pubs, the variety of its landscapes and the successive changes in its weather. I say that when the sun comes out, there is no place more beautiful, no nation more friendly. It sounds like a cliche but we are such a happy bunch when the sun comes out to play. They always say how green it is in an awestruck moment of anticipated nostalgia about our little green island. It takes a while for the connection between lush green hedgerows, fields, valleys and forests with multitudes of fat, juicy rain drops to be made. All I need is one day of pouring rain to demonstrate this to them. Once the connection is made, it is embedded in their minds. Then I can tell them about all the entertaining places they can visit until the rain stops again.

Last week, despite every effort to starve my cold of sugar and alcohol and my cold turned into a chest infection, antibiotics and four days of no work and bed rest. This, in my mind, is the worst combination imaginable since I love to be active. The glorification of busy needs to be abolished but being busy doing things you love (which, luckily for me, includes work) is something I really endorse. Boredom, over-thinking and immense apathy about life in general all creeped in one by one. After four days in bed on my own in Dublin, I decided it was time to go home home. That's what I call my parent's place in the midlands the original of the species. Not a little cottage in the country, as my students imagine but with a garden, dogs, my own room and five minutes from the lake and fields, pretty close.

Foraging is about working the seasons and recognizing the free food sources in nature that are bountiful if only you know how, where and when to look. July is one my favorite times of the year. July is the month of Meadowsweet. Meadowsweet is this sweet smelly, pollen-laden marsh flower that arrives just as the wild water-lillies in boggy areas die off. It is a perennial, meaning it regrows every year. In my mind, it is magic. It was a sacred medicinal plant of the Druids. The roots, leaves and flowers can all be used. Its scent is a heady, sweet, almond-like pollen laden perfume from time forgotten. Not only does it sweeten jams, cordials, beers and wines, it is a medicinal plant that cures so many ailments. Drinking Meadowsweet tea is divinity in a cup.

I was late in collecting Meadowsweet this year. July took me by surprise. When I went home last weekend, I stayed in bed for two days recuperating. All the while, I thought about my Meadowsweet, down in the boggy fields by the lake. Just after I arrived on Friday, clouds descended and it rained for 48 hours straight. I sat on the couch watching the windows fog up and listening to the squalls of wind and rain lash at the windowpanes. I worried about the Meadowsweet.

Monday morning was the first day in a week I felt better. I had energy and a desire to get down to the lakeside. Fields of the plant had taunted me on the way down on the train. Nature was kind this year. There was still plenty of it left. The air turned balmy and sticky with humidity by early morning and that fragrant, mead perfume filled the air and I started foraging, the dogs whizzing past, in and out of the water and up and down ditches. That one hour of foraging was a complete escape from stress, worry, over-thinking busyness. It was complete calm and all the while I took my time and collected the Meadowsweet's fluffy lemon-cream flower heads. I felt so lucky to have the knowledge of the plant, the time to forage and the opportunity to do it all so close to home.

So much of food in the media is about local, seasonal, organic, healthy, sustainable food. Foraging is one way to achieve this while learning about your environment around you at the same time and it's free. I've still seen plenty of it in fields from here to the midlands and even through other parts of the country on the way to Lahinch in Clare. Go pick some, make foraging a habit, start collecting that free food.

Things to remember when foraging Meadowsweet:
- Don't pick everything you see-be selective and save some for the bees and other insects.
- Wait for a dry day when you can be certain the flowers are dry. The scent and pollen are diminished in rain
- Only take a few flower heads from each plant to allow it mature naturally
- It's not necessary to take up the whole plant; use a scissors and snip off what you need
- Use  a canvas bag, not a plastic one and empty it as soon as you get home

Once you've harvested the flowers, spread them on a dry newspaper in a dry area (I usually put mine on my desk in my room or in the airing cupboard on its own) for 3-4 days until you are sure it is completely dry. Then place in a brown paper bag for another week or so until completely dry. You can then pull the flowers away from any stalks and place them into a jar.

I usually keep my Meadowsweet to add to tea mixes that I already have (chamomile, mint and lemon balm are great) or simply pour boiling water into a cup with a teaspoon full in the middle of winter when I miss summer and want a yellow sunshine cup of sweet smelling golden tea.

Enjoy the rest of summer and cherish those rays of warmth on your shoulders but in the meantime, prepare for those colder, wetter days by getting out there and collecting the Meadowsweet before it's all gone. You won't regret it when you get to taste and smell summer in November.

If you want to learn more about this beautiful plant, have a look herehere and here.

Dedicated to the amazing Bronwyn Lowe, whose love of Meadowsweet knows no bounds and who helped me reconnect with plants again x

1 comment:

  1. Grace, I had no idea you could drink it! The thoughts of drinking a cup of that in winter...! Meadowsweet and whin are the smells of home to me.
    Also, glorification of busyness - word... It's in our breeding for a lot of us, need reminding to be still.