Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


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Sandalwood, good for just about everything!

Life, is chaotic as usual! I have a lot of sewing projects (a lot) along with a lot (seriously too many) of migraines (so many it took way too long to finish this post). Time to sit and write feels so precious these days, and this post took way longer than I wanted to get out. But, without my writing I don’t feel whole – so I make time! (  >_<)9

The Hubs is growing a beard, seems to be all the rage these days with the male of our species in my age group. He went to get a shave and a haircut at a local place and they put some oil on his beard for conditioning it. He loved it, and I thought it smelled really great! Like cut wood and lovely (he would probably disapprove of that term but who cares 😉 ). So we looked up the ingredients, because I wanted to make it for him – like I love to do, and of course one of the ingredients was sandalwood – the others were pine and cedar wood with some hair friendly carrier oils, (remember rosemary is good for head hair, it is light and won’t weigh it down). Sandalwood had popped up in my saffron post, and I was growing more curious about it after reading some snippets here and there about it. So the dive into research began!

History and Uses of Sandalwood

Wow.Who knew that sandalwood was so cool? Well most of ancient India that is for sure! I love the stories surrounding the Gods and Goddesses of India, Durga, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi are personal favorites. So imagine my happiness when I found out that Sandalwood is sacred to that lovely Goddess Lakshmi! She is thought to reside in the wood itself, as mentioned by the Brahma Vaivarta Purana.

image from www.chitrahandicrafts.com

Lakshmi carving of made of Sandalwood (you can buy these from the site linked…for a pretty penny)

The name Sandalwood comes from a corruption of the sanskrit word Chandam, which then evolved through linguistic corruption into Sandal possibly along the path Chandam → Sandanam → Sandalum → Sandal. Chandam could mean literally “wood for burning incense” or “shining, glowing” from candrah. Most likely the word we use today is from a late Greek word – santalon – which probably influenced Medieval Latin to create sandalum which then led to sandell in Old French and then sandal in modern English.

Sandalwood and some sandalwood powder.

Sandalwood heartwood and some sandalwood powder.

All sandalwoods are what is known as a hemiparasite which Wikipedia defines as –

“a plant that is parasitic under natural conditions and is also photosynthetic to some degree. Hemiparasites may just obtain water and mineral nutrients from the host plant. Many obtain at least part of their organic nutrients from the host as well.”

Sandalwood is very similar, as well as related, to the well known mistletoe. While they do photosynthesize to create their own food, many of the species also have a taproot that seeks out other plants and then feeds from them. Sandalwood has a sad story of destruction and overuse by humans, so it is extremely important to not only check for the species of sandalwood used in an oil, but also that it is sourced in a sustainable and ethical way. Generally the more expensive the sandalwood oil is, the more likely it is of the right species and from a legit harvester that is approved by the Indian government. Since it is so endangered in the wild there are strict harvesting rules and regulations around sandalwood trees. Sandalwoods are very slow growing trees, which makes restoring the wild population difficult when illegal harvesting is happening. And the older the tree the better quality and stronger smelling the oils (and wood will be).

It’s scent is what makes it so alluring, and I know well of this. My parents lived in China right before I was born, and I had a lot of unusual things growing up. One of them was a carved sandalwood fan, it was so delicate and I would take it out of its little protective box to just sit and smell it.

My fan looked much like this sandalwood carved fan

The scent was just so addictive to me even then, and I think this scent is what has drawn humanity to it over the centuries. It is also used in a lot of religious carvings from prayer beads, to statues of gods and goddesses, to even little fans like mine.

Sandalwood has a large part in human history as well as religions. Sandalwood is mentioned in Indian texts for at least 2,000 years and was used for religious practices as well as medical uses for possibly up to 4,000. It is basically a huge part of life in Hindu culture, it is used in birth rituals, marriage ceremonies, and death rituals. It is used in its oil form, and the wood is used in a powdered form and both are used for the aforementioned religious and medicinal reasons – which I briefly mentioned in the saffron post since it is great for skin masks, soaps, and other preparations, and helps treat and reduce acne as well as other skin conditions. It was also very prized for religious carvings, and for other carved wood products since it retains its scent for decades. In Hinduism specifically it is used as a paste, which is mixed with saffron or other herbal pigments, and is called chandan. Chandan is sacred and can only be prepared by those who are ritually pure. The paste is then used by devotees and is put on the forehead, neck or chest in a ritual manner. Chandan can also be mixed with herbs, or other items to create javadhu which is generally used as a perfume or mixed with water to make a paste and used as deodorant.

Typical Javadhu powder you would find in a store

In both Hinduism and Ayurveda sandalwood is a very holy, and thought to bring one closer to the divine (hence its use as a ritual paste) in fact it is one of the most holy elements to Hindu practitioners or followers of the Vedas and sometimes applied before prayers.

In Buddhism it is also mentioned in some of the sutras (or sutta, depending on which flavor of Buddhism you follow), specifically the Pali Canon mentions it. There is even a legend that as the Buddha died, sandalwood powder fell from the heavens. Sandalwood is thought to be of the lotus (padma) group for the Amitabha Buddha, and is considered one of the three main incenses that are integral to Buddhist practice in general. Sandalwood is thought to focus the mind, and keep one alert during meditation, as well as transform “desires.” It is the most popular for offering incense to oneself in Buddhism.

In the Sufi tradition of Islam sandalwood paste is applied to the grave of a saint by devotees, a mark of respect and of devotion – mostly practiced by people in Southern India where Tamil culture has an influence. In Chinese and Japanese local custom it is also a common incense used in worship and other ceremonies. In Zoroastrianism (in which fire is very sacred) the priests, Mobads, that keep the fire offer it sandalwood – but it is not used in home offerings to the sacred lamps kept in the home. Sandalwood purchased in a fire temple is often more expensive than elsewhere since it is a common form of income for the temple and the Mobads.

Why and How it Works

Some of the chemicals you can find in sandalwoods are santalin (which provides the red color for dying), santene (a terpine that is also in pine needles), tannic acid (same stuff you get in wine!) and santalols. The main chemical that is important in sandalwood for medicinal use is santalol.

Alpha-santalol-stickModel

Alpha-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in the same

Which is broken into two different chemicals α-santalol and β-santalol. Alpha seems to be the most common chemical, but seems like the beta version is the most medicinally useful. It is pretty hard to find medicinal journals that speak of trials and uses of santalol in medical tests but there is a mention in a medical journal of pharmacy ….from 1911. Though it is useful since it points out that sandalwood oil is not very pleasant in taste (though I, personally, would not suggest taking this internally). There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent, slight sedative, and good for the respiratory system, hair, and skin. The German government has approved sandalwood oil as a treatment for urinary tract infections, so there is at least some scientific evidence that it is effective for treating infections, but other than that official scientific studies are very scarce. The most interesting point of the German studies is that the oil needs to be coated so that the oils are not released until it hits the small intestine – or it could cause irritation. For this reason I again – do not advise taking this internally.

There seems to be some evidence of its anti-inflammatory action again no firm scientific trials but there is a ton of folk medicine and word of mouth evidence to back this up. Same with the antispasmodic but, again not nearly enough evidence scientifically to completely back these claims, but 4,000 years of history must have something to it. I have found that its use helps with pain, and spasms – especially when massaged into a painful area (with a carrier oil, this tends to need to be diluted). I have not tried it personally as a sedative, though I find the scent quite soothing. It’s antiseptic properties make it a fantastic addition to deodorant since it helps to kill any bacteria that would be lurking around in your armpits. Its skin properties help with scar treatments (like lavender does) and helps soften and soothe, and helps sooth skin inflammation as well as things like eczema. Its astringent nature as well as its antiseptic, make it also great for treating acne. It also helps soften hair, and moisturize it, so it is great to apply to hair  on your head (like rosemary, though it is not as light as rosemary) or hair on your face (if you’re a guy 🙂 ).

Floral scents like lavender or geranium blend well with sandalwood, as well as clove, bergamot, vetiver, and black pepper.

Sustainability & True Species

Like all things that are expensive – saffron, cinnamon and frankincense are good examples – sandalwood oils can be adulterated or diluted at the cheap end of the spectrum. And the actual stuff is expensive – like Lemon Balm oil level which makes frankincense look cheap! I found that it is actually one of the most highly adulterated oils for sale on the market. That means if you see a 9-13$ bottle – you are probably getting mostly jojoba oil or some other carrier oil – or not even a drop of real sandalwood oil. Real sandalwood oil (Santalum album) is in the 100$+ range, which is really prohibitive for some pockets. So you can purchase the cheaper stuff, and this is the cheapest one I trust using on my skin. If you want to go “whole hog” I would go with this site or this one (which also has powdered sandalwood) since they are sustainably and ethically harvested. As you can see the cheapest one is actually a blend of species, since they are all technically all sandalwood but not the “top” species (though they are all good species in the blend as we will discuss further down).

This is another one of those “you get what you pay for” type things. Like the cinnamon I mentioned – if it is cheap, it probably is cassia. Once you have had true cinnamon, there is nothing like the real thing! But what is the right species of sandalwood? Well you could make a blanket statement like all trees of the Santalum genus are real sandalwoods. Which would mostly…mostly be true.

My husband will be pleased with this. Mostly.

My husband will be pleased with this image. Mostly…

But there are a few main species used for sandalwood that you should be familiar with and are the most commonly used.

Indian Sandalwood – (Santalum album)

Santalum album

Other Common Names – White Sandalwood, East Indian Sandalwood, Chandana, or Chandam

First up is the king of all sandalwood species (or would it be queen?) either way Santalum album is the one that is most commonly used, and is sadly the most threatened of species due to poaching and illegal logging. Also this is the wood that sandalwood is named from since Chandam is the Sanskrit word that led to the modern English word. This species is currently the most vulnerable to extinction in the wild, which you may have heard of due to the exploits of Veerappan, a well known sandalwood smuggler. Often used in religious carvings, and as a powder (then made into a paste) is smeared on devotees or made into incense. It is also used for folk medicine and was used to treat: common colds, bronchitis, skin disorders, heart ailments, general weakness, fever, infection of the urinary tract, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, liver and gallbladder complaints and other maladies. It is known to be effective (from folk medicine history and some medical trials) in treating analgeisc (specifically calming to nerves), antidepressant, antifungal, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent (good for acne and skin), sedative and a fantastic scent to add to perfumes, soaps, and deodorants.

Coast Sandalwood – (Santalum ellipticum)

Santalum ellipticum

Santalum ellipticum

Other Common Names – ʻIliahialoʻe, or Hawaiian Sandalwood

Hawai’ians used the heartwood (‘la’au ‘ala) for its oils, and was often exported to China during the years 1790-1840 for production of carved objects, chests, and joss sticks (incense). The natives used the wood to make the decks of their double hulled canoes (wa’a kaulua) and the heartwood was used to make perfumes and sometimes added to kapa cloth possibly for its fragrance. The leaves and bark were used after burning to ash to treat dandruff and head lice. Shavings of the wood in combination with other plants were used to treat some sexually transmitted diseases.

Australian Sandalwood – (Santalum spicatum)

image by http://www.gilbertdashorstart.com/

Santalum spicatum

This is a species that comes from Western Australia, and its export is a major part of their economy. Its oil was first distilled in 1875, and was produced here and there for a few decades until the 1990’s when it experienced a resurgence which increased (and is still increasing) since it is often used in the perfume industry, very popular with aromatherapists, and in chewing tobacco. This is a much less threatened species, and is almost equal in medicinal properties to Santalum album without the worry of using an extremely endangered species. So if you are unable to afford or can not find ethically sourced Santalum album, this is a good (and less costly) alternative. Testing shows pretty strongly, so far, that it has a lot of great antimicrobial properties, as well as all the stuff listed for Santalum album (since they are so closely related their chemical makeup is very similar and makes it a fantastic stand-in for the more expensive sandalwood).

Other Santalum species you may see are: S. acuminatum, S. austrocaledonicum, S. boninense, S. fernandezianum, S. freycinetianum, S. haleakalae, S. lanceolatum, S. macgregorii, S. murrayanum, S. obtusifolium, S. paniculatum, S. yasi. These species you may see pop up in the occasional commercial preparation, but are not commonly used nor are their medicinal properties well known.

The Fakes

These species, while useful in their own rights are not sandalwoods and are occasionally used as an adulterant in real sandalwood oils or preparations. These should be avoided if you are looking for a real sandalwood.

  •  Adenanthera pavonina sometimes called Red Sandalwood, but this is not sandalwood. Its seeds while toxic when eaten raw are safe to eat when cooked and have been used to treat inflammation in folk medicine.
  • Amyris balsamifera – known as Balsam Torchwood this is a common species accepted by a lot of perfumers and aromatherapy blends.
  • Baphia nitida called African Sandalwood Camwood or Barwood, its bark and heartwood make a red dye, it is known as Osun in Yoruba and is a part of a brand of Nigerian black soap called Dudu Osun.
  • Eremophila mitchelli also called False Sandalwood, Sandalbox and Rosewood Belvory as well as other common names. While native to Australia it is considered an invasive species in some areas of Australia and is illegal to plant.
  • Myoporum platycarpum sometimes called Sugarwood, False Sandalwood as well, which is another native of Australia but is mostly toxic and just the sap is edible, but can not be produced by wounding the tree.
  • Myoporum sandwicense another False Sandalwood, or Bastard Sandalwood, Naio in the native Hawai’ian. It was used in making canoes, fishing net spacers and torches for night fishing. It is a very oily wood and was part of the woods exported to China for Joss stick production.
  • Osyris lanceolata known as African Sandalwood as well, but is generally in Southern parts of Africa, it is over logged despite government protection. Its wood is used for utensils and firewood, and in some communities it is used to preserve milk in gourds for long periods of time.
  • Osyris tenuifolia or Osyris lanceolata known as East African Sandalwood or again as False Sandalwood. Not much information is available on this species.

Recipes

Easy Sandalwood Lotion

  • 2 oz Coconut Oil
  • 10-20 drops of Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon of Sandalwood powder)

Take the coconut oil, and whip 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the essential oils. You can also use a bit (half a teaspoon to a teapoon depending on how thick or honey-like you want your lotion. Raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

You can also just add a drop or two of Sandalwood essential oil to your regular routine, or just massage a little into problem areas with a carrier oil (Sweet Almond oil is a good alternative if coconut oil makes you break out).

Saffron & Sandalwood Lotion

  • 1/4 cup Whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup Strained Yogurt (or Plain Greek yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons Lime or Lemon juice
  • pinch of Ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood
  • pinch of Saffron

First make your strained yogurt, if you don’t know how to do this go here and follow the instructions. Then soak the almonds in a bowl of water overnight, peel the skins off the next morning and grind into a fine paste in a food processor or strong blender. Add in the strained yogurt, lime (or lemon) juice, turmeric, sandalwood, and the saffron threads. Blend again in the food processor or blender until smooth and creamy. This cream can be stored in a clean container in the fridge for about a week, and you should apply it after washing your face at night. Smooth it all over your skin and massage in gently, in the morning wash your face again.

Both of these lotions are good for fighting acne, skin rashes, eczema, sunburns, helps reduce age spots and brighten dull skin. It even does a lot if you massage it into scars, helping to soften them and reduce their visibility, you can even add in a bit of lavender too to help with the redness of scarring if you are treating that. Really it does your skin good and will help just about anything to do with skin 🙂 there is some evidence even that it may help with Rosacea, though it may irritate some skin types that have Rosacea so make sure to do a test patch before you attempt to treat it with sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood Steaming

  • 2-5 drops Sandalwood oil
  • Bowl of hot water, must be steaming
  • Towel

Place a few drops into the bowl of hot water, place towel over your head and allow the steam to bathe the face. This another way to treat skin issues, or to treat very dry skin, or chapped skin.

ProChestColdTip: If you have a chest cold or respiratory issues, or even laryngitis, you can do this with some eucalyptus since there is some evidence that sandalwood can act as an expectorant and has antiviral properties.

ProStressTip: This can also be really good for stress, as the smell is very soothing, and has a mild sedative action, but I would suggest using meditation while inhaling the scent of just the sandalwood oil to reduce stress and bring relaxation.

Woodsy Beard Oil

  • 25 milliliters Carrier oil (this can be straight or a blend, 100 drops = about 5 ml)
  • 2 milliliters (about 50 drops) Sandalwood oil
  • 1 milliliter Cedarwood oil
  • 2 milliliters Pine oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle, apply a few drops to hands and massage into beard. Comb through with beard brush or beard comb. Trust me guys your ladies will love this

The carrier oil can be anything you like, jojoba is good, vitamin E is great, argan oil is all the rage these days. Grapeseed, hemp, coconut, sweet almond, olive and apricot are all ok as well – it is really up to you on this and what works best with your face and hair and you can combine them and do half and half, or whatever combo you prefer most. Since you will be putting this on your face it will condition and soften your skin (especially with sandalwood oil) and condition and soften your beard hairs. This will make about an ounce, and you can either use a bottle with a dropper or you can use a bottle that has a built in dropper like on most essential oil bottles. You can even re-use some essential oil bottles for this.

ProScentsTip: You can also substitute the pine or cedarwood for lime and rosemary respectively, for a more citrusy smelling oil. You can also check out this site which has some great links for bottles, measuring equipment (if you don’t have anything to measure milliliters with) and some other recipes.

Muscle Spasm Massage Oil

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood powder)
  • 10 drops Wintergreen
  • 10 drops Cardamom

Mix well it is best to use an oil that is liquid at room temperature, if you use coconut oil that is not, you may want to whip this in a stand mixer to make it easier to apply. This is a great oil to massage into painful muscle spasms, or for general muscle pain (especially back pain!). The sandalwood and cardamom will help release the muscles and relax them, and the wintergreen will provide warming (which always helps muscles release) as well as providing a natural aspirin component to alleviate pain further.

Sleeping Sandalwood & Lavender

  • 1-2 drops Lavender oil
  • 1-2 drops Sandalwood oil

Massage into temples and inhale the lovely scents deeply. This is a combination that I find many swear by, and I do like the combination. It isn’t as powerful as hops, but it will definitely send you off to a sweet smelling dreamland.

ProMigraineTip: Since lavender and sandalwood oil are antispasmodics as well as good for treating pain, these are also great to massage into the temples if you are suffering a migraine.

If you suffer from dandruff you can also use sandalwood oil to treat it, and you can use the Best Shampoo Ever Recipe I posted previously as a base for it. Also sandalwood as I mentioned is great as a deodorant, you can add the oils to the Best Deodorant recipes I posted (any of them in the post will work) or you can use sandalwood paste to make your own. Simply take your sandalwood powder, mix with small amounts of water until it forms a paste and apply with the hands to the armpits.

Remember, everyone’s body is different and has different chemistry so always do your own experiments and see what works best for you. Always check sites like WebMD for interactions with any medications you might be taking, and remember check for ethically sourced, and sustainably harvested sandalwood oil. You will pay a little more, but it is worth supporting people who want to make sure this tree is around for future generations. And as always, if you have any doubts whatsoever – ask a professional!

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Saffron a Little Golden Happiness

I am getting my intermediate ITIL certification (you can read the wiki page if you are having trouble sleeping, works a treat), and boy does that take up time! Like ALL of it @_@ We also had a family crisis, a stroke has hit a very beloved uncle. Thankfully he is onto the recovery phase but it has struck us all with fear and worry, but he is as stubborn as I am so I am sure he will recover as much as possible. 🙂 Sometimes being stubborn is a really good thing!

Thankfully I passed my test, uncle is doing good in physical rehabilitation, so now I just have to face my old nemesis – the weather. Texas is getting lots of rain, because of this stupid polar vortex thing. At least we are, I think, only 30-ish feet below what our lakes need to be at. (I know that sounds bad but trust me it is better than it was!) But rain means migraines and feeling bad, even after my botox since my legs are so grumpy with the weather switch…so why not talk about something that brightens your day, and lifts your spirits? Everyone needs a pick-me-up now and then, especially people with stress and chronic pain, and saffron is a great way to bring that sunshine-y feeling into your day! Just thinking about its golden color and lovely smell is enough to make me break out in a goofy grin!

Saffron, unless you are familiar with more exotic fare than most Americans, is probably an unknown to a lot of you. Some may know of it just from it’s expense, since it takes 50,000-75,000 flowers to produce a pound of dried saffron, and is a spice that is worth more than its weight in gold. Though it is not out of reach to the home cook, and is carried in most good grocery stores with a good spice section.

Saffron is so expensive because (if it is good quality saffron), it must all be harvested by hand, since it is so delicate, though some cheaper saffron is not harvested this way. Then add to that the erratic blooming of the crocus that produces the saffron and you see why it costs anywhere from 500$ (US) to 5.000$ for large amounts. But I may have gotten ahead of myself, what exactly is saffron? Saffron,  is the dried stigma of a specific type of crocus flower, Crocus sativus. Yes, that means it is made of the sexy bits of flowers.

by KENPEI

The lovely lavender flowers of Crocus sativus

But you are, if you are familiar with saffron, more accustomed to seeing it like this:

Saffron threads, as you might pull from your pantry.

The name saffron comes down to us from early history, and has been translated and mistranslated for ages so its etymology has a somewhat murky story. The word we use in English now could be from the Latin safranum or the Old French safran. Which both the Latin and the Old French could be derived from a Persian origin, with it possibly being an Arabicised version of the original Persian word zarparān or even an Akkadian word azupiranu. There is even a theory that the Crocus name itself comes from Aramaic word kurkema, that came from the Arabic kurkum and the Greek in between words of krokos or karkum. It is mentioned in the Song of Solomon as karcom, or not mentioned depending on what version you are reading. But almost all of them seem to derive from words that mean “yellow,” “yellowish,” or “having yellow leaves.” As you can see the origin of the name for saffron is fairly murky, but not nearly as murky as its earliest uses by humanity.

Saffron has a long, very long, and occasionally sordid, past with humans, and a plethora of uses. So I suggest you have a comfy chair and a nice cup of tea ready, and then start reading this, since this post has a lot (seriously a lot!) of history and info. 🙂

If you don’t care about all that history and stuff, just skip down to the Medicinal or Recipes section!

History of Saffron and its Uses

Saffron is kind of like beer, or the wheel, or writing, since everyone wants to have started using it or discovered first. Just like we are not fully sure on the name origin, we don’t really know when it was first discovered, by whom, or what country first used it. But we do know that there are some great Minoan wall frescoes that show saffron being harvested in fields that date from about the 16th to 17th century BC but could be as old as 3000 BC at the far end of the estimate. Saffron has been used probably since before this time, but these frescoes are one of the earliest known documentations of the saffron harvest and possible offering to the “Mistress of Animals,” a goddess or queen featured here. Young women and monkeys are shown hand harvesting the stamens of crocus plants. Sadly early reconstructions of the frescoes made the monkeys into people, but we now know they are simians more like this.

A girl fro Knossos gathering saffron (not a monkey)

A girl fro Knossos gathering saffron (not a monkey)

Minoans knew well the value of saffron and there is enough evidence to believe that they were using them to treat wounds, and saffron could compete with maybe even beer as one of the oldest medicines. Which we now think is be being shown in the fresco below where a woman is now thought to be treating her foot with saffron. She was first thought to be an initiate or a woman offering saffron to a seated goddess. But it is now speculated, based on the influence that the Egyptian art style had on Minoans (or possibly vice versa), that her hand is on her forehead in a gesture of suffering, while she treats her bleeding foot with saffron.

Woman treating her foot with saffron.

Being in the state it is in, since it is so old and a survivor of the effects of a volcanic eruption, it makes it hard to see what is actually going on in this picture. We are extremely lucky these frescoes survived the volcanic explosion as well as they did since it extinguished the Minoan culture, and we would have lost one of the earliest documented saffron harvests and much more information. (This eruption is a possible source for those pesky Atlantis stories that the History Channel likes to air so frequently). There is a somewhat accurate reconstruction that makes things much more clear –

You can see things better here, though it is not as accurate on the foot she is treating.

There is an interesting theory I have read in my research that since the diets of the Minoans were riboflavin (B2) deficient, and higher status women were healthier due to their consumption of saffron. Not just the Minoans loved saffron, but Greece also loved saffron. Hippocrates knew well of saffron, and he mentions its use in recipes for treating ulcers, along with some other odd ingredients, like natron and ox gall. Of course because of Greek culture, there is a myth about it’s origin, somewhat less sexy than the story of Attis and his pine, but it still has to do with love (well usually). There are a few different stories, and of course variations of each and none of them are exactly alike. It seems the crocus flower held quite a place in Greek culture to have so many renditions of its origins. The first one is the one I know best, and is possibly the best known, is from Ovid.

Crocus (Krokus) was a Greek youth (some say Spartan some Arkadian, but his exact origins are lost in the mists of time), this youth fell in love with a nymph. Nymphs if you aren’t up on your Greek mythology, are not known for being good to the guys that love them and inevitably poor Crocus is snubbed by Smilax. It gets a little fuzzy here since some sources say that the gods (ie – mostly Zeus and his ilk) or Smilax herself, turned Crocus into the little crocus flowers we are now familiar with. The red-orange stigmas were thought to represent the remnants of his unrequited love for the nymph.

“Crocus and Smilax may be turn’d to flow’rs,
And the Curetes spring from bounteous show’rs
I pass a hundred legends stale, as these,
And with sweet novelty your taste to please” – Ovid

Persephone was another that was tied to the crocus, she was gathering flowers (according to Homeric myth, which Homer also referred to dawn as a “crocus veil”) and some of them were crocus flowers. When Hades popped up from the underworld and decided to snatch her away to “have his way with her” as they put it. She then became the part time dweller in the underworld, due to his trickery and creepy kidnap-y ways. But the crocus was not done yet, it bloomed to announce her return to the world, which angered Demeter at first as she had put the kibosh on any plant blooming until Persephone returned. Demeter then put on a mantle of white crocus, and Persephone rejoined the world surrounded by yellow ones. These are probably different species, but still crocus relatives to the one that produce saffron.

But wait! There are other stories for the crocus, because one creepy stalk ‘n’ snatch Greek myth isn’t ever enough! And this one has Zeus, King of the Gods, and King of the Creepy Stalkers. As Danae will tell you from her encounter with Zeus.

"I should be a golden shower, bitches love gold." - Zeus

“I should be a golden shower, bitches love golden showers.” – Zeus

Zeus was definitely not a guy you wanted to meet if you were a young lady. Europa, the mythic namesake of Europe, was supposedly the descendant of Io, another of Zeus’s “conquests,” she was a Phoenician (or at least the myths seem to agree on that one fact), though the lineage is more debated. Despite who her parents were, it seems the unlucky Europa ended up (somehow, no one seems to agree how) on Crete, which has always held the bull extremely sacred. So Zeus, decided why not see if she would be into that? So he of course became a bull, a sexy bull! Bull-Zeus then breathed, either lots of crocus flowers from his mouth or just a single bloom, which maybe standards were different then, but that seemed to be enough to get Europa close enough to be snatched away.

Here is Titian's version of the whole thing. Because Titian.

Here is Titian’s version of the whole thing. Because Titian!

We have another story, this one possibly involving love…possibly not – but definitely a lot less creepy than a Zeus story. Some say that Hermes was enamored with Crocus and took him as a lover. Some say they were just really good friends, either way – they were close as a god and mortal could be. Hermes invited Crocus to come play discus (or Crocus was watching from the sidelines again myths differ, some even say they were playing with quoit, the poor man’s discus), and poor Crocus was hit by the disc and died (all the myths agree that he received a mortal wound from the game). The red stamen is thought to represent the blood of the poor Crocus that was spilled.

I have seen some ideas tossed about that some of the reason that Hermes and Crocus were tied together was due to the saffron crocus’ inability to reproduce without human assistance. Who knows if this is right or wrong but it is an interesting point, since the crocus flower has to have human help for it to reproduce.

The Greeks also used saffron as a perfume and it was noted that the people of Rhodes, also known for their colossal statue, wore pouches of saffron around their necks to cover the scent of the lower classes when attending the theater. It was also associated with the hetaerae, who used it in their perfumes, cosmetics, incense and many other things. But it wasn’t just the Greeks, that knew about saffron early on in history. In the 7th century BC a botanical treatise was compiled in Assyria under the King Ashurbanipal and saffron got its first written mention. In many places in the Persian empire, places like Derbena, Isfahan, Khorasan, there have been found textiles with saffron threads woven into them found dating to the 10th century BC. Saffron was offered to deities in rituals, in perfumes, and were scattered onto beds or used as a tea to chase away melancholy. Saffron has been loved through the ages by what we would now consider Arabic, or Arabian countries, and it is frequently still used in a lot of delicious Arabic dishes. The use of saffron in Arabic culture helped to carry it through the ages and across many countries, and could be how saffron got into Spain. In Morocco, there is an ancient recipe used to relieve toothaches, and teething was eased by saffron and honey placed on a gold ring. It was also frequently used in baths by the Persians, who then taught the practice to Alexander the Great, who used it in his baths but also in rice and to treat wounds. It is thought that he brought the tradition of bathing in saffron from Persia to the Greeks. Saffron can be used as a skin lightener, as a lotion or in a bath, and some say an aphrodisiac. Alexander most likely bathed in it to ease or heal wounds from battle, but another famous person bathed in it to seduce men (and it possibly worked) and that was Cleopatra.

Egypt was a huge power in the ancient world, and was involved in lots of trade and has a history of use of saffron. Cleopatra, who is closer in time to us than the first use of saffron, was rumored to bathe in it pre-encounters with powerful men in the belief that it made *ahem* “sexy time” much more pleasurable for both. Bow chicka wow wow! It is said she used up to a quarter cup of saffron, which if you were paying attention to price, that is a lot of saffron for a bath. But when you are a queen of a mega-power like Egypt, even a waning one, you can afford to dump loads of saffron into your tub. It is unknown if this aided her at all in her endeavors to seduce men of power, but who knows? Saffron is older in Egypt than Cleopatra, and has a mention in the often name dropped Ebers Papyrus – which recommends saffron powder, blended with beer to help women with labor if it becomes difficult. It is also mentioned as a diuretic – though don’t confuse this with Meadow Saffron which is also mentioned but used for treating rheumatism and swelling. It was also used in Egypt to make perfumes, cosmetics, in embalming rituals, and for dying cloth. Dying is a great use for saffron since a few stamens can dye 10 gallons of water.

The Romans knew of saffron as well, and saffron pillows were used to ease the pain of migraines, and Galen notes it is an analgesic. Other ancient Roman doctors mention in their writings that it is good for treating coughs, colds, stomach issues, insomnia, and to prompt a woman’s cycle – and because of this, it was covertly used as an abortifacient. A little known Roman doctor, Celsus, had a remedy for bad coughs that had ingredients like saffron, myrrh, pepper, cinnamon and opium (and other things) all combined and rolled into a pill. They also believed it to be an aphrodisiac, and included it in offerings to gods. They also used it as a deodorizer like the people of Rhodes, as cosmetics, to perfume their homes, and an ingredient to add to wines. Nero, when he entered Rome, had saffron spread along the streets, and other wealthy Romans took saffron baths like Cleopatra, which could have been learned from her.

Saffron was possibly brought to Gaul (modern day France) until the “barbarians” rolled up and rolled hard on Rome, and everything collapsed, and France possibly didn’t see saffron again until the Moors made it deep into France (and then were stopped by Charles Martel) or it could be when the Papacy moved to Avignon, opinions differ on this one. Then in the medieval era in Europe, saffron was used to create illuminated manuscripts since it provided lovely yellows and oranges.

Like in this image of the whacking of Thomas Becket

Saffron probably became more prevalent in Medieval cooking due to the exposure to Arabic cooking, which uses saffron frequently in feast-type dishes, and desserts. Medieval cooks also liked to use saffron to tint dishes the color of gold since consuming gold (and silver) were a common practice for the rich, and gold colored food was just as good as eating gold itself. Saffron was prized for cooking and for medicine it places like Italy, Catalonia and England. Its ability to easily tint a large amount of food using very little of it, made it ideal for brightening up the Medieval diet. Since saffron was so expensive, including large amounts in food for feasts or meals was a visible display of wealth. You could also “gild” food by covering it with a mixture of saffron and egg yolk so that it almost seems like meals were dreamed up by Heston Blumenthal, celebrity chef and wearer of silly glasses. France had a well known syrup passed down that was used to ease painful periods with tea including milk and saffron. There was a belief for a while that like cured like and saffron’s yellow color was thought to be a good way to cure jaundice. In Venice the famous Venetian blond was created by dying hair with saffron and lemon, and then exposing the hair to sun. After the Black Death struck Europe, the demand for saffron went through the roof, since it was thought to help cure people of plague. Because of the increase in demand, and death of many local European cultivators of saffron, cost also increased to the point that some pirates would raid ships for their saffron completely ignoring the gold stores. Sadly as the reformation movement spread across Europe, and the Puritans gained more power, the love of saffron (and many other spices) decreased and became a rarity. Many of the Puritans and sects like them, thought that spices, especially ones said to be aphrodisiacs were going to create lust in individuals and be the ruin of all the world. Which oddly enough in some sects of Lutheran and other types of Puritan sects saffron was integral, we will go over that more further on.

As we move further East, and further back in time, saffron was often used as a dye, instead of using it to create a less purple dye (royal robes are triple dipped in deep purple dyes, and for everyone else one dip and two in saffron) as they did in Sidion and Tyre, it was used to dye cloth outright. The robes of many Buddhist monks are referred to as saffron colored, since this was originally one of the ingredients used to dye them. It is thought that the Persians could have been the first to bring saffron to India and beyond, and brought in the crocus as their empire expanded, or it could have been the Phoenicians in about the 6th century BC that brought it in over their extensive trade routes. It was first mentioned in India in Ayurvedic texts in about 500 BC and became an ingredient in many medicines, used as a dye, and many other things. In Ayurvedic medicine it was frequently used to treat skin issues, coughs, digestion issues, as a diuretic and to calm nerves (as well as many other things). Saffron is also believed to be an aphrodisiac in India, and was provided on wedding nights by the bride to the groom in a cup of milk mixed with saffron, or even as a perfume of saffron mixed with sandalwood oil – a perfume frequently used by Rajput brides. Like the other ancient cultures we have mentioned saffron was a worthy offering to the gods, and some ceremonies like Mahamastakabhisheka where a large statue is bathed with many things including saffron.

Which looks crazy awesome!

Which looks crazy awesome!

Saffron is also used in Tantric practices to awaken the kundalini and is the color on the Indian national flag and the Sikh flag. In China the first reference of saffron is from a medical text dating to 1600 BC, who’s name translates to the “Great Herbal.” Saffron was used to not only treat depression but was thought to bring cheerfulness and wisdom. To lower blood pressure and even stimulate respiration, as well as easing digestion. It can help with stress by lowering the blood pressure, stimulating respiration and helps to thin the blood. It is also used to flavor wine.

In North America, it was the previously mentioned Protestants that brought saffron with them when they settled in the new colonies. There is documentation that in 1730-1731 a member of the Schwenkfelder Church came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with the bulbs of the crocus in trunks, and it is thought that the person in that group that previously sold saffron in Europe was responsible for the bringing over of the spice. Sadly the War of 1812 destroyed much of the trade lines, and traders, that carried saffron to Europe, the Caribbean and beyond. The Pennsylvanians were left with a major surplus and their trade never recovered, and the Caribbean markets died with that war as well. The Pennsylvania Dutch growers found ways to put saffron in everything, because what else do you do with it? Reminds me of the saying “when you are holding a hammer all the world looks like a nail.” Saffron cultivation in the US was saved and carried into modern times by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and it is mostly in Lancaster County Pennsylvania that it is grown and harvested.

Grades and Adulteration

Make sure you buy the real thing! If you see saffron for a crazy low price, it probably isn’t saffron. Saffron is one of the highest adulterated spices around. It is frequently adulterated with safflower, glycerine, sandalwood dust, and turmeric, on the less bad end of the scale; tartrazine, barium sulfate, and borax on the worst. You can usually detect fraud with your nose, it will smell like bark or chemically even through sealed plastic packaging. Second test is your eyes, it should look like tiny stamens of a plant like my saffron below:

Notice the long deep red "threads" and the yellow parts are a part of the threads. Also notice that one end is triangle shaped and tapers to a point.

Notice the long deep red “threads” and the yellow parts are a part of the threads. Also notice that one end is triangle shaped and tapers to a point.

Not like this bunk saffron I got for 3.00$ US at a Fiesta.

Notice it is short, has yellow a lot, and doesn't really look like flower stamens.

Notice it is short, has yellow a lot, and doesn’t really look like flower stamens. I can tell you it also smells horrible!

You can also tell by the color of the water, when you use saffron you usually place the threads in hot water and allow them to steep and the water will turn this lovely golden yellow almost orange color. It should remind you of Buddhist monk’s robes since they are died with saffron traditionally. If it looks plain yellow or sort of murky yellow, probably not the real deal. Also, avoid pre-ground or bottles of saffron liquids, these are almost always adulterated with artificial dyes, turmeric, and many other things of a questionable nature.

Some countries and companies grade their saffron, and highest grade is something you would want to purchase if it is the star spice in the recipe and won’t get covered or lost in other spices. It is also the best for making saffron teas, and trust me it is worth the extra cost. Low grade is good for background saffron, where it is mostly there for color and not for taste. Lower grades cost less, and can be used as the main spice but higher grade generally tastes better. There are also many locations to get saffron from, it is usually best if your saffron says where it is from on the bag/bottle/box. If it doesn’t it probably isn’t saffron. Persian saffron is the most expensive and highly prized for its slight musky notes that help counter the sweetness of it. Spanish saffron, possibly brought to Spain by the Moors though there are other suspects, is highly controlled and is a good bet if you can’t find Persian and want to make sure you are getting good quality saffron at a reasonable price.

Saffron as Medicine

So now we know what it was used in the past to treat, and you may have noticed a common theme of it being used to treat “melancholy” or depression. The active ingredient in saffron that makes it so awesome is safranal, which is a known anticonvulsant and has shown some real promise in research for being a natural form of an anti-depressant. It binds to GABA receptors, and it is possible that the safranal acts as an uptake inhibitor serotonin, and the crocin takes care of dopamine and norepinephrine. Which means that this is one of the herbal medicines that may have better efficacy when taken in its natural form due to the entourage effect. There have been a lot of animal trials with excellent results, but no human trials yet but the medical research done is extremely promising, and couple that with the history saffron has and that makes it much more than hearsay. Its anticonvulsant properties also make it great for spasms and general relaxation of the body, mind and spirit. There also seems to be some real promise in using saffron as an anti-inflammatory as well which is usually key in reducing pain in general.

Saffron is also high in riboflavin, or B2 as we have said before, and crocetin which are a type of chemical that may provide protection from neurotoxins, and is why saffron has its distinct coloring. Saffron also contains lots of cartenoids – which is like carotene like the all too familiar beta-carotene which saffron has as well as alpha-carotene. Another chemical in saffron is zeaxanthin, which is another chemical that is really good for your eyesight. We also know how important all these vitamins are for helping fight pain, and making sure you are taking them in their natural state means that you aren’t wasting money on supplements you don’t need. There is a lot more chemistry involved with saffron but these are the main properties we are concerned with.

WARNING: Saffron in large amounts is possibly dangerous, and by large more than 20 grams (usual dosages are .01 to .02 per person, but even a gram or 5 in a recipe is safe) so it is necessary to be careful how much you ingest in a day. There is a lot of different information on it’s toxicity – some say as little as 5 some say more. Most likely this comes from adulterated saffron, often it is adulterated with or confused with meadow saffron (which IS toxic). Though its expensive nature does help prevent large amounts being consumed, it probably is safe in large amounts but there have not been enough studies to be 100% sure.

Recipes

ProSpiceTip: Ginger, cardamom, and turmeric are all good friends of saffron and they all play very nicely with each other. In some recipes you can replace saffron with turmeric but it doesn’t taste as good in my humble opinion.

Liquid Saffron

Yes! Make it, don’t buy it! This is something you can make and store for a few days in your fridge, and you can use salt or sugar in it to suit whatever dishes you will be making with it.

  • large-ish pinch of saffron, just a gram or so
  • tiny pinch of sugar or salt (whatever suits your recipe)
  • Mortar and Pestle (you can use a coffee grinder, but it is best to have a dedicated one for saffron only if you are going to go that route)
  • Hot water – about a 1/4 of a cup

Grind the saffron into a powder, add in the salt or sugar whichever you are using, and make sure that everything is ground finely. Cover with hot water, you can bring it up to a boil but it isn’t necessary, let stand for 15 minutes but you can leave it for longer. Use in your recipe and you can save any leftovers in a sealed, dark bottle for up to 3 days. Make sure you use a dark bottle as the chemicals in saffron degrade in direct light.

Saffron Tea

  • 3-4 Saffron threads
  • 2-3 tablespoons Hot water
  • Boiling water
  • Honey (to taste)

Put the threads of saffron and hot water in a cup, allow to steep for 10-15 minutes, top off cup with boiling water and add honey to taste (raw honey is best).

This is a great tea for helping chase “the blues” away, whether chronic or from seasonal changes. It is also a good tea to drink to break up the monotony of other anti-inflammatory herbs, like turmeric, so that you have a variety of things to pick from. Since it can be toxic in large doses it is best to alternate days with this if you are planning on taking it for an extended period of time. Always remember you should never take anything for more than 2 weeks straight as the body will become accustomed to it and it will not be as effective.

Kuwaiti Traditional Tea

  •  1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 whole Cardamom pods, broken
  • 1 pinch Saffron powder (10-12 strands)
  • 2 teaspoons Black Tea
  • 1 Raw sugarcube, or honey

Add everything except for the honey in a sauce pan, simmer for a minute or two, maybe even five if you like a strong tea. Strain and serve with honey or a raw sugarcube.

Ginger Saffron Tea – Wellness Tea

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 3 inches Fresh ginger (thumb sized)
  • 1 True cinnamon stick
  • 3-4 tablespoons Honey
  • 1 pinch Saffron (10-12 strands)

Fist put your kettle on, then peel the ginger, and grate, add it along with the honey and cinnamon stick to a teapot. Add saffron strands to the warm water. When you have the water at a boil add it to the teapot and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Add the saffron with the liquid to the teapot, and allow to steep for another 5. You can also use 2 tablespoons of saffron liquid from the previous recipe, make sure you use sugar in the grinding process.

This is a really great variation on the Ounce of Prevention Tea, and saffron has a lot of vitamins that many are lacking in their daily diets. So if you are getting bored with Prevention Tea, try this.

Saffron Lotion

  • 1/4 cup Whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup Strained Yogurt (or Plain Greek yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons Lime or Lemon juice
  • pinch of Ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood
  • pinch of Saffron

First make your strained yogurt, if you don’t know how to do this go here and follow the instructions. Then soak the almonds in a bowl of water overnight, peel the skins off the next morning and grind into a fine paste in a food processor or strong blender. Add in the strained yogurt, lime (or lemon) juice, turmeric, sandalwood, and the saffron threads. Blend again in the food processor or blender until smooth and creamy. This cream can be stored in a clean container in the fridge for about a week, and you should apply it after washing your face at night. Smooth it all over your skin and massage in gently, in the morning wash your face again.

ProLazyLotionTip: You can also make a simpler lotion by using about a teaspoon of milk, or coconut milk (or even coconut oil, olive oil or honey all work for this) and allowing a few strands of saffron to soak in this overnight. Rub into the skin gently, wait a bit (like 10 mins) and then wash off.

These lotions are good for fighting acne, skin rashes, sunburns, helps reduce age spots and brighten dull skin.

Saffron Bath

This is just about the easiest recipe on here.

  • Generous pinch of Saffron
  • Hot bath

Draw a very hot bath, too hot for you since it will cool down, add in saffron threads and let steep for 10 to 20 minutes and then enjoy your soak. This is a good bath to ease aches and pains, inflammation of the skin or otherwise, to heal skin issues (ie sunburns, rashes, open wounds), and brighten skin. It is a bit on the expensive side so unless you have unlimited saffron funds, you may want to save this for every now and then.

Saffron Natural Hair Dye

  • Large pinch of saffron
  • 2 cups Boiling water
  • Large jug or measuring cup (2-4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon Lemon juice

This is apparently a similar recipe used to the Venetian hair dyes I mentioned previously. Boil 2 cups of distilled water, and add the saffron threads to the jug or measuring cup and then cover with the boiling water. Let soak for 10-15 minutes, the longer the soak the stronger the color, strain out the saffron threads and add in the lemon juice. Pour small amounts of the liquid through your hair, try to do it at least 10-15 times 20 is best if you can manage it. You can catch some of the liquid and reuse it if possible. On the last pass, wring out and leave the excess liquid in the hair for 15 minutes, and then rinse with cool water. You could also sit in the sun and allow the mixture to dry in the hair before rinsing for an even lighter color.

ProLighteningTip: You can also lighten hair with chamomile tea and lemon juice by pouring one or both on the hair and then sitting in the sun, or highlighting it by using a straw hat with holes or even a highlighting cap. Saffron leaves a more golden color and tends to actually tint the hair rather than semi-bleaching it like chamomile or lemon juice does.

Saffron Eggnog (from Grow Your Own Drugs)

  • 500 ml whole milk [about 2 cups]
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 36 threads / 3 pinches saffron
  • 2 strips orange rind
  • 3 tbsp golden syrup
  • 200 ml single cream [about 1 cup]
  • 3 eggs
  • 150 ml white rum [about 1/2 cup]
  • Grated fresh nutmeg, to serve

1. Pour the milk, bay leaves, saffron, orange rind, golden syrup and cream into a pan, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Strain through a sieve.

2. Break the eggs into a glass heat-proof bowl, then slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture.

3. Place the bowl above a pan of boiling water and heat gently, stirring, until the mixture thickens to a custardy consistency. Then take it straight off the heat.

4. Whisk in the rum, then pour the mixture into a jug. Cool, then leave to stand in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours before serving.

5. Serve over ice with grated nutmeg.

USE: Drink no more than 1 wineglass a day.

STORAGE: Keep in the refrigerator. Will last for 2 weeks.

This is a great holiday treat to help with holiday anxiety and some of the stress and depression that seems to manifest around that time of year. But who says eggnog is just a Christmas time thing? I say, drink it all year round!

Lussekatter – Swedish Saffron Buns (Recipe from here)

  • 300ml milk
  • 1g saffron
  • 50g baker’s yeast
  • 150g sugar
  • 125g butter or 125 gmargarine
  • 700g all-purpose flour
  • 1egg
  • salt
  • raisins
  1. Melt butter or margarine in a pan and add the milk and the saffron.
  2. Warm the mixture to 37 oC (100 oF).
  3. Use a thermometer; the correct temperature is important!
  4. Pour the mixture over the finely divided yeast; then add the remaining ingredients (except for the egg and the raisins), which should have a temperature of 21-23 oC (72-75 oF).
  5. Mix into a smooth dough.
  6. Cover the dough with a piece of cloth and let it rise for 30 minutes.
  7. Knead the dough, divide it into 25-30 pieces and form each piece into a round bun.
  8. Let the buns rest for a few minutes, covered by a piece of cloth.
  9. Form each bun into a string, 15-20 cm long, then arrange the string in a suitable shape, e.g. an S or double S. Regardless of the shape, the ends of the string should meet.
  10. Press a few raisins into the dough.
  11. Cover the”Lucia cats” with a piece of cloth and let them rise for 40 minutes.
  12. Whip the egg together with a few grains of salt, and paint the”Lucia cats” with the mixture.
  13. Bake them for 5-10 minutes in the oven at 250 oC (475 oF) until golden brownish yellow.

History of the bun – “A Swedish Tradition On 13 December the Swedes celebrate the Italian Saint Lucia with a remarkable enthusiasm, surpassing any Italian festivities devoted to the same lady. One mandatory constituent in the celebrations is a saffron-flavoured bun, in Swedish called a lussekatt, a “Lucia cat”. The shape of this bun might vary somewhat, but is always based on bread designs dating back to earlier Christmas celebrations in Sweden.”

If you are interested in a british version of this bun, check out this recipe for the Revel Bun or Tea Treat Bun.

Saffron Pot de Creme (recipe is from here with some slight alterations)

  • 5 ounces Heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup and 1 teaspoon of raw honey
  • 1/4 cup Whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons Rosewater
  • 1 egg and 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2-1 Vanilla bean (with the delicious insides scraped out)
  • 1 tablespoon Crushed Pistachios or slivered almonds (optional)
  • Generous (about a gram) pinch of saffron

Pre-heat oven to 320°, in a medium sauce pan on low heat warm the cream, milk, rosewater, saffron threads and honey. Make sure you keep the heat low and stir often, sugars and milk will curdle on you if you aren’t careful and then you have a weird cheese that usually is useless. Take the vanilla pods and drop them into the pot and take off the heat, and set aside the insides in a mixing bowl (mediumish sized). Add the egg yolks and egg to the vanilla and beat until it thickens and becomes a pale yellow.

Temper the eggs with a small amount of the cream mixture (so they don’t curdle), and then slowly add in the eggs to the cream/milk mixture stirring but not beating so they are fully combined. Set aside for 5 minutes and put a kettle on with water to boil and prepare your ramekins (or shot glasses or small jars) and place then with at least a half inch between them (don’t crowd them!)  in a large baking dish or pan (pyrex or ceramic is best). Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup or something with an easy pour spout and divide the mix between the ramekins/glasses/jars evenly.

Set your rack to the middle of the oven, and place the dish on it (if you can extend your rack out this will make things easier) and pour in the boiling water until it comes up 3/4 of the way up the containers. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until mostly set but still wibbly wobbly.

You can roast pistachios, or even almonds to garnish this. Or even go full crème brûlée style and sprinkle some sugar on top and caramelize it under a broiler or with a blowtorch (do not burn your fingers!).

Moroccan Chicken Tagine and Couscous (or better known as “that dish that made the house look like Jonestown”)

So before I start I guess I should explain the title of the recipe. My husband had forgotten he had a football (soccer) game and had to leave immediately that evening. We had friends over and I had made dinner so we promised to keep some warm for him, and the friends and I sat down to dinner. Well we all forgot that if you eat couscous it is very filling, and by the time he got home we were all passed out (one even on the floor) from “the itis” (if you don’t know what that is watch this). So this dish has become legendary, for its tastiness as well as its sleep inducing qualities 🙂

Also if you have a Tagine, it is the best for cooking this, but if you don’t have one a good cast iron dutch oven will do just fine. Also this is a dish that requires marinating so prep the night before and cook the next day.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine

  • pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 2 large Yellow onions (roughly chopped into pieces)
  • 1/2 cup Fresh cilantro (plus a bit extra for garnish)
  • 1/2 cup Fresh Flat leaf parsley (plus a bit extra for garnish)
  • 4 tablespoons Fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ground turmeric
  • salt, a generous pinch
  • 2-4 Cloves of Garlic, crushed
  • 1 Whole chicken divided, or 6-8 chicken thighs (thighs work better and I prefer to use just them)
  • 2-3 preserved lemons (homemade is best but you can buy them in most mediterranean markets)
  • 1/2 cup Good quality chicken stock (homemade is best)
  • 1 1/2 cups Good quality green olives (I prefer ones with the pits in)
  • 2 Gallon ziploc bag, or large sealed container

In a small bowl put saffron and warm water together, you can use the liquid saffron from above as well just use 2 tablespoons worth. Let saffron steep for at least 10 minutes but I usually let it steep while I prep everything else so it ends up being a bit longer sometimes.

In a food processor, or powerful blender (seriously love my vitamix for making this!) combine the roughly chopped onions, cilantro, parsley, cumin, ginger, turmeric, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and the 2 tablespoons of saffron liquid, add a pinch or two of salt if you weren’t using saffron liquid. Puree everything until it becomes a nice paste and throw it into your ziploc bag (I prefer a ziploc because I can squish things around to make sure everything gets coated nicely and it is also lots of fun!). Throw in your chicken and make sure each piece has a good coating of the marinade. Press out the air and seal, throw it in your fridge for at least 8 hours but 24 is the best.

Transfer the chicken and the marinade to your tagine or dutch oven add in the pulp of the preserved lemons and a few slivers of the lemon peel, add the olives and you can sort of arrange it to look lovely when you lift the lid. Add the chicken stock, and lemon juice, bring up to a boil then reduce heat and the put lid on. Simmer on low for about 50-60 minutes, or until the chicken is fall off the bone tender.

Remove the lid and garnish with parsley and cilantro and serve from the pot on bed of couscous below.

Couscous

  • 2 tablespoon Olive oil
  • 1/3 cup Dried apricots, cut into slivers
  • 2 2/3 cups Good chicken stock (again homemade is best)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ground turmeric (you could use a pinch saffron instead here if you want)
  • 2/3 cup Slivered almonds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup Dried currants
  • 1 teaspoon Orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons Fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup Fresh mint, sliced into thin strips

In a large bowl, drizzle olive oil over the couscous and toss to coat all the grains with the oil. Add in apricot slivers, and toss again. In a small saucepan bring the stock to a boil over medium heat. Stir in turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Then pour over couscous and apricots. Cover the bowl tightly with saran wrap, and let stand for 5 minutes. Remove covering and fluff with a fork, stir in the almonds, currants, orange zest, lemon juice and mint. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Saudi Arabic Coffee

It isn’t really Saudi coffee unless it has saffron in it (or so I am told), so you can follow this recipe from my post on cardamom and include just saffron out of the optional ingredients for the real deal at home.

  • 1 cup Light roast coffee beans, lightest you can find
  • 1-2 pods Cardamom
  • a pinch of saffron
  • Coffee grinder
  • French Press (or if you have the traditional Turkish implements to brew it, have at it)

Grind the coffee with the cardamom and saffron, place about four tablespoons in 4 cup french press. Add boiling water, wait 4-8 minutes depending on how strong you like your coffee. Press and serve. Seriously this stuff is fantastic, and very relaxing to drink after a good meal with friends. Or just to relieve stress from a rough day.

Remember all bodies are different and have different chemistry, make sure you do some trial runs to make sure this works for you. Always check for interactions with other drugs you are taking, check sites like WebMD. If you are ever in doubt, ask a professional!

If you are interested in more Medieval recipes with saffron check out this site. If you are interested in some interesting (and delicious) apple pie recipes with saffron in them go here. If you are looking to add saffron to some of your dishes other than the chicken dish I have listed, check out some of the recipes here or here.


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Cardamom, Holiday Love Potion #9

Happy New Year Everyone!!! What a great year 2015 will be! The best yet!

Finally, winter is officially here, and that means – winter colds (bleh!) & holiday stress (double bleh!). Everyone seems to be getting sick, and this is that time of year when I keep ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom close at hand. Then you get weather changes, and that means horrible migraines. So I tend to hole up, and hibernate, in winter. I venture out even less, since my poor immune system can’t take the cold, and the direct assault of microbial evil, plus all the people out for holiday shopping is overwhelming to my senses as well as a moving people shaped mass of infection. Of course prevention tea helps stave off most anything winter can throw at you – colds, flu and virus-y type things. But did you know that if you add cardamom to your food and drink, or if you drink chai tea (or even chai coffee) that there are a lot of elements in it that helps to stave off colds as well as ease pain, lessen stress, and many other things? That is right, that chai latte you are craving could have those calories written off as medicinal!

So, start taking notes because cardamom is a great way to fight holiday stress & anxiety, winter colds, and even migraines from stress (or winter weather if you are like me). You can also seem like an awesome host, since it is another relaxing warm drink to serve, and it is lovely to experience the aroma of the spices as you chat and warm yourself by the fire. It’s sensual smell has led it to be used in many love potions and perfumes to lure the opposite sex. So, since every King of Spices needs it’s Queen, I bring you…Cardamom!

Lean green fighting pod machines.

Lean, green, anxiety fighting pod-machines!

Now if you know more than the average bear about cardamom, you will know there are actually more than one sort. So to keep this post below epic proportions, I will only be covering Green Cardamom or Elettaria cardamomum, and not Black Cardamom, that will be for another time :). The genus name of green cardamom, elettaria is derived from the Tamil words for “cardamom seeds.” Though this word could be much older, and the term cardamom we now use, could be derived from Dravidian, which is basically the grandparent language of Tamil. The Greeks called the pod kardamomon, which is another contender for the likely root word for this sweet little pod, though the exact etymological roots of the English term is not fully known. A lot of Westerners are not familiar with the taste of cardamom, or have even seen it before. I have been quite amused recently serving people cardamom coffee, mostly to see if they notice the difference and if they enjoy the additional flavor. It is sometimes difficult explaining what is in it, since almost none have even heard of cardamom, and then showing them what cardamom looks like. You get some suspicious glances at first, but the lovely smell from the jar, and the taste of the coffee seems to win most people over fairly quickly.

The History and Uses of Cardamom

As you can see it looks a lot like ginger and turmeric, we are just aren't concerned with the roots this time!

As you can see it looks a lot like ginger and turmeric, we are just aren’t concerned with the roots this time!

Thankfully chai tea (or if you want to get really technical masala chai, but I will refer to it as just chai) has made it’s way into popular Western culture, and cardamom should taste familiar now to most palates that have had chai flavored things. Cardamom is the dominant flavor in most traditionally made masala chai, but in the States it may be more cassia you are tasting with little to no cardamom, so you may have missed out on the best sort of chai if you only are purchasing pre-packaged or commercially made preparations. That is why I highly suggest you make your own chai at home, it is fun, super easy and you can put in as many or as varied a mix of spices as you want. Chai is fun to make and there is a great recipe here, and I will add another to the mix further down. Plus chai with cardamom is good for alleviating stress, and easing holiday anxiety – or any anxiety really!

It also has beautiful flowers, that just happen to be edible (you can plant the seeds from your pods and find out how nice they are)

It also has beautiful flowers, that just happen to be edible (you can plant the seeds from your store bought pods. Almost all grow, and it will possibly bloom, I suggest indoor planting or hot house unless you live in a tropical climate)

Cardamom has been known in India since before history, at least 3000 years of human history we know it has been used, and as soon as people were writing medical texts cardamom was mentioned. Since cardamom is native to India it was easy for it to spread to most of Asia, it quickly became well known to most of the cultures it came into contact with. In India a medical text was compiled between 2 BC and 2 AD called the Charaka Samhita, which mentions cardamom as part of some medicinal preparations, also a Sanskrit text from 4 BC discusses using cardamom, “ela” in the language, as part of formal political gifts between two groups. Cardamom was sometimes offered in some Hindu traditions to the recently deceased to appease them, and can be part of some tarpanas. In traditional medicine of India, Ayurveda, an 11th century medical text called the Manasollasa (Book of Splendor) it names cardamom as one of the ingredients in panchasugandha-thambula or “five-fragrance betel chew”. This five-fragrance chew contained cloves, cardamom and other spices wrapped in betel leaves, sometimes with areca nut sometimes called the betel-nut, which was then chewed to aid with digestion and relieve wind. This is still being done today to ease the stomach and promote digestion, if you include the areca nut is included this is a strong stimulant which could explain the tradition of adding cardamom to the mix.

Cardamom spread from India and the East, then to the West. Making it’s way to Egypt, and into some of its famous medical writings. We have gone over the Eber’s Papyrus before, and of course it name drops cardamom as a great fix for “wind” (or “farty pants”, in the parlance of our times) and digestion. It was also used in Egyptian religious ceremonies, cosmetics, and embalming, as well as food and medicine. The Babylonians and Assyrians also knew well and prized highly the health benefits of cardamom, and they were early traders across the land routes and possibly water routes via the Persian Gulf as early as the Bronze Age. A king of Babylon, Marduk-apla-iddina II, was known to have grown it in his royal garden, and many Assyrian doctors wrote about the uses of cardamom. Since it was used in many perfumes by many cultures it eventually grew to have a reputation of being a powerful aphrodisiac, and was frequently used in love potions.

Not that sort… I wish though! Why yes I WILL go to the dance with you Adrian Paul! *swoons*

Greeks also loved cardamom, and it was so highly prized that it was in itself a symbol of luxury, and was used in social rituals and gatherings. Cardamom is mentioned by a lot of names that should now be very familiar to you, Dioscorides and Hippocrates both agreed this is great for the stomach and digestion, and eases cramps. Alexander the Great, sent many plants home to his tutor, Aristotle, while he was out doing his conquering thing and it is likely that is how his successor, and possible father of botany, Theophrastus wrote about this plant that he may have obtained from Aristotle. While it was used medicinally it did not catch on in the same way it did in India, it was more prized for its scent and was often used in incense and perfumes. Its delicate flavor and scent is what led it to it more often being used in perfumes, and could be the reason for it being unofficially dubbed the “Queen of Spices.” The Romans were just as as fond as the Greeks cardamom to make perfume and other cosmetics, but still Galen wrote about it, agreeing with other medicinal writers of the time that it is a great way to treat stomach disorders, cramping and “wind.” In the 2nd century AD it was listed as a taxable luxury good in Alexandria. Sadly with the collapse of the Roman Empire, cardamom trade routes collapsed it seems, and this lovely pod disappears from history for a short while in the West.

Cardamom maintained its favor in the Arab world and further East, it was incorporated in recipes from the court of the Sultan of Mandu, dating from about 1500’s, and has a number of sherbets and rice dishes flavored with cardamom. You still find a lot of foods, not just dessert type foods, in Indian and Arabic cuisine that contain cardamom. If you have never had the joy of eating Indian sweets (or mithai), I don’t think you can say you have truly lived. I am also a huge fan of food from the Middle and Near East, and especially Indian food – who am I kidding I love all foods! Their savory and sweet dishes all will probably have some cardamom in them. Cardamom is, in my opinion, best in desserts, and it is so popular a dessert flavor that there is a popular brand of cardamom syrup, and you frequently find cardamom extract in dessert aisles.

I can't read Arabic but I am sure that it pretty much says "this stuff is delicious"

I can’t read Arabic but I am sure that it pretty much says “this stuff is delicious, shut up and put it in your face hole”

Cardamom makes it’s comeback in the West during the Middle Ages, when trade from the Crusades re-introduced Europeans to civilization (thank goodness for that, especially the part about bathing regularly). Later as trade between lands Holy and further East increased, the spice became more common and more often used in European cooking. In the Scandinavian countries they continue this tradition, and there are lots of types of cardamom breads, Which I will include some recipes for further down. It was mostly Venetian traders that supplied cardamom, since they had access to the spice routes. Or to put it more bluntly, they had all of the trade routes coming via the sea from Africa and the Levant so locked down they had a near monopoly on most items from the East. (It was such a stereotype for Venetians to be rich it even comes up in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). They controlled and were pretty much the only point of entry for most luxuries that were arriving from anything East of Greece, and everything had to disperse out from there. They had this trade locked down from the 8th to about the 15th century, when the Ottoman Turks rolled up, and pretty much took over.

They also cornered the poofy hat fashion niche.

They also cornered the poofy hat fashion niche.

If you are paying attention to the dates, you can now see why Columbus was sent by Spain to find a different route to the spice laden East, they were trying to skip the middle men of Venice and the Arab traders that controlled the waters of the Gulfs and Indian Ocean. As more Europeans got out on the sea, a few started to dominate. A surprising country that wielded a lot of power despite its size is Portugal. Many Portuguese merchants made it all over the world, one of them, Duarte Barbosa, in his travels during the 16th century wrote about wild cardamom growing along the Malabar coast, but it was already cultivated when another Portuguese explorer came by a mere 40 years later – testament to is value and value as a trade commodity. But despite its availability, then and today, Cardamom is sadly way under used in US and a lot of Europe. But oddly enough, it is a part of traditional Christmas cookies made this time of year in the Netherlands and Sweden, so again, what better time to talk about this great spice? 

Aaaaaaaaand maybe suggest bringing back Krampus, or at least totally metal cards with him on them. That guy is Ozzy Osborne (pre-“The Osbornes”) metal.

Cardamom in the Levant and Middle East was heartily embraced and took on a whole new set of uses and a new parts in rituals. In most countries that have had an influence from Arab culture, or Islam, it is traditional to add cardamom to coffee, in fact, it really isn’t Turkish coffee without the addition of cardamom, it also could be known as Arabic, or Saudi coffee, or a plethora of other terms. So lets just agree that Turkish coffee will refer to coffee with cardamom and possibly other spices prepared by boiling. I will use Turkish coffee to refer to this to avoid being overly confusing, since there are loads of regional variations (and different names in each region) that makes this really, really complicated to discuss). In some areas it is traditional to pile on the cardamom to show the level of generosity of the host, and respect for their guest, since it is such an expensive spice. It can be so heavily added in some styles of coffee that even the powerful taste of coffee itself plays second fiddle to the flavor of cardamom.

There are literally 100’s of regional variations of making coffee in every single part of the world, couple that with an almost insane level of variation on terms in each region for their own spices, roasts and levels of sweetness, and this post could take years. But since this is all about cardamom, and not coffee (another post in the future!), I am only going to cover just Turkish coffee, since most versions of this contain cardamom in traditional preparations. Coffee in many of these regions also tends to be so strong it is drunk in small amounts, from beautiful coffee pots, and there are all sorts of gestures (as with some tea drinking) that go along with the coffee ceremony.

I hate to admit that until recently I had no idea that the pairing of cardamom and coffee was why I loved Turkish coffee sooooooo much, but what is even more awesome is I found that cardamom, and this was known to those Turkish coffee drinkers, tones down the effects of the caffeine (that means you can have 6 cups of good, strong coffee and not fear that your body may vibrate itself to its atomic parts, I tried it in the name of science and I only felt a little more “amped” like I had only had a cup or two) making the coffee you drink a lot more healthy and beneficial for you. If you take your coffee with milk, it can also reduce the extra mucus that dairy products tend to cause as well, so you can have a splash to give you another way to get Vitamin D. Since it reduces stress as well, it may be a good idea to throw cardamom in the coffee you take on your morning drive to help combat the stress of commuting, and combat the dreaded Monday yawns.

This could be the answer for a happy morning commute!

Now knowing that it can over power coffee you would hardly be surprised at how much in flavor is packed in this little pod. It also easy to keep when stored in unbroken pod form, it can last for ages since the seeds (unbroken) inside the pods are what hold all the precious oils and flavors. I actually keep and re-use a lot of glass jars, my favorite are amber yeast jars for storing spices like this since they are usually airtight, and help prevent damage from sunlight (that is why good beer comes in amber bottles, yeast hates direct sunlight). Cardamom can last even longer if sealed, then put in the freezer. So stock up if its on sale! Because cardamom pods keep extremely well once dried, and retain almost all of their flavor and oils until crushed it made it a very easily stored, and therefore traded, spice. It was so hardy it became quickly a far traveling spice, it was strong enough to make it all the way to Scandinavian countries and still carry its sweet flavor to their palates. Its easy storage is also why it is one of the oldest traded spices (excluding resins), but because it has to be hand harvested like tea – ranks as one of the top 3 most expensive spices, only beaten by saffron and vanilla (more spices we will discuss later). While it is an expensive spice it is not out of reach, and you can buy bags of whole pods at most markets for reasonable prices (much less cost, and easier to find than good quality saffron). You can even find some in a few of the larger chain stores, but I would much rather give my cash to Mom & Pop stores, and local places. Shop local y’all! Like saffron the expense is countered by you not having to use much to get a lot of flavor, 1-3 pods is a lot of flavor for a dish. Heed this warning though, the pre-ground powder loses its potency and flavor faster than most spices. I strongly advise against buying pre-ground cardamom unless you are using it all that day, or you have no other available options. Though if you have pre-ground cardamom it is easy to throw it into coffee beans that are ground, or you are grinding!

Cardamom is also available as essential oil, remember to buy a good quality one if you are going to ingest it, and I advise caution and not to ingest more than 2 maybe 3 drops (that is for adults only) since over use can quickly lead to overdose and that has symptoms opposite to calming the stomach (and definitely some time in the bathroom), but as far as testing has shown this is “mostly harmless” and shouldn’t have overly adverse effects (nothing is ever 100% safe to consume vast quantities of so remember common sense and moderation). Also if you have, or are prone to gall stones, avoid cardamom in excessive amounts it can irritate them.

What is in Cardamom that Works?

Well one of the main components is 1.8cineole which is also known as eucalyptol, which may sound familiar as it is in eucalyptus, lavender and camphor (another future post). Which is something we know to be an anti-inflammatory and there are scientific studies that are showing this is a promising chemical for medicinal use. Also the second highest component in cardamom is a-terpinyl acetate, which has a lot of studies that show it to be an effective antimicrobial, and is the reason that cardamom is such a good addition to any cold, or illness fighting food or drink. Another one that should hopefully be familiar by now is linalool, which has shown a lot of promise in lab research as a stress reliever, and mild sedative. Hence it being such a great addition to drinks to relieve stress, mild anxiety, and can help ease the pain of tension headaches, and all of these mean it is great for migraines.

Α and β-pinene are also present in cardamom, and α as having anti-inflammatory properties, as well as having an almost antibiotic effect, which makes it great for fighting pain and illness. Β-pinene more aromatic, and should be familiar since they are both prevalent in pine. Now this is probably the most important chemical in cardamom for the sufferers of pain – myrcene. This little chemical is a well known pain reliever, and is why hops are effective pain relievers and the not so legal in Texas, but very legal elsewhere, cannabis. Cardamom contains a lot of this chemical and it is fairly safe to ingest in sensible daily amounts with no adverse side effects. Another, hopefully familiar one is limonene, which is why cardamom is so great for settling the stomach, and may actually help people with IBS or acid reflux – if you have these look into it, it may be your answer. It is also a sedative and helps to reduce stress since it helps to stimulate adenosine receptors and the production of adenosine – which is a key chemical in the body goign to sleep as well as an anti-inflammatory. Terpinolene which helps preserve foods, and other things, since it is an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. And many others we have discussed before like (but not limited to) – citronellol, nerol, and geraniol. So as you can see, it was no exaggeration saying that cardamom was a heavy hitter packed into a tiny pod.

Cardamom Recipes

Right, so, since its the holidays fudge is everywhere, or at least it is here. And while most of us know only the chocolate kind, carrot fudge is a World War II treat that was able to be easily made with rations, and has a long history in India as Gajar Halwa. Which as one of my friends (who is Indian) said Gajar Halwa is a great way to take something healthy and turn it into something that is the complete opposite of what it started out as.

Carrot Fudge (Gajar Halwa) (adapted from myheartbeets)

  • 2½ cups Carrots, grated
  • 1 can Coconut Cream (or full fat coconut milk or even condensed milk)
  • 2 tablespoons Coconut oil (butter or ghee could be substituted)
  • 2 tablespoons Honey
  • 1 teaspoon of ground Cardamom seeds
  • Optional: chopped dates, golden raisins, chopped prunes, and optional garnish of crushed pistachios or toasted almond slivers

Melt coconut oil in a saucepan, add grated carrots and cook until softening (about 10 minutes) add coconut cream and simmer on low heat stirring to keep it from burning. After about 20 minutes add the cardamom, mix thoroughly, and then add in honey (leave out if you used condensed milk), mixing well until all liquids evaporate and mixture thickens. Serve in bowls with optional garnishes, or throw in dried fruits for some extra depth, but best is to spread it thickly in a greased or wax paper lined pan. You can press a whole nut or formations of dried fruit into regular intervals while the mix is still hot, and then slice into squares for gifting. Because this has cardamom in it, it is also good to serve after a large holiday meal (especially one where people are sure to overindulge). It is also good for the host(ess), since it helps reduce stress and can help take some of the edge of the exhausting nature of this season.

Vetebröd (Swedish Sweet Yeast Bread slightly altered from here)

  • 2 1/2 cups Milk
  • 1 1/2 cups Butter, melted
  • 1 cup Sugar (or honey)
  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • 2 teaspoons Cardamom seeds, ground
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 9 cups Flour
  • 7-9 tablespoons Gluten
  • 1 egg and 2 tablespoons water for egg wash
  • Cardamom sugar (see below) or slivered toasted almonds for topping

Prepare your Basic Cardamom Bread Dough using the first 7 ingredients listed above (this takes about 1 1/2 hours).

After punching down dough following its first rise, remove from bowl and knead lightly on floured counter until smooth and shiny. Divide dough into two halves.

Divide each half of the dough into three equal portions. Roll each portion into a long, thin “snake” (about 18 inches long). Braid three of the “snakes” together, folding and pinching outer edges under to form a loaf shape. Repeat for second set of three dough “snakes.” (Alternative: Do not divide dough into 2 halves, but separate entire mass into three equal portions. Roll the three portions into “snakes,” braid together, then join and pinch ends together to form a single braided bread wreath).

Place the two braided loaves (or the single braided wreath) on a greased baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 375º.

When loaves (or wreath) have doubled, brush with egg wash and sprinkle with [cardamom or orange sugar] or almonds. Place in the middle of a preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until done.

Yield: 2 braided loaves or 1 braided wreath, about 20 servings.

To make cardamom sugar, take 1-2 pods cardamom and in food processor grind well with sugar and use to sprinkle over bread, or toast almond slivers in the oven to top. To make an orange sugar take a tablespoon of orange zest and quickly grind a few times in food processor and use to sprinkle over bread.

Speculaas or Dutch Windmill Cookies (slightly altered from here)

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick or 113 g) cold unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (75 g) white granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (165 g) packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 3/4 cup (235 g) all purpose flour

Prep a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet. Then:

Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes. Place in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the sugars, baking soda, salt, and spices. Cream butter and dry ingredients together on medium speed for 30 seconds or until the batter is uniform in color. Scrape down the sides with a large spatula and add the vanilla extract and egg and beat on medium speed until incorporated (about 30 more seconds). Scrape down the sides again and add the flour. Beat on medium speed until incorporated (about 30 more seconds)

If you are lucky enough to have all the traditional implements follow the quoted text if not skip down past that.

Split the cookie dough in half. If you using the springerle rolling pin, roll the dough out until 1/2 inch thick with a plain rolling pin. Liberally dust the springerle pin with flour then roll over the dough, pressing firmly to make a 1/4 inch thick cookie dough, with imprint. Cut the dough along the springerle grid lines with a sharp knife or pizza cutter and place on the baking sheet. If using a traditional speculaas cookie mold, roll the dough until 1/2 thick with a plain rolling pin. Lightly spray the mold with cooking oil, then liberally dust with all purpose flour (knocking out any loose flour once you’ve dusted it). Press the dough into the mold, remove excess dough of the back of the mold and then carefully unmold it onto the baking sheet.

If you don’t have all that fancy stuff, or some awesome family heirloom shortbread mold, use a cookie cutter and you can cut them into any shape you want. You can also roll it into a log and cut it into evenly spaced discs, roll each into a ball and press with the bottom of a glass if you have one with a nice design, or the old standby used for peanut butter cookies of pressing a fork into an X shape works as well. If you have one a cookie “gun” or a cookie stamp would work a treat to make these (I recently acquired a cookie stamp and am making these cookies again just to try it out). You want to roll things fairly thick so the unbaked cookies are at least 1/4 of an inch thick.

Chill for about an hour, but for at least 30 minutes. Then heat your oven to 375°F and bake for 9 to 11 minutes, you want to remove them when they just start to brown at the edges, do not let them brown all the way. Cookies as a rule should err on the side of underdone, instead of overdone. You can always bake them a tad longer, you can’t un-bake them. Also you should always allow them to cool in or on whatever they baked in for at least 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. These cookies are no different, but taste oh so delicious.

It isn’t Christmas really without these next cookies, and they are a Southern favorite. Sadly less and less people are familiar with them, but these are one of my favorite cookies to whip up as gifts during the holidays and this has a cardamom addition for some exotic flare.

Cardamom Molasses Cookies

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup coconut oil (seriously just trust me use this and nothing else, you could use shortening or butter but it doesn’t come out the same)
  • 1/4 cup molasses (find the darkest least processed you can find, you want as much dark rich flavor as possible)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • optional: 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • garnish: 1-2 tablespoons sugar

Cream coconut oil, brown sugar, egg, and molasses in a stand mixer or in a bowl with an electric beater. Stir in spices, then add in flour in batches, salt and baking soda. Mix well until fully combined, dough should be slightly dry, but forms easily into balls like peanut butter cookie dough. It is easiest to use a 1-2 ounce ice cream scoop to portion out the dough but you want to have about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie. Roll each by hand into a ball then dip top half in sugar. Place sugar side up on baking tray with parchment paper, with 2 inches at least between each ball. Bake for 12-15 minutes, let cool for 10 and then move to cooling rack. These are a delicious and aromatic cookie, that will become your favorite once you make it.

Cardamom Coffee

  • 1 cup Coffee beans, whole (pre-ground if you have no other option)
  • 1-2 Cardamom pods
  • Optional – cinnamon sticks, orange peel, carob nibs, cloves, saffron, and caraway seeds, fresh vanilla
  • Coffee Grinder
  • French Press (preferred but not required)

It is technically more “traditional” to use a lighter roast, or roast your own beans. Even I don’t have time for all that jazz. So find a roast level you like, and use that. Most grinders hold about a cup of coffee beans, add in your cardamom pods, and grind you don’t want a fine grind but fairly chunky. Follow your normal routine for brewing coffee in a french press, if you never have check out this guide. You can add in other things to your grind like the optional spices, or you can just do plain cardamom and coffee. All of them taste amazing. Guests will be wowed that you blended your own special grind and you will forever be known as the hostess with the most-est.

Some cardamom, cinnamon and orange peel spiced coffee, in my beautiful Christmas present from my fantastic MIL <3 I couldn't help but brag a wee bit!

Some cardamom, cinnamon and orange peel spiced coffee, in my beautiful Christmas present from my fantastic MIL ❤ I couldn’t help but brag a wee bit!

Warning: I have put 3 cardamom pods in about half a cup of coffee and ground it, and it is some pretty strong knockout juice. So please do not drink loads of cardamom and drive!

Cardamom Tea

  • 2-3 pods, slightly crushed
  • 8 ounces of Hot water (not boiling)

Steep for 10-15 minutes, and drink. You may need some honey to help this out since it can be quite strong tasting. This is good for pain, or extremely stressful days. If you are having stomach issues, increase to about a teaspoon of crushed seeds and steep for the same amount of time. This should help with cramping and abdominal pain that comes with medications, IBS, lactose in tolerance and so on.

ProCompressTip: You can steep for 20 minutes, and then soak a towel in this and apply directly to the forehead, or head where migraine hurts most. Or even to cramped muscles to help ease spasms and pain.

 Cardamom Tincture

  • 1 part Cardamom seeds, slightly crushed
  • 2 parts Vodka (or other clear alcohol)
  • Mason jar or airtight jar

Put crushed seeds in a jar, cover with alcohol. Allow to sit, giving a shake once a day or so for about 4-6 weeks. Strain and bottle and store out of sunlight. This is a great cure for stomach cramping, and intestinal distress. It is also good to take after a heavy meal to prevent those issues in advance. A few 1-10 ml (10-60 drops) in honey or in a tea, or under the tongue. This can also be a good way to help yourself sleep on a restless night, or when a migraine or pain is keeping you awake.

It is great paired with Tulsi and lavender in a tea too!

Mike Tyson Level Knock Out Tea

  • 1-2 pods of Cardamom, with seeds removed (more if you like the taste adjust to your liking)
  • 1 tablespoon of Tulsi
  • 1 teaspoon dried Lavender flowers
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon of dried Chamomile flowers

You could reduce the Tulsi to a teaspoon but, I say go big or go home. Plus this tea pretty much ensures that within a half hour you will be counting sheep in dreamland. Steep in water for about 10-15 minutes, add honey if you need some sweet, strain and drink! This is a great tea also if you are up stressing about something, since it will put your mind at ease and bring healthy restful sleep. Seriously you have no other options but to sleep when cardamom is in the mix.

Cardamom Massage Oil

  • 30 drops Cardamom essential oil
  • 1 ounce good oil (jojoba, almond, olive, etc)

Mix well and store in and store in a dark bottle, massage into spasms, or temples, neck and shoulders for migraines. This is also good for a generally allover body massage to alleviate stress and anxiety. Give it a go, you will love the smell and the relaxation.

Cardamom Epsom Salt Bath

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-20 drops Cardamom essential oils
  • Optional: any other oils you would like to add, just remember to reduce your cardamom oil by the number of drops of your other oils.

Mix well, and store in an airtight container, add a cup to a hot bath and soak for 20-30 minutes. You can always use the cardamom tea, and throw in some epsom salts too if you are unable to get your hands on the oil.

Ok, now I have to get out my soapbox.

*gets on soapbox*

Before I get into this second chai recipe, because who can have too many chai recipes? I want to explain something that seems to have as much fear and superstition surrounding its use and adoption, as the gas stove did when it was first introduced (for more on the gas stove see the footnotes). So I would like to clear up some things about Microwaves from things I have heard.

  • Microwaves “change” the molecular structure of water. Wrong. If it did – it wouldn’t be water, secondly this has been pretty solidly debunked by pretty much everyone out there, and their doge, not the least including Snopes. The day some 9 yr old’s science project overturns major accepted views in physics and chemistry, you aren’t going to read about it in some email forward from one of your crazier relatives. Critical thinking people, lets use some.
  • Microwaves give you “radiation and therefore cancer.” Wrong. Microwaves are not going to give you radiation poisoning like if you walked into a nuclear reactor in full meltdown. You are getting more radiation flying in an airplane, or eating a banana – than you do using a microwave. Think about that. Please stop spreading this rumor it is old and tired, and that horse died at least 50 years ago. Stop. Beating it. Microwaves use electromagnetic waves to excite the food’s water molecules, cooking it from the inside basically by steam. That is why it doesn’t brown, or do well with breads like an electric or gas oven that uses heat conduction and convection to cook food. A microwave is not radiating food, or giving anything radiation that will kill you to stand in front of one (except if you are heating a hotpocket, then yes, it may actually be part of killing you, but 90% of that was the hotpocket). Electromagnetic waves also power your computer/car speakers, and many other things, so unless you also shun speakers and pretty much every other electronic device, your argument about microwaves being some “radiation cancer machine,” sounds really rather silly. But if you don’t believe me, here is the FDA on microwaves explaining why they are safe, and American Cancer Society on why microwaves won’t give you cancer, or the bad sort of radiation.

I get that not everyone aced chemistry and physics, but pretty much all the myths and fear surrounding the microwave are just another sad case of history repeating itself. We fear what we do not fully understand, and invisible waves that heats things up does seem pretty magical. So in the hopes that people will better understand, please read this explanation on how microwaves work. Or if you need a more quick and friendly explanation check out this video from the Smithsonian, they are people who know stuff.

*gets off soapbox*

Failure (and Idiot) Proof Chai Tea

  • ¹/3 cup of water
  • 2/3 cup of Milk
  • 1 teaspoon – 1 tablespoon Black Tea
  • 1-3 Star Anise pods, whole
  • 2-4 Green Cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2-5 Peppercorns, crushed
  • 1 stick True Cinnamon, whole
  • 3-6 Cloves, crushed
  • 1 inch (thumb sized) piece of Fresh Ginger, crushed, or a heaping teaspoon of candied
  • Optional: teaspoon of Turmeric paste or powder, or fresh vanilla include seeds and pod itself.

Crush the spices except for the star anise and cinnamon you add those whole, and the ginger if you are using fresh. You don’t want to grind this to a powder just make sure things are slightly broken and the ginger is flat-ish, you want it broken up but not completely ground to a paste – though you can grind it to a paste if you really, really want to. I didn’t have fresh ginger this time since I just made ginger ale the day before, so I am using some candied ginger I got as a gift, which I love the jar it came in and will be storing my home-made candied ginger in it once I am done! Since I actually remembered for once to take pictures as I am making it, there are now pictures to follow along 🙂 and I am going to try to be really good this year about taking more pictures of things so hopefully I remember to!

Spices in my cute little molina

Spices in my cute little molina

Throw everything except the milk into a pot, exclude the candied ginger if you are using it, I find that using a spoon to scrape out the spices the easiest way since lifting my stone mortar is difficult with my strength issues. Bring the water tea and spice mix up to a simmer and allow it to go for 3-4 minutes, or until it becomes fragrant with smell of the tea and the spices.

Candied ginger and my plain black tea (I am out of fresh since I just made ginger ale)

My candied ginger that was a gift! It is my trusty backup, and my plain black tea, you can use Earl Grey, or lipton (ugh!) if you have to, if you can’t find plain black tea.

Turn off heat and leave the pot on the burner to get that last bit of heat out while you heat your milk.

My little pot full of tea and spices!

That’s right let that stuff sit and marinate.

Milk, besides sugar, is one of the most evil things to cook with. I say evil because they will turn on you faster than an evil step-sister in a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. If you look away for a second, or have to tend to some urgent situation, while making chai with milk on the stove, you could end up with some really horrible chai curds and whey. Not pleasant, or drinkable.

So the best way around this is to heat the water with the tea and spices on the stove, and then heat your milk (30 seconds to a minute) in the microwave. Microwaves since they excite water molecules only, will heat the milk (or other liquids) without bringing it to a visible boil (another reason it has such mistrust, how can it make something boiling hot without it looking like its boiling?! And scalding is, I believe, the number one way most people hurt themselves with microwaves). So it is extremely difficult to destroy, or curdle, your milk with this method, and it is heated to a precisely so that the chai is drinkable sooner rather than later.

Strained and ready to go!

Strained and ready to go! Yum!

You can even heat the milk right in the mug you are using, then strain the tea mixture into the heated milk, stir to fully combine and add the candied ginger if you are using it. I also find that I overall get a better colored chai, and if I want to try to squeeze a second brewing out of my tea and spices it isn’t all gross with milk. Waste not, want not. Right?

Cardamom is also a mild laxative, and as we have discussed previously everybody poops, but sometimes we have difficulty pooping. Cardamom is a good addition to a senna or other herbal laxative recipe, as well as fennel, since both will help ease the cramping that can come with taking over the counter laxatives or herbal ones.

Cardamom & Senna Tea To Make You Go

  • 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of senna pods (half as much if you use leaves)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water
  • 5-6 Cardamom pods, crushed
  • Optional: Honey, fennel, or ginger can be added to help things along.

Steep for 3-5 minutes in a covered tea pot, and drink about 8 ounces, if you need a stronger tea let steep for longer. But the longer you steep it the stronger this will be when it comes to cramping, and while the cardamom does help it will not eliminate the cramping entirely. This will also make you sleepy, and senna works best overnight, so drink this before bed.

Remember, everyone is different and every body’s chemistry is different so do your own tests, see what your body works best with. Do the smart thing and check for interactions with other things you are taking on places like WebMD. And as always if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!

ProCardamomConversionTip: 12 seeds = 1 pod; 10 pods = 1 ½ teaspoons of Cardamom powder

For more information on the fear of adoption of gas stoves, as well as the history of cooking implements and eating as well check out Consider the Fork.

If you are interested in a quick history of Venice, and some of their food go here.

If you are a coffee addict aficionado, like me, you should check out all of these variations by making them at home since they are fun to make, can be made with inexpensive means and little addition to your kitchen unless you want to, and more fun to drink especially if you follow the tradition of using it to socialize with friends and family. We all need more socializing with good people, it lifts the spirits and it is something we have lost in our rush-about modern culture. Also, the habit of hospitality (at least in the US) has been lost, and we should definitely bring that back! If you are afraid to try grinding or roasting it on your own, seek out a local Arabic market, and ask people in the store and the owners what they do, what they use and what they like. I find that when I do this I get fantastic advice, recipes, sometimes a delicious sample with them, and often a new friend. I have yet to meet a person that does not appreciate someone trying to learn about, understand and enjoy something of their culture’s traditions.

There were so many recipes I wanted to include but just ran out of steam and space. So here is a little link storm of things if you are looking to have some more cardamom in your diet. These may sound out of your comfort zone at first but trust me, good things are in your future if you make one of these.

Cardamom Link Storm


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Fishfuddle Befuddles Pain

Oh life, you always throw a spanner into the best laid plans. Between migraines coming back (getting topped up again with botox soon so they will be hopefully be gone for a month or two again) and cramming as much life into the days I don’t hurt, due to birthday’s and other social events, I just have not found the time to sit and write as much as I want to. But you must always make time for the things you love 🙂 and I love writing!

Piscidia piscipula, or sometimes known as fishfuddle, or the Florida fishpoison tree, is a tree that is native to Florida, Texas, Caribbean, Central and South America. This is as you can tell from the name, not a remedy to be trifled with, and I am strongly recommending you talk to your doctor(s) before embarking on using this remedy. I actually had some internal turmoil over whether or not I should write about this since it is very much use at your own risk sort of thing, and you should be very careful with this remedy. It is not something you shouldn’t just start up willy-nilly, even though it is a great medication, in small amounts, for pain especially nerve pains. But like I always say, you should always respect all things you put in your body, herbal medicine, or otherwise. Remember that if it is strong enough to good, then it can be strong enough to do bad. Always be mindful in all things you ingest, over the counter pills, essential oils, anything in the wrong amounts or used improperly can be dangerous, and even water can poison you.

Jamaican Dogwood in all of its glory!

Jamaican dogwood in all of its glory!

Now that I have gotten the stern warnings out of the way, this is a powerful analgesic and sedative, and as a bonus has anti-inflammatory properties as well. Its Latin name roughly translates to “little fish killer,” usually in places it grows the indigenous people use the shrub to create a strong fish sedative and poison which can be added to small ponds or swamps. Thus allowing easy collecting of fish for small family groups. Its poison isn’t long lasting and therefore not detrimental to the environment since it breaks down if exposed to sunlight for more than 6 days. It has been successfully used in some cases to remove invasive species from lakes, and may be a way to prevent destructive species invasion of aquatic environments. It is also a powerful insecticide, which if you are fighting the ravages of caterpillars. Which I don’t mind a few having a snack, always plant some extra for nature, but decimation is an act of war! And a solution containing a bit of Jamaican dogwood tincture is a very effective way to prevent them from eating all your plants. Other than obliterating your garden with fire.

Take that you greedy caterpillars!

While it can be detrimental to the finned water friends, since it affects their gills, it can be a powerful pain reliever, especially in the case of nerve pain, as well as sedative for humans. It is really not well studied since it fell out of fashion after the 1800’s, mostly due to the dominance of opiates and then mass produced pain medications. Also there was some bad PR it got due to the claims of possible carcinogenic chemicals (but not enough studies to back it up, just like the same bad PR safrole), and it makes this remedy is a bit more difficult to write about. There have been studies in the early days of Western medicine that do confirm its ability to alleviate pain and ease tense muscles, but not years of studies that would give definitive and detailed information and results. The chemical interactions that lead it to being good for treating human pain, as well as being a sedative, anti-spasmodic, and anti-inflammatory, are unstudied by modern science to a degree that we could not truly pinpoint what chemical is is causing what. One of the known chemicals in Jamaican dogwood is rotenone, which is deadly to fish since it affects their gills, but is not as poisonous to warmblooded animals, though in large amounts Jamaican dogwood can still be toxic to humans. Traditional uses that went beyond fish hunting were generally for the sedation and pain relieving side of the plant. Though later alternative medicinal practices used this plant to treat migraines, and other painful conditions, with patients that could not tolerate opium, or opiates. It has also been used by many cultures to treat moon time issues, and ease painful cramps since it relaxes muscles as well as easing pain.

Generally the bark of the roots is what is used and you can buy this online, try to buy locally if at all possible from a reputable dealer that harvests in a sustainable manner. If you live in one of the areas that Jamaican dogwood grows naturally in, you should have a go at harvesting it yourself. There is a really good article to use here, she goes into identification and how to harvest as well as drying and her own recipe for a tincture. There is also a lot of commercial preparations, such as extracts that can be used as well. If you opt to go the extracts route make sure you know the strength of the extract you are purchasing and it is always best to start with the smallest amount and work up taking tiny steps. Some people experience an adverse reaction to this remedy and it is best to make sure your stomach is not upset by it before you take larger amounts. Another option is to use the bark of the root to make a tea.

Jamaican Dogwood Tea

  • ¼-½ teaspoon Dried Jamaican dogwood root bark
  • 8 oz of water

Add the root bark to the water, and boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Start small here and you can eventually increase to 1 teaspoon all the way up to 2, though this should be done with caution and only after stepping up a 1/4 teaspoon at a time. This is great for all sorts of pain – nerve, joint, lady type, migraines, etc. It also is a pretty strong sedative, even more so than valerian, and is a great way to make sure you get your z’s. It also helps to ease painful cramping and spasms. It also helps to relieve anxiety and stress in the smaller doses and if you are quite anxious this may be a good way to deal with some of the worse days.

Jamaican Dogwood Tincture

  • 1 part Dried Jamaican dogwood root bark
  • 5 parts Grain alcohol
  • Mason jar or other seal-able glass jar

Make sure you have enough room at the top of the jar when you put all the root bark and grain alcohol into your jar. Make sure the root bark is covered and seal. Make sure you shake it every so often, and leave it to sit for 4-6 weeks. On the site I linked previously she suggests blending the bark, which if you don’t have something as powerful as a Vitamix you can use pruning sheers or other strong cutting implements to chop it into little pieces to increase surface area. 5 drops in honey, tea or directly under the tongue, and increase as needed. No more than 30 drops, in my opinion, some sites though recommend 2 droppers, which is about 2.5 ml, and equates to about the same amount. Again, this is good for migraines, spasms, sleeping issues, all that good stuff.

 Jamaican Dogwood Bug Spray

  • 5-10 drops Jamaican dogwood tincture
  • Spray bottle
  • Enough water to fill the spray bottle

Add everything to the spray bottle, and shake well before use. Spray on plants, and make sure you rinse anything you eat from them very well before consuming them. This really should only be used in extreme circumstances of bug, or caterpillar invasion, you should always plant extra for the animals.

If you purchase a powdered version or if you are using extract you can always make these into a pill form and if you need instruction on how to do so there is a good one at the end of this post on turmeric, which just so happens to work really well as a companion to dogwood in a pain pill preparation. Hops and valerian are also good companions for Jamaican dogwood. Depending on the percentage of concentration of the extract you may need to use less, but the dose for powdered Jamaican dogwood is about 1-5 grains (65 mg – 324 mg), I would definitely not suggest using more than that.

Remember educate yourself before taking this drug, and do not start a treatment without consulting a physician. Always check places like WebMD to make sure it won’t interact with your medications or any conditions. In this case, even if you don’t have any doubts about this remedy you need to ask a professional before starting it.


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Peck of Pickled Peppers for Pain

Well, they don’t actually have to be pickled, but jalapeño relish is just about the best thing ever, especially on eggs! Chilies any way you have them are a great way to bring the heat, which is what they are known around the world for. It is hot in the summers here, and counter-intuitively this is the best time of year to eat and drink hot things. Hot foods help the body to cool in hot countries, that is why hot tea and coffee are always so popular in hot places. We love chilies here, year round in every grocery store in Texas chilies can be found. Dried, fresh, in powder, and even in the Mexican candy they always have calling to you at the check out. Here we are intimately acquainted with the chili, it is featured in a lot of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Traditional Texas foods. They also have a medicinal value, which make them so much more than something that adds a real kick in the pants to your 5 alarm Texas chili. Chilies have capsaicin, which is the active chemical in all of the capsicum species, has always been popular, but recently gained a lot of popularity for its analgesic effects, as well as the soothing heat it produces.

Chilies many varieties

Just a few of the chili pepper varieties dried and fresh

Its popularity as a food and a medicine goes back to ancient history in the Americas, and then after the “discovery” of the Americas by Europe has made its way around the world via trade routes. Now chilies are internationally used, and I am sure most people could not even imagine Indian,  Chinese, or Thai food, or lots of cultures foods really, without chilies in them. Chilies were a large part of cooking and medicine, and were probably first cultivated in Bolivia and spread North and South from there. In most Middle American cultures,  the tribes dubbed the Aztecs by the Spaniards, and the other tribes that inhabited pretty much from much Mexico and right on down, depended on these chilies as a regular source of Vitamin C and A, and carotene. They were a vital part of cuisine providing vitamins that are part of the building blocks of a healthy human life, and we all know how important they are for pain. Chilies it is believed, were not used in the US South West native cultures until after European contact, but they did use wild chilies in some foods which are smaller and not as hot usually. So remember all foods that have chilies came into existence after America came in contact with Europe, though people will still find it hard to think of some cuisines without chilies. There was no paprika, no chilies, nothing until they landed on the Iberian peninsula in the 1490’s and by the 1500’s they had made it to the Middle East and through the Turks to Hungary.

The capsicum species is a member of Solanaceae which is the nightshade family, so they are relatives of tomatoes, believe it or not. Which also means that chilies, the fruit of the capsicum plant, are actually a type of berry, since its seeds are enclosed by a fleshy fruit. The species name comes from the Greek kapos – “to bite,” which is an appropriate name for a species that has such a powerful kick. Chile plants are all the same species, but come in many varieties, and they originally developed the capsaicin in their fleshy berries to prevent animals eating them that would destroy their seeds, which pass easily and whole through digestive tracts of birds but not other animals which would crush the seeds. The heat of the capsicum plants fruit is probably a defense mechanism, but it seems that since the intense heat also releases all sorts of brain chemicals in humans, which may be why we are drawn to these spicy fruits and they became cultivated. Some people seem to want to eat the absolute hottest possible, which to me seems silly but is basically like riding a roller coaster, a safe risk that allows us to experience the feelings and chemicals of extreme behavior. It was this drive that led to a lot of the hotter chili species we see now like Ghost Peppers, which are not naturally occurring and were grown and developed exclusively for their heat. That heat is what led to chili’s epitaph of peppers. When Europeans first encountered them the hottest thing they knew that could be applied to this spicy plant was “pepper,” and hence is why they are often referred to as chili peppers, and not chili berries. Chilies are native to only the Americas, and have been used since 7500 BCE but were completely unknown to other cultures as far a we can tell until the European contact with the Americas. This European contact is also where the corruption of the name began, the original word, chile, was a Spanish transliteration of a Nahuatl word chīlli.

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

It was later “Americanized” into chili, which you will see used internationally as well, like in chili powder. Though the chilli spelling is frequent in the UK and some of its previous colonial holdings, but all spellings are basically correct. With tons of modifiers like sweet peppers, new local names like paprika, and almost infinite local variations from there they have made themselves at home in most countries. Really most spellings are OK, and people will get what you are talking about which ever one you choose, in the States chili and chili peppers are interchangeable. Or even just peppers, but this tends to be reserved for the milder end of the spectrum, like with bell peppers.

Chilies in their native home of the Central and Southern America’s native cultures were eaten with pretty much every meal and they were believed to cure colds, strengthen the body, and even cure depression. And it is fascinating that as they spread to new cultures, meals began to be not considered meals without chilies, or a dish with chili. In some Zen monasteries chilies are the only spice to life and food and without them meals feel empty. Delicious kimchi is required at every meal in most Korean households, and I know most Ethiopian food would seem odd if it was served without the kick of heat from chili powder in Berbere. They were used as a spice in drinks made of cacao beans, the tepid, sacred, liquid drink was known as xocolātl in Nahuatl, which is the origin of our word for chocolate and was the proto-hot chocolate that evolved into what we know and enjoy today. Champurrado, or Mexican Hot Chocolate, a drink with I mentioned previously, is a great marriage of hot chocolate, spices, and of course chili, is a somewhat more direct successor to xocolātl, but more to modern tastes. Chilies were thought by some cultures to prevent or ward off witchcraft, and any person that abstained from chilies was immediately thought to be a witch.

Their pungency has been used as a weapon, as in pepper sprays, They were also used by high class Aztec families to punish boys who were extra naughty, they were held over a fire that had chilies on it burning, which as you can see is not very kind to the eyes. And you will definitely feel his pain if you ever chopped up a chili and didn’t wash your hands well enough before touching your eyes. Luckily for us girls, they were just threatened with the fire and the possibility of receiving the fate of the boys.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it. Its good to be a girl sometimes

Since chilies were so revered and despite their heat so good for you, they became revered in all the places they traveled to. Columbus was introduced to chilies in the Caribbean when he landed there and was the first to append the name pepper to the fruit. It is speculated that the species that made it there made it in the digestive tracts of birds which were then exploited and cultivated by the native peoples.

Then the chili began to migrate north, and it found its way into what is now the Southwestern United States. The Nahuatl word for irritate or burning hot was tzilli, derived from the older Mayan word tzir, which then linguistically migrated north with chilies into the pueblo tribes (Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, etc) the word was changed to tsil or tsi which then became a figure in rituals, as well as kachina doll. The “chili runner” dancer, dressed like the Tsil kachina below (in general some variations occur), was part of most of these areas rituals. The chili runner’s job in ritual performances was to goad men and boys into chasing them. Winners of the races got prizes, and if you lost well, expect to be force fed chilies or even have mud thrown at you. Notice his handy headdress of chilies and the ones he carries, keeping them handy for stuffing in the losers faces.

Tsil or Chili Runner Kachina, hes a bad motha…shut yo’ mouth. No really, or you will get a chili all up in your business.

Once they migrated around the world they were adopted into many cultures and were used to ward off evil, its potency was thought to be linked to its otherworldly or a supernatural element. In India, ashes from the cooking hearth, chilies and other things, like curry leaves, are waved over the head of a person to ward off bad luck, or evil spells. One form still seen today in the form of ristras that you see all over the Southwest. You hang them over or next to a doorway to ward off the evil eye, and keep bad spirits out of the house. Some cultures include a dried lemon as well to help in warding off bad luck.

Ristras a common sight in the Southwest, and when I spot them I always know that I have left the state of Texas and am now in the land of the adobe pueblos.

You may have noticed that most of the locations listed, or even ones you already know that like spicy hot foods are in hot countries. This is because it helps to activate the body’s natural cooling system. Chilies heat causes sweating, and increased circulation, thus they help to cool the body more. But some chilies cultivated for their heat have gotten so potent that the capsaicin in them will cause the bare skin to blister, so be very careful when handling chilies and it is generally wise to wear gloves. Wash your hands well after handling them, and rinse hands with vinegar (after soap and water) to remove any residual capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chilies hot, and was developed as a defense against animals eating them as I said before, and it needed to be powerful enough to stop the offending munching mammal before it gets too far. So, be mindful, it is not there just for fun, it is a seriously powerful chemical you should treat with respect. Capsaicin, carried in the oils of the plant, is not water soluble. So next time you eat something that has a hot chili in it do not reach for water! Capsaicin is lipid, or fat, soluble and it is best neutralized with a fatty liquid, like milk products which are the best, or with alcohol to dilute it (but you need a lot as to be prohibitive as a solution, as Alton mentions in the clip further down). So grab that glass of milk, next time you bite off more heat than you can take.

The heat a chili has is different depending on the species you use, there are many, many different types of chilies and each one has a different level of heat. Some people think the heat is in just the seeds, but the heat is actually contained in both the seeds and the membranes inside the chili fruit. Removing these can reduce the heat of a chili, and if you are heat sensitive will allow you to get more of the flavor. Chilies are very sweet once you get past the heat, and it is why they go so well with desserts and are even ingredients in ice creams here. The oils containing capsaicin are released upon breaking the seeds or membranes, but are also present on the skin of the chili so don’t think they are safe to handle even if they aren’t cut. When you see experienced cooks grabbing chilies at stores, we always use the plastic produce bags as makeshift gloves. Now you know why, and a lot of us learned the hard way.

Of course due to the heat variations depending on the plant environmental and human cultivation variation, and we humans love to quantify things, there eventually came a scientist who wanted to quantify how hot is HOT when it comes to chili peppers. So how the heat is measured based on the Scoville Scale, which is developed by Wilbur Scoville and a poor, unmentioned, lab assistant(s) used as a guinea pig. Wilbur would feed a pepper to his “helper” and then they would count the amount of sugar water sprayed on the tongue it took to neutralize the heat. Which I imagine to be very much like this clip from Good Eats (sorry about the quality, it was the only one I could find, but I do love AB so)

This then gives the pepper its rating on the Scoville scale, which can be noted as SHU for Scoville Heat Units and ranges from zero to over two million. As per wikipedia, here they are broken down by examples of chili varieties and the approximate range of their heat. Of course you must note that climate and soil has a lot to do with the heat of the chili as well.

Scoville Heat Units Examples
2,000,000-2,200,000 Trinidad Moruga ScorpionCarolina Reaper
855,000–1,463,700 Naga Viper pepperInfinity ChilliBhut Jolokia (ghost pepper)Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepperBedfordshire Super Naga,
350,000–580,000 Red Savina habanero
100,000–350,000 Habanero chiliScotch bonnet pepperDatil pepperRocotoMadame Jeanette, Peruvian White HabaneroJamaican hot pepperFatalii
50,000–100,000 Byadgi chilliBird’s eye chiliMalagueta pepperChiltepin pepperPiri piriPequin pepperSiling Labuyo
30,000–50,000 Guntur chilliCayenne pepperAjí pepperTabasco pepperCapsicum chinense
10,000–23,000 Serrano pepperPeter pepperChile de árbolAleppo pepper
3,500–8,000 Espelette pepperJalapeño pepperChipotleGuajillo pepperHungarian wax pepperFresno pepper
1,000–2,500 Anaheim pepperPoblano pepperRocotillo pepperPeppadewPasilla pepperGochujang
100–900 PimentoPeperonciniBanana pepperCubanelle
No significant heat Bell pepperAji dulce

As you can see some of these chilies can get to levels that I would only describe as insanity. But these extra hot chilies are useful for defense and has allowed for stronger pepper sprays and repellents to be made. But it is also that heat that helped them spread so far in Europe, when they were discovered Europe was obsessed with black pepper. It was so precious and so expensive it was relegated only to the foods of the extremely rich and wealthy. But when chili peppers came on the scene, it was a whole new ball game. Black pepper was easily replaced by chilies who provided all of the heat but none of the cost. One of the court historians of the Spanish court, Pietro Martire de Anghiera wrote-

“Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent – but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavor, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi, it grows taller than a poppy – When it is used there is no need of Caucasian [black] pepper.”

Capsaicin, and the fruits of the capsicum plants also have their medicinal side, recognized in the past by the native tribes of the Americas, and now again in modern times. Recently some studies have shown that people that consume chilies more in general have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but I am sure this is just the same sort of myth as the fad Mediterranean diet or the Red Wine diet, but who knows maybe science will prove this one? Also as I said before they are a great source of some of the big vitamins that humans need to live, like vitamin C & A but it also contains a lot of trace minerals and other vitamins depending on variety and soil it was grown in.

If you want to get the most out of your chilies it is best to eat them raw, chop them and throw them into a salsa, or on top of a burger, or anything really. My husband and I go to a wonderful Mexican restaurant near us, and we are friends with the owner and his wife, and she never leaves home without a small plastic bag with a few habanero peppers in it, so she can put them on her food when she eats out. Which you could imitate with a milder version, if you so desired. My husband loves bell peppers, and jalapeños frequently throws them into burgers, fresh salads, chopped or just sliced onto pizzas. They are a great way to liven up a meal and get some healthy vitamins, which they generally contain the following listed in USDA daily percentage amounts.

Pepper Vitamins & Nutrients

  • Vitamin A – 6%
  • Vitamin B6 – 39%
  • Beta-Carotene – 5%
  • Vitamin C – 173%
  • Iron – 8%
  • Magnesium – 6%
  • Potassium – 7%

So you can see why they were so quickly adopted into most cultures as a daily food, they contain so much vital vitamin C it would ensure that none of them suffered from the debilitating disease scurvy. Chilies also help produce mucus and saliva aiding in digestion, and while they may not be directly related to the seemingly endless stream from your nose when you consume a really hot one, they are a great way to relieve congestion. I remember taking a few shots of a hot sauce of habaneros and I can say they definitely made you forget about how sick you were feeling even if they didn’t fix you up. Also the high vitamin C content helps the body fight off and fend off colds, so it is doing double duty.

I previously mentioned here and in my post about cinnamon, champurrado. You seriously owe it to yourself to make this, it is a fantastic cold morning breakfast drink and keeps you going until lunch. Or a great quick meal in the evening on a cold night, to warm up and relax you before bed when you don’t want a heavy meal. Dried chilies do retain quite a bit of their nutrition, and can help to make you feel not so guilty about this treat.

Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate)

  • 1/4 cup masa harina
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups whole milk (or milk substitute)
  • 1 round Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (Abuleita or Ibarra is great)
  • 2 cones (about 2 oz) piloncillo, chopped or grated
  • 2 quills Ceylon cinnamon, whole or ground
  • 1 whole star anise, optional
  • a pinch of ground Ancho, and Ceylon cinnamon ground, or quills for garnish

In a large pot, over medium high heat, mix the masa harina together with the water using a whisk, until it is thoroughly blended. If you want to start with the water already hot add a small amount of water to the masa harina before adding it to the hot liquid to avoid clumps. Add the rest of the ingredients, and whisk vigorously until chocolate and sugar are melted. As it is blended a froth forms, you want to keep this, some people skim this and set it aside and whip again. It is served with the froth on top, and you can purchase a traditional wooden whisk to do this, but you can also rotate the handle of a regular whisk between your hands to get a good froth going. Remove whole spices and ladle into mugs. Serve warm, with a pinch of Ancho (or more), or any dried and ground chili you like, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or a quill to stir with, and enjoy. For substitutions and more information see the original recipe listed here.

Another great way to get some chilies into your life is with salsa, salsa really just means sauce. But it has come to mean that junk that they pour out of jars in some restaurants that is bland and mostly just pureed tomatoes and onions. A really great salsa that you can make is one of my favorite, and most versatile salsas called Pico de Gallo. It can be made with just about anything fresh you have handy but I am going to list the simplest, and from what I have been told, the most traditional form.

Pico de Gallo (Fresh Salsa)

  • 2 medium Tomatoes, diced
  • ½ of a White Onion, finely diced
  • 1 handful fresh Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 small Limes
  • 1-2 Jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • pinch of salt

You can always use different chilies in this than just jalapeños, any pepper will do.  Dried chilies don’t always work well in this (and are not traditional) but you can always experiment and see what you like. You can also use a red onion instead of white. Garlic, either chopped finely or smashed in a mortar and pestle is a good addition as well. Throw everything except for the limes in a bowl, halve and squeeze the juice of one lime into the mixture and mix well. If it seems too dry, add the second, really it is your preference on what “too dry” is. Also a lot of people don’t like cilantro, which I think is crazy, but many of my good friends loathe it. So you can just leave it out if you are one of the mutants …I mean peeeeeeople that cares not for cilantro.

ProSalsaTipYou can roast the chili peppers before hand to give a nice smoky taste, or even roast them and the tomatoes and give them a rough chop or smash into a pulp – it ceases to be pico de gallo at that point but oh well it tastes damn good and is still technically salsa. Remember though they lose a bit of their nutritional value when they are cooked and raw is best here for all of the ingredients. Some mashed garlic goes well in this and my favorite roasted salsa chili is the serrano.

ProPicoTip: You can add any meat you like to this, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and whatever catches your fancy. This can also go on pretty much everything, got some fish? Bake that fish, throw some pico on that bitch, now its fancy Fish with Pico de Gallo. Got some Steak? Add pico instead of marinara! Bam, bistec milanesa. Make it from Mango and chilies, and lime, and it is now dessert pico, great on vanilla ice cream. It is good on tortilla chips, on fajitas, mixed into your guacamole, on tacos, on Navajo fry bread, it is just plain GOOD.

Jalapeño Relish

  • 25 large Jalapeños, diced or cut into small strips
  • 1 large White onions, diced
  • 1-2 Carrots, diced or cut into small strips
  • 3 cups Vinegar (White or Apple Cider)
  • 3 cups Water
  • 2 tablespoons Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Sugar
  • Canning supplies

The jalapeños can be all green or you can throw in a few red ones for color. When you dice them need to be de-seeded, and you should always wear gloves doing stuff like this, seriously people it is important. If you want more heat, you can leave the seeds in this recipe. You want about an equal sized mound of jalapeños and onion, and half that for the carrots. Throw them all in a pan with everything else, you could 2 teaspoons of cumin to this or 2 of pickling spice, depending on what you like. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. It is best to make this and let it sit for a bit, so wait to use it over night if you are feeding an army eggs in the morning and if not, can the relish. This goes on loads of things and is a sweet and spicy replacement for any where you would use pickle relish. Scrambled eggs with sharp cheddar cheese and jalapeño relish rivals biscuits and cream gravy as my favorite southern breakfast food.

ProCanningTip: If you have never canned anything check this out for a good how to.

Capsaicin is a great topical analgesic, and can relieve pain while providing a soothing heat. You can purchase a ready made cream, that can be applied for minor aches, pains, minor back ache, tired and sore muscles, or even sprains. There are also capsules, and other methods of delivery you can purchase over the counter. One that is as well known as the creams is dermal patches that you can purchase pre-made that work for pain as well. The theory on why capsaicin works so well for pain, and some neuropathy (nerve pain), is it floods the nerves by making them take up calcium, which prevents pain reporting. It also can deplete neurotransmitters with regular exposure preventing the chemicals that cause pain, or inflammation, to be released or taken up by the nerve cells. This renders them also unable to report pain, breaking the pain loop. It also contains an array of salicylates which tend to function like aspirin and may be why it is so good at relieving pain. It also promotes healing by drawing blood to injured areas, and is great for spasmed muscles and other circulatory issues. There have been quite a few clinical studies done to determine effectiveness, and there has been enough information to be very positive about its possibilities for natural pain relief, or possible new, less addictive or stomach destroying options than we have in man-made forms now.

There is a down side though, some people react very poorly to capsaicin in large amounts, and as I mentioned before could cause blisters or skin issues if too much is used on sensitive skin or if you have an allergy. I can not stress enough that it is important to respect the power of these plants. Do test patches and know your limits here, start on the low end of the scale and work your way up. I am pretty used to heat, but one evening I made a ton of chilies relleños one evening, and was literally cursing myself as I went for the vinegar afterwards for not first of all wearing gloves, and learned the hard way that shoving my bare hand in 10 poblanos was my skin’s limit. I didn’t blister but trust me when it is too hot, you know it pretty quickly. I already mentioned this salve in my honey post, but I am going to review it here with more information about the chilies and heat levels

 Capsicum Salve for Pain

  • 3 tablespoons Chilies (3-4 good sized jalapeños, 1 if you use poblanos or other larger peppers, no more than 3 habaneros), finely pureed or crushed
  • 1 cup Oil (jojoba, almond, olive, any good quality oil)
  • 1/2 ounce of Beeswax, granular or grated

To make this you will want to heat the oil in a double boiler, and add in the chili paste, or powder, and mix well until completely combined. Add in the beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. You can pour this directly into a seal-able container, or you can whip it with a hand mixer (or stand mixer) so it is more like a creamed lotion for ease of application. Apply directly to painful areas, and if kept in the fridge it will store for about 2 weeks. This is great for joint pain, muscle pain, and neuralgia. Some people use it for warmth during migraines, and it certainly can help if you have an area hurting that is hard to put a heating pad on, like your temple or cheekbone area. This is basically like icy-hot, but without the icy. 🙂

ProHeatTip: You can use dried cayenne pepper powder, but I find that it is less effective than the fresh since the heat in processing as well as the age can have a negative effect on the potency and effectiveness of the end product. You should never go hotter than habanero, any chili will do to make this except for the ones rated with Bell or Aji peppers which have little to no heat, and that means less capsaicin. The stronger (hotter) the chili is the more effective for higher levels of pain this will tend to be, and including the seeds and all in the puree will make sure you get maximum heat from each pepper. Though you want to do test patches since exposure to large amounts of capsaicin could cause blistering and actual burns. So make sure you do tests to make sure you can stand the heat. It is smart to wear gloves when chopping hot chilies (bell peppers and the like don’t count) but as soon as you hit any level of Scoville heat, glove it up. If you make the salve recipe and find it is too hot you can melt it all down, and add more fats (oils) to it to help dilute the capsaicin. You want to add oil a tablespoon at a time and test it on your hand, until the level of pain has reduced to a hot or warm feeling (whatever you need). Based on the amount of tablespoons of oil added, add more beeswax and attempt to keep the ratios the same. If you are unsure you can always remove a small amount on a spoon and let it cool, if its the consistency you want, you’re done!

mmkay?

mmkay?

Capsaicin is not water soluble and sometimes if you don’t scrub your hands enough (and don’t forget rinse with vinegar) and you have residual amounts, and you will have an unpleasant experience if you touch sensitive areas, like your eyes or “other” parts, guys pay attention here. So be smart, wear gloves.

ProPlasterTip: You can smear this salve on some fabric and apply it to an area to create a DIY heat plaster.

Some people find that an infused oil works better for the relief without as much burn and it is extremely simple to make. It can also be added to other salves and preparations to bring its warming qualities to other things you make.

Capsaicin Infused Massage Oil for Pain

  • 1 cup Oil (any good quality oil will do, coconut or olive is best since they are probably the most easy to get)
  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • Jar
  • Sunny windowsill

Throw it all in the jar, and seal it tightly. Put it on a windowsill shaking it daily for 7-14 days, the longer the stronger here. Then strain, and store in a dark bottle. This is a great massage oil for bringing heat and circulation to painful or stiff areas, allowing the muscles to relax. It is also a great way to ease the pain of stiff joints or lower back pain, as well as topical nerve pains. You can add peppermint oil for a cooling effect and increase the effectiveness of it relieving muscle pain and spasms.

Capsaicin Tincture

  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • 1 cup Alcohol (vodka or grain alcohol)
  • Jar

Throw it all in the jar, and let it sit for a few weeks about 3-4, but give it a shake every day or so when you remember. Strain and store in a dark bottle as well. A drop or two on the skin and rubbed in can be a good local joint or muscle pain reliever. Also, if you have a cold, a drop or two under the tongue, or even in some lemon tea is a great way to get a stuffed nose flowing.

I have also heard of people putting a small sprinkle of chili powder in their socks to keep feet warm in winter even, which I am not sure I could get into trying that. But if you are going to be out for a long time in the cold, it is a sure way to make sure blood keeps going to those areas. You could use the oils or the salve to do the same as well, but seeing how we don’t have a lot of snow this isn’t something I have been able to test out.

Again, respect the chilies and they will be your friend. But if you are careless you will have instant regrets for your foolhardy ways, as the burn is a great teacher of limits. If you have allergies or are on medications, checking places like WebMD first is a good place to start for if this is the right remedy for you. Do those test patches, listen to your body and know your limits. This stuff is NOT a toy. Do your own research, and if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!


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Pine, the Sacred Tree of Attis

Pine, another one of those hidden in the open, or as my Mom likes to say “if it was a snake it woulda bit ya,” plants that has a ton of uses but never really gets noticed…unless you are looking for a Christmas tree. Pines though, are a common species, and a very old species, used by many cultures since it has a pretty wide spread across the world with many different species. It is a relative of juniper, and of fir and cypress trees (which will be covered in later posts), and has species in every part of the globe.

Some more personal history of pines here, the tragic Bastrop fires in 2011 burned a massive amount of farm/ranch land, and houses, which was devastating enough. But it also burned some very rare pines called the Lost Pines, which is a group of Loblolly pines that were separated from their pine-y brethren in about the Pleistocene era. They are being replanted, but it will take a long time to replace these hardy, but beautiful trees in that area.

Loblolly pines, ancient, majestic, and useful!

Pine is one of those really great plants that is categorized as mostly harmless by most botanists and herbalists. In general, of course there are some that are exceptions. Since it is easy to find and most species are harmless I will not be differentiating between the different species (there are just too many!) But this is general information on pine and it’s uses, and I will list the most commonly used for each sort of preparation if there happens to be one. One of the best aspects of pine is, most pine species are high in vitamin C and vitamin A, and both are really important for your immune system.

From www.conifersociety.org

Pines, being evergreen conifers, all tend to have cones of some sort, as well as needle like leaves, and the leaves contain the precious vitamins and oils used.

I am sure everyone has heard about getting enough vitamin C in their diet. The big C is such a vital vitamin it is why the term “limey,” a not so flattering term, was coined for Britishers. British sailors carried lime trees, sometimes lemons, with them to keep scurvy at bay, and improve the taste of stale water. Grog was the most well known dosing method, it was a mix of rum, water and lime juice. This disease was a limiter (besides water and food keeping) in the “Age of Exploration,” in its prevention of travel too far from fresh food.  Scurvy is a horrible disease, it is an incapacitating and painful disease of malnutrition. It is like gangrene in that your body is slowly breaking down, and is an extremely unpleasant way to die. In fact it wasn’t until the 18th century during the first travels of Captain Cook that it was recorded that not one man was lost to scurvy, which was quite remarkable at that time. Many colonies also suffered from scurvy during the colonial eras, and it was the Native Americans in the North American colonies that showed the new settlers how to eat pine needles in the winter to prevent Scurvy from taking its toll during harder food times.

Vitamin A is one you probably don’t hear a lot about, even though it is crazy important to have in your diet. Vitamin A, which is also prevalent in pine leaves (or needles), is vital to the immune system, the health of your retinas, and many other things. Vitamin A is the number one vitamin in the world that people do not get enough of, even in the “developed” world. It is really important to make sure that your diet has enough vitamin A, since it becomes harder to absorb if you get cortisone shots, also if you smoke tobacco, or drink frequently, which may cause a deficiency. If don’t consume enough fresh fruit and vegetables – which is a major issue in most countries that eat lots of processed food – you may be deficient and not even know it. So while vitamin A is not as well publicized it is just as vital as C in your diet to keep that immune system fighting strong. This becomes even more important if you are receiving cortisone shots, since your immune system needs to be strengthened as much as possible to help keep you from catching every bug that you happen to come into contact with.

For more information you can read on cortisone here, and vitamins and their role in the body here.

So, if you are ever lost in the woods, you could probably make tea or just eat pine needles (the young leaves, or tips are preferred to eat or make tea with) to survive and they would probably be safe. Unless you are Bear Grills, and then you will probably be too busy drinking your pee to make tea of pine needles. I say probably safe since some species tend to be a bit more resinous than others, if it smells like floor polish you probably shouldn’t drink too much of it, since it could be too much of a good thing. Though you probably won’t want to drink much anyway, it is very much like drinking pinesol and quite a turn off.

Not only are the needles good for vitamin C and A, as well as safe (most species), but the inner bark also can be used. It is known as the cambium in science terms, but it is the soft sort of stringy inner bark you see when you peel the bark off a tree. The stuff in between the outer rough bark and the inner wood of the tree. This inner bark can be dried and used as an ersatz (substitute or famine replacement) flour, or even as a gluten free option for thickening soups, stews, gravy, etc. The Adirondack Mountains are named after the Anglicization of the term that in the Mohawk language was a slightly derogatory term for Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived near them. It also happens to be the Mohawk word for the porcupine, who also eats bark. It was first coined due to the Algonquian tribes eating bark and buds of trees in famine times. It was also used by some Native American tribes as flea and lice repellents in bedding since adding pine needles to it can ward off insects.

In Western traditions its boughs and trees themselves were and are used often in Christmas decorations, or just in winter decorations due to their pleasant smell and long lasting green, which is so welcome in the white days of winters. Pine resin was also used to make rosin, for bowed instruments, as well as furniture polishes. Hippocrates studied pine for its respiratory (pulmonary) issues and found it useful for throat issues. Pliny the Elder also mentions its great therapeutic value, stressing how important it is for the respiratory system. Pine resin was used to line, and thus water proof, wine jars, and the taste of the pitch came to be a preferred flavor in most wines, just like some today may prefer earthy or leathery wines.

The Greeks also held pine to be sacred to the god Attis, which is part of some freaky-deaky mythology that seems oddly relevant after that one rapper that cut his junk off.

Warning : If you are sensitive to stories about knives and willies, you may want to skip to after the image, if you aren’t read on brave soul. 

So the myth goes, Attis was the lover of a goddess called Cybele (who was sort of an earth/mother goddess – most of her imagery was in the same style as Isis, or Mary – the mother goddess pictured seated with a child in her lap). One day Cybele catches Attis getting a little too friendly-like either with a nymph, or he was being married off to some mortal woman by his parents (it depends on who, when, and where you are asking). In her rage of jealousy she drives Attis mad. Since he is now “cray cray,” to use the parlance of our times, he then proceeds to cut his junk off. Which seems like a sensible way to deal with the whole situation, but at least it gets you into the eunuch club.

“Wooo Pink Wednesdays! Totes worth it guys” – Attius

One of the earlier rituals performed for Attis was a ritual cutting down of a pine tree, which became the symbolic phallus of Attis, and decorating it before it then ritually penetrates the earth by being planted. After planting it, you have a drink and a bit of a knees up. (Almost sounds like a fun Saturday night right?) But later on as the cult travels and evolves, soon since Attis became a eunuch, that meant all of his priests had to be eunuchs. And the initiation ritual became a sort of castration get-together. First you get really worked up, “into a frenzy,” and then just lop one’s junk off. There was a lot of junk cutting off, and symbolic willies related to this Attis and Cybele pair, as you can see, and the whole thing made the Romans rather uncomfortable with the whole business (which I mean, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, and I don’t even have willy to cut off). But they let it go on, because hey, who wants to piss off a guy that gets so worked up he cuts his junk off? And a goddess that seems OK with that sort of thing. No one with junk to cut off, that’s for sure.

Trust me dudes, you think I get cuckoo for coco-puffs? You don’t even want to see her flip her bitch switch.

If you are interested in other pine myths, that are a bit less freaky, check out this site for a quick overview, and there is always the story of Sinis.

As a cook I am very familiar with pine nuts. They are fairly common in a lot of styles of cooking, especially if you are making Middle Eastern food, or Mediterranean foods. You can’t make traditional kibbeh or pesto without them. There is also pine nut oil, made from pine nuts, it has a useful low smoke point, and was sometimes used during Lenten traditions when fats are banned. Pine nuts are a luxury item even today, commanding one of the higher prices for nuts since they are difficult to collect and pine trees generally have a low yield. Their flavor is very much worth the work to get them, and it was one of the foods gathered by almost every people that had edible-nut producing pines in their areas.

Chemically pine needles and pine essential oil (since it is a distillation of the oils from the needles) contain a lot of chemicals we have gone over already like α-pinene, limonene, terpineol (warming) and others. So we know it is a warming oil, with anti-inflammatory, mild analgesic and anti-spasmodic properties. One chemical that is frequently talked about in newer information is that some studies have shown that pycnogenol, found in pine leaves, has some inhibitory action on inflammatory chemical signals (COX-1 & COX-2) and could be useful in the treatment of inflammatory issues maybe even other uses but there is not enough scientific evidence to back this as a wonder drug or anything of that nature, though many sites will tout it as such.

Pine essential oil is a multitasker, besides all its great external uses is also a great scent, and can blend well with a lot of other scents just to relax, or for mixing oils that smell nice as well as increase the medicinal properties of the pine essential oils. It is also good for chest colds and congestion, rubbed into the chest as an oil or salve, or inhaled – as steam by dropping a few drops of the pure oils into a bowl of hot water and then breathed in with a towel over the head to trap the vapors. Most pine essential oils I have come across are made from Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), but there are others oils can be made of, make sure if you are purchasing essential oils you know which species of pine it comes from and do your research to make sure it is the right species for your issues.

Pine Essential Oil Rub for Joints and Muscles

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil (you could even use pine nut oil, but any good quality vegetable based oil will do)
  • 10-20 drops Pine essential oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle. To use, massage into painful areas. Pine is great for aching joints, or just soothing muscles after a work out. I find this works great for minor spasm pain, and just to soothe achy muscles after injections or any sort of post-spasm pain. It can also help to alleviate stress, since its anti-spasmodic and slight sedative nature can relax the mind and body.

ProTip: if you want to add in eucalyptus, lavender, and rosemary they are all great scents that blend well with pine, and bring additional healing properties. Orange also smells great with pine.

You can make a pine pitch salves, which is not only good for pain, but great for wounds, and drawing out impurities (ie – splinters, gravel, dirt, really anything that you can get embedded in small amounts in a wound from a tumble). This is a very traditional medicine, something you could classify as “wise-woman” medicine, and was used by women in the frontier areas of America, possibly handed down through contact with Native Americans, to treat wounds that would otherwise have been a vulnerability for infection, gangrene, septicemia and other deadly infections.

Pine Pitch Salve

  • 1/2 ounce Bees Wax, granulated or grated
  • 2 ounces Pine resin
  • 4 ounces Oil (any good quality vegetable oils – jojoba, almond, coconut, olive, etc)

Heat oil in a double boiler, and add resin. Stir until melted and mixed thoroughly. Add in bees wax slowly, and continue to stir until it forms a uniform appearance. Pour into containers and allow to cool. Apply to wounds, and painful areas, as well as wounds with foreign objects, stys, splinters, and pimples. This is also great for fire ant bites, as it draws out the poisons, and regular bug bites.

You can also make pine tar tincture by dissolving it in a high proof grain alcohol (vodka, everclear, etc) in a 1 part pitch to 4 parts alcohol ratio. You can use the liquid to wash wounds, or as part of a warm water compress (a few drops on a damp hot towel or cloth) or as a sore throat remedy & cough remedy (recipes further down).

ProSurvivalTip: In survival situations you can also melt just the raw pitch, try to find large globs and remove them straight from the tree, and heat. Allow to cool until it is warm, and can be handled. While it is still pliable, apply to the wound to help heal and draw out impurities. The pitch once removed, will contain any foreign objects that were in the wound, and can be re-used to make a salve if conditions allow.

ProCollectingTip: Resin if you want to collect it yourself needs to be done in spring or summer when the sap flows in the tree. Usually you can find a tree that is producing sap from a naturally made wound, or you can cut the tree yourself and return to collect the resin. This is REALLY messy, sticky stuff, I suggest a dedicated collecting tool you don’t mind getting sticky or keeping kerosene or gasoline handy to remove it from hands and tools. It does well in parchment paper, and you can freeze it for easier handling.

Pine Resin and Raw Honey Salve

  • 2 ounces Pine resin (you can purchase this online, in some herb stores, or harvest it yourself)
  • 2 ounces Raw honey
  • 1 ounce Oil (any good quality oil will do)
  • Optional: 1/2 to 3 ounces bees wax, granulated or grated

Heat the oil in a double boiler, and add the pulverized resin slowly. Once it has melted and combined into the oil add in raw honey. If you would like a firmer salve, you can add in the bees wax, you would want to add it and do tests of cooling a small amount on a spoon to see how firm it will be. It is up to you, and the resin, how firm the salve will be. Pour into containers, and allow to cool. These always make great gifts for cyclists or hikers and ramblers 🙂

If you don’t have Pine resin available or you don’t want to bother with the hassle of collecting (or you don’t want icky tree bits in your resin) you can use essential oils to make an easy salve.

Pine Essential Oil Salve

  • 20-30 drops Pine essential oil
  • 1/2 ounce Bees wax, granulated or grated
  • 1/2 ounce of Oil (any vegetable oil)

Heat oil in double boiler, and slowly add in bees wax until it is melted and combined, remove from heat and hand stir in essential oils, pour into containers and allow to cool. This like the other salves is great for on the go applications for pain and wounds.

For a quick cheater version, you can use 2 ounces of any solid at room temperature oil and 10-20 drops of pine essential oils. Add the oils drop by drop as you whip the oil until it becomes creamy and like body butter.

Since it is such a great antibacterial, pine resin has been used for throat complaints for ages, an old recipe you see floating around a lot is for throat lozenges and cough syrups.

Pine Pitch Throat Sticks

  • 3 cups filtered water
  • 5 pounds sugar
  • 5 drops of pine tar tincture (the one mentioned above)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon Wintergreen essential oil (133 drops)
  • Good sturdy pot
  • Accurate thermometer (preferably a candy thermometer)

Combine water and sugar, and boil to the hard crack stage. Once it reaches hard crack remove from heat and spread on a greased cake pan or cookie sheet (if you don’t care if it warps put it in the fridge first to cool it), or if you are lucky enough to have one on a marble slab. As it cools add in the drops of tincture and wintergreen, you will want to mix this with your hands as much as possible, pulling and stretching the sugar as it cools to make sure everything is evenly distributed and well mixed. This is sometimes easier to do if you have someone help you with this. Once fairly cool cut and roll into sausages about 1/4 to half an inch in diameter and cut into half inch sticks, or inch long sticks if you like, and allow to cool. You can also roll, or dust, these in corn starch to prevent sticking and store them in a jar until needed. These are wonderful for sore throats, especially the ones that are very painful to swallow due to infection.

Pine Tar Cough Syrup

  • 1 cup Honey (local wildflower honey is the best choice!)
  • 2 tablespoons pine tar tincture

Blend well, and dose is 1 teaspoon three times a day for sore throats and cough.

Tea, one of the more simple ways of using pine is easy to prepare and use as a gargle, drink or even to add to a bath. And since pine is pretty much everywhere, you should always have a handy supply of vitamin C at your finger tips even in very urban areas. So next cold and flu season, you are prepared since vitamin C and A are everywhere!

Pine Needle Tea

  • 2 teaspoons of Pine Needles (fresh or dried)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

Steep for 4-10 minutes in a covered teapot or halve the amount (8 ounces water and 2 1/4 teaspoons) for an individual cup (Remember cover that teacup! You will lose all those oils that make this worth making int he steam if you don’t). If you want you can up this to 4 teaspoons (or 2 teaspoons per 8 oz of water) but I don’t suggest exceeding that. This is a great tea for stress or pain, or just to warm you and your joints up on a cold morning. It is also a great gargle for sore throats as well. For the best species to make tea with, it seems the general consensus is the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is the best sort of pine for teas, and there are some pre-packaged forms of this (in pills, teas, and dried leaf forms) if you don’t have this species locally, though most pines will do just fine.

Remember if you are not sure of the species, which you should try to avoid this, unless in say a super desperation situation, and the tea smells too furniture polish-y add more water and only use small amounts of the needles. I also find that using fresh or dried needles if they are whole a rough chop is sometimes needed before using them. If it is really off-putting you probably should find a different tree.

Pine Bath Tea

  • 2 tablespoons of Pine needles (dried or fresh)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

For this one the stronger the smell the better, steep for 10 minutes and add to bath. Soak for 20 minutes and enjoy the wonderful smell.

Pine Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-15 drops Pine essential oils
  • optional: any additional oils for any additional properties needed

Mix well, make sure you don’t have any lumps of oils, and store in a water tight container. Add about a cup full to a hot bath, and soak for about 20 minutes. Also you can include the previously mentioned herbs, or anything you thing would smell great with this to enhance the healing nature of the bath.

Holiday Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 10 drops Pine essential oil
  • 5 drops Orange essential oil (Sweet Orange or Bergamot would also work)
  • 5 drops Clove essential oil
  • 5 drops Cinnamon essential oil
  • optional: 5 drops Nutmeg essential oil

Mix well and store in watertight container. This is another great gift for the holidays or for relaxing during that stressful time of year. Gifts and a way to relax, told you pine was a great multitasker! 🙂

Remember everyone is different so make sure you do your own trials to see what works for you, and if you have any pine pollen allergies this might not be a remedy for you, do a small skin test before trying any of these remedies if you have that allergy. Make sure you check things like WebMD for interactions, and the like. And as always if you are ever in doubt, about anything at all, ask a professional!


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Pepper, The King of Spices

Migraines, migraines, migraines! Ugh, they sure slow me down but, never stop me 🙂 Luckily, there is black pepper to help with migraines, and it is great for other uses with a long, long history behind it.

I am sure if you went to an American public school that you learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, back in 1492, and he did so to find Spices. (If you didn’t I am sure you got a different story, and possibly more, or less, accurate depending on where you are.) Spices were that mystical substance found in the “East,” that were used to cover up rancid meat. Since apparently our “crude” European ancestors didn’t care if their food was off as long as it was coated in spices. Every country must have it’s creation myth, and this is the one taught here. ‘Murica!

Depiction of actual historical event, brought to you by American Public Schooling

But in all seriousness, spices are important. Important enough to attempt dangerous voyages, or commit horrible crimes upon the native owners of the fabled spice plants. I am looking at you VOC. Spices may mask some of the early stages of food turning rotten, but would not cover them all once it has turned, or make it alright to eat without severe consequences later. Also rotted food is gross, really gross. (Which if that stuff is your fancy, interesting stuff is being learned on disgust now and why we have it) Generally this myth about spices is not believed by actual historians, so while they weren’t used to make gross, inedible things edible, it did make edible things a lot more exciting. In the immortal words of Emeril, they let you kick food up a notch. BAM! It was that excitement of the palate, the way they activate the senses, and rarity, that made spices so desirable. Spices make the meal, it adds complexity, depth, and helps us avoid the monotony of blandness. Even just adding salt and pepper can take a meal from meh, to wow! But we, as a culture, hardly ever notice it as we dump massive amounts of both on our food, before even tasting it.

Spices usually traveled great distances, and because of this commanded great prices, and were first used in small amounts. Sometimes used as precious medicine, and many of them were, even if they were not necessarily used in the right way all of the time. Of course some of them weren’t medicinal, or magical, but were still used as medicine since rare things are often claimed to have powers to add to its price. Also used in cooking, but sparingly and it makes the dishes from Richard II’s kitchen more luxurious when you realize that a small piece of ginger was not only crazy expensive so only nobility could afford it but it made it all the way to England, over possibly months or even years. A lot of these spices that traveled far and were known in the historical eras dried easily and were easy to transport. Some of the most important were clovesginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, in later years nutmeg, and of course black pepper. Black pepper and cloves take the distinction of being the oldest traded, and most important of them all.

Pepper, most well known in its hard, small, bead-like black pepper form, is made from the berries of the Piper nigrum vine. This vine that grows native in India, but is a global crop now, and it is the little berries that are harvested to make what we know and recognize as peppercorns. The berries (drupes to be precise, but I will use berries since most people understand what berries are 🙂 ) hang in long clusters, and turn redish orange when ripe. They are sort of like harder, larger seeded grapes, or coffee berries.

Pepper091

Hard to believe those shriveled little black things we know, started life like this

Harvesting at various stages of ripeness, and its preservation method, determines the color of the end product. The vines are quite beautiful, and they like to grow in tropical areas where there are lots of trees and things to support its vine-y growth. Since pepper and cloves were so easy to transport, they were some of the first spices to travel and make it over great distances. Pepper was once the sign of great wealth, and was extremely expensive, hence its epitaphs of the King of Spices, or the Master Spice. Even thought its price has diminished to allow it to be more accessible, it is still the most used and most traded spice in the world. It has even kept its name Black Gold, though it now shares that moniker with crude oil.

“Wait!? Pepper!? That common thing that we pay as little attention to as salt? That is on every table, be it fast food or fancy. That pepper was crazy expensive?!?” You are probably thinking to yourself.

You betcha.

It was not only expensive, it was used as a form of money it was so precious. Many sayings come from this use of pepper, like in England  “peppercorn rent” came to be used for a token payment, or for extremely discounted rents. The Dutch phrase “peperduur” translates to “as expensive as peppercorns.” In the Middle Ages pepper was used to pay dowries, and even taxes. Now we have pepper everywhere, to the point we expect it and take it, and its low price, for granted. People purchase and use pre-ground pepper which is dry and bland, never getting to experience the complexity of white, or green pepper. Or the wonderful taste of black pepper when freshly crushed. Next to water and salt (which we really under appreciate), black pepper is the most common ingredient in cooking. But, considering we have used pepper since 1000 BCE, it is sort of easy to see how it may have become common, and lost its luster and air of exoticism. Americans consume about .25 lbs (.11 kg) a year and Tunisia is the highest consumption at .5 lbs (.23 kg) a year, and most of it is the most common black pepper.

Pepper has a long history with humans, it has been around since at least 2000 BCE in India where it has been known to have been used by Indian cooking for generations. It was found dried and stuffed into the nostrils of Ramses II, most likely placed there during the embalming of his body. Pepper is native to India but only in a very small place in the region of Kerala, and pepper had to travel great distances to get to Egypt. It is still not known exactly how pepper got to Egypt from India, since there is no documentation of it prior to 600 BCE. The most likely suspect would be by dhow, a type of boat that has plied the seas between Africa, the Middle East and India for longer than humans have documentation for, leading to a lot of debate on how early they could have been used just in general. Using the cycle of the Monsoon winds, as is done now, it would have been fairly easy journey from India to the Middle East or the Horn of Africa with spices for trade. After the Kon-Tiki, it is very plausible that these trips were going on for many years before someone happened to write it down. This trip is still made today by the same type of boats, and it is an easier route than the over land, later known as the Silk Road.

By about 400 BCE Greece was very familiar with black pepper, even if they could not always afford, or find it. They first called black pepper peperi. Black pepper was not as popular as Long Pepper, in Greece and was not a huge feature in their foods. The Romans later caught on to pepper and called it piper. Once Rome conquered Egypt and a sea route to Malabar was possible, and as it became more available Romans grew to use black pepper more frequently in their cuisine. In fact, they almost became pepper fanatics. Pliny the Elder complained that vast amounts of Rome’s income was flowing to the East. Brennus, the original Hells Angel, after laying siege to Rome demanded as ransom for the city 1000’s of pounds of gold and silver, and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns. Vae victis indeed.

Pepper traveled more and more widely and gained popularity in every country it traveled to. Up to the Middle Ages, all black pepper in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa came from Malabar. As Europe grew a taste for pepper its popularity there quickly increased. There is folklore that Indian monks used them for energy, and the term pepper came to mean energy or energetic, and it is where the term “pep” came from. Like with Tea, when it was scare and valuable, many people kept their precious pepper supply under lock and key. People considered poor were the ones with “no pepper” and in Germany a term for the rich was “pepper sacks.” Pepper is what made the wealth of the merchants of Venice, and was what helped to drive the Age of Exploration. Pepper was one of  the spices people sought to find a direct trade route to that started all those expeditions. If you were a merchant in Venice one of the ways to bribe a tax collector was with a pound of pepper. The oldest guild in London is the Guild of Pepperers, started in 1328 CE. Soldiers were given it as payment after battle, and when a wreck of a boat originating from England dating to about 1545 CE was found, all the sailors bodies recovered were found to have peppercorns on them. Not only was pepper wealth, it was easily portable wealth, which made it easy to carry during travel or trade. It was so highly prized, along with salt that you have fantastic items like the Cellini Salt Cellar being made. Which pretty much screams luxury at you, telling you how highly regarded pepper was, displayed in a golden and enameled chest next to a possible Earth goddess who faces her counterpart the Sea god and his boat of salt.

From mybluedanube.com

The very definition of 16th Century table bling

If you have ever been to a spice store, you know there are more types of pepper than just black. And to make things more confusing there are different types of black pepper. So it is important to understand what is out there, what it is, and what is important for cooking and/or medicine.

Variants_of_Pepper

6 of the different types of peppers. Red (orange) pepper is not shown

All of the below listed versions are made from Piper nigrum, which produces most of the well known peppers.

Red Peppercorns – (not to be confused with Pink (Rose) Peppercorns) these are pickled in brine or vinegar, and sometimes called orange pepper. These are not imported into many countries, and if they are, they are pretty expensive. Maybe I will get to try them eventually. The taste of these is said to be more mellow and similar to dried Tellicherry black pepper.

Green Peppercorns  much more affordable, than Red, but still expensive due to the amount of processing and all that work gives a small yield. These are made from the unripe berries from the pepper vine. They are then sometimes treated with chemicals to preserve their color and freeze dried, dehydrated, or canned. A more traditional processing means they are pickled in brine or vinegar. If you are making peppercorn sauce, this is the version traditionally required to make it.

White Peppercorns this is actually just the seed of the pepper berry with the fleshy outer coating removed. The berries are soaked in water until the outer fruit loosens around the seeds. They are then rubbed to rid them of the remaining fruit and dried. White pepper is often used in white sauces, to prevent marring the color where black pepper would stand out. White pepper since it lacks the fruit, does have a slightly different taste than black pepper since it retains its fruit coating. When I lived in Australia, this was commonly used in restaurants as the pre-ground pepper on the tables. I wonder if that is still done there? Muntok white pepper is grown in Indonesia, and generally hand harvested, soaked, and hand processed as well as sun-dried. It is the most common and best known white pepper, and is generally harvested well after ripening and then processed. It has a mild heat and almost wine flavor, it goes best with poultry, cream, and shellfish. Sarawak white pepper is from Malaysia and has more licorice or musk-like flavors, and is considered the better white pepper of the two. It is processed mostly the same as Muntok, except they are soaked in running water sometimes in jute bags which improves the taste. Again this is great for softer dishes and recommended for fish as well as all the things Muntok goes well with. Juila Child always said you should always use white pepper in a béchamel sauce to prevent unsightly specks.

Black Peppercorns – the still unripe berries are harvested and cooked briefly in hot water, they are then dried usually in the sun since the heat helps to change the color as well as dry the berries. These are what most of you fill your pepper mill with, or if you buy the pre-ground stuff your pepper shaker.  Tellicherry (which is a city in Kerala) black pepper is from the same vine as other black peppers, but it is allowed to stay on the vine longer until it is just about to ripen before it is harvested, giving it a more fruity or floral characteristic. Malabar peppercorns are from the famed Malabar coast in Kerala, and are basically the most well known black pepper taste, it is more bitter than Tellicherry more citrus and pine flavors. Black pepper can be used in anything from ice cream. the crust of your finely grilled steak, or just a sprinkle on your mashed potatoes. There are other types than just the two listed, usually based on what country they are grown in. Black pepper is the most valuable medicinally, since they still contain the black peppercorn oil, and this is the oil used for medicinal purposes.

ProTip: It is highly suggested that when buying a pepper mill one should invest in preferably of plastic or metal models, since wooden ones can actually suck the oil from the berries causing them to be less fragrant and potent over time. I have to admit though I have a wooden one myself that I don’t have the heart to get rid of since it was a gift, and since I use pepper a lot I haven’t noticed that much degradation.

Pepper has some sometimes impostors, useful cousins, and replacements – if pepper isn’t available. They have their own uses, and names should be noted if you are looking for medicinal items, to prevent confusion, since these do not have the same characteristics as black pepper and shouldn’t be substituted in medicinal preparations.

All of the below listed plants carry a common name of pepper, but are a different species from black pepper.

Long Pepper – made famous more recently by Sam Adams if you are a beer nerd, since it was used along with grains of paradise in a beer he made that brought back some old fashioned beer spices. Long pepper is usually tied (or confused) with black pepper and seems to have been used interchangeably or preferred over black pepper for its similar taste but slightly hotter kick than normal black pepper

Grains of Paradise – also made famous with long pepper in Sam Adam’s beers, this is not actual of the same genus as black pepper. This plant is more closely related to ginger and is sometimes known as African pepper, or alligator pepper. While it has a peppery flavor the chemicals in it are more closely related to the same chemicals produced by cardamom. Common in West and North African cooking, it is used in brewing as well as flavoring gin and sometimes akavit (a Norwegian alcohol).

Pink (Rose) Pepper – this can be one of two species Schinus terebinthifolus or Schinus molle, both of these are native to South America and is generally the pink-red peppercorns you can buy in peppercorn blends. This is a great culinary spice and I highly recommend keeping a black pepper, and a black, green, pink, and white peppercorn mix on hand for cooking. I love the taste of this mix on eggs the most. Pink peppercorns are antiseptic, and good for wounds but we will not be discussing its uses in depth in this post.

Jamaican Pepper – (aka allspice) I am including this one here since it was thought, when first discovered by Europeans, to be black pepper or some near relative of it. It is used in a variety of cuisines in savory and sweet dishes. Its current name allspice comes from its flavor which the English when first experiencing it thought it smelled of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg combined.

Adulteration & Substitutions

Peppers have been adulterated for pretty much as long as people were figuring out how to cheat others. Sometimes dried juniper berries were used, sometimes papaya seeds, which sounds a bit better than wooden faux nutmegs. If it was already ground, there are horror stories of people using dust from floor sweepings to adulterate pepper.

Some places use pepper substitutes because pepper either does not grow there, or it is too expensive to import. The desire to use plants that have this spicy effect to jazz up food, almost seems to be universal.It should also be noted that chilies are called peppers some places but are completely different, we will go over them in the future.

Because I love cooking, and these are all interesting substitutes. Not to mention possibly useful to people who have a pepper allergy. So here are some alternatives to pepper:

Why are they called corns though? 

They aren’t made of corn! Just like corned beef, or corned gunpowder, corn is a term for any small seed-like item that originates from Old English, and possibly proto-German. So since pepper berries once dried look like small seeds or beads, corn was applied to them and the term stuck.

So, OK, pepper is awesome, but also way more complicated than it looks.

How do you use it medicinally?

In the Ayurvedic tradition it was used to treat migraines, using a paste made from crushed black pepper cooked in milk and then smeared on the forehead. Ayurveda used it as a digestive, and for gastrointestinal distress, which the Europeans found the same uses for it too. It is also great for colds, since it increases mucus flow and can help get things moving again. It was also used in other traditions as a skin treatment to relieve hives and other skin issues. Black pepper is a natural antiseptic and is actually a great source of vitamin C. It should help to strengthen the immune system and is why its included in the turmeric tea recipe. You can always add a pinch of pepper to your turmeric teas, or ginger teas to help with pain and inflammation.

Black pepper has analgesic properties as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodics, its warming effect on the skin also feels lovely on sore achy muscles. Black pepper oils carry a lot of the same chemicals we have discussed with previous plants, camphene, α-pinene, linalool and other sesquiterpines are present which account for its medicinal versatility. It can also irritate the gut in larger doses, aiding with slow digestion or constipation, but small amounts help with digestion and “prevent wind.”

Pepper Oil for Sore Muscles and Migraines

  • 1 oz Carrier oils (any good quality oil will do)
  • 15-20 drops Black Pepper essential oil

Mix well, store in a dark bottle. Massage into a spasmed muscle, or just exhausted ones after a workout. It works great for areas of neurological pain, and massaged into the temples or a spasmed neck to ease the pain of migraines. The warmth and drawing blood to the area helps heal muscles, as well as ease pain. It works great for inflamed joints as well. You can always reduce the amount of pepper to 10 drops and include 10 drops of other oils like eucalyptus, lavender, copaiba, juniper, clary sage, clove, ginger, fennel and frankincense not to mention many others. Most scents smell nice with pepper (a good bet for a mix is floral or citrus) but will provide additional relief.

Black pepper is also good in a salve, which makes it easy to use on the go. So these are great to keep in your gym bag, or near where you work out.

Black Pepper Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, just should be of vegetable origin)
  • 1/3 ounce Bees Wax, granulated, or grated
  • 5-10 drops of Black pepper oil

Heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax. Stir constantly until fully melted and everything is combined. Remove from heat, and slowly stir in, by hand, the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is great for arthritic pains, rheumatoid or otherwise, and good for muscle pains on the go.

You can always make the cheater version by whipping 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the black pepper essential oils. You can also make a chai spice version which smells fantastic as well as helps with pain, and with the addition of raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

Chai Raw Honey Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (same as above, just make sure it is good quality)
  • 1/3 ounce of Bees Wax
  • 1/3 ounce Raw Honey
  • 2-3 drops ginger
  • 2-3 drops cloves (start with 2 and add more if you like since clove can over power things)
  • 2-3 drops of nutmeg
  • 3-5 drops cardamom
  • 3-5 drops cinnamon
  • 2-3 drops black pepper

First heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax, like above then add raw honey. Stir mixture until fully melted and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and stir in by hand the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is a great salve for painful cracked skin to help it heal, to put on a wound before bandaging, and is great massaging into painful joints and muscles. Also a great gift idea!

Home made chai tea is also fantastic, and there is a great recipe here you should definitely try, and I have more fast and loose recipe I like to use.

Chai Tea from Scratch

  • 1/2 inch to inch piece of ginger peeled and crushed
  • 2-5 peppercorns, cracked but not ground to powder (start small and increase to get it to where you like)
  • 2 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
  • 2-3 cloves, slightly crushed
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2/3 cup milk (or milk substitute, coconut cream goes well here, go for the full fat options if you are bold)
  • 1 teaspoon of Black tea (others are fine, and if you don’t have loose 1 teabag will do, Earl Grey will work in a pinch too)
  • Honey or sugar to taste

You don’t want the ingredients completely broken apart but crushed enough to allow maximum surface area for the flavor to disperse into the liquids. Throw it all in a saucepan cold, let it heat up slowly until just before the boil, making sure to stir or swirl the pan constantly. Strain and serve. This is great on a cold morning to warm the hands and ease stiffness and pain. But frankly it is good any time, and well worth the effort 🙂

Black pepper oil is also good, in my opinion, rubbed directly on the skin. Just a drop or two into one of my painful spasmed muscles brings soothing warmth as well as a smell that helps keep me alert. I enjoy it the most massaged straight, with no carrier oils, into my neck and spasms in my face when migraines are an issue. Which if you have sensitive skin this may not be the application method for you. I also don’t recommend using this near bed time as I have found the smell isn’t so great when you are trying to sleep. It is also good for the hair and a drop with rosemary on the hairbrush and brushed into the hair smells quite nice.

If you know anything about Italian food, or if you are an Anthony Bourdain fan, you probably have heard of Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. A dish that’s deceptive simplicity can highlight ingredients, or mistakes. You can never go wrong with Lidia’s recipes so I have provided her’s. This is my sort of simple comfort food, and reminds me of home since Mom would make this often. It also is a good way to get a good dose of pepper in your diet that isn’t a beverage.

Lidia’s Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

  • 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • salt for the pasta water
  • 1½ cups Pecorino-Romano, freshly grated, or more to taste 

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. 

Grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder. 

Warm up a big bowl for mixing and serving the pasta-use some of the pasta water to heat the bowl, if you like. 

Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Quickly lift it from the pot with tongs, let it drain for an instant then drop it into the warm bowl. 

Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments-add more pepper or cheese to taste. 

Serve right away while the spaghetti is very hot.

There are also some great recipes for Black Pepper Ice Cream, or a more advanced Black Pepper and Strawberry Swirl Ice Cream you should try.

All this time that little humble pepper shaker on your table has held all of these secrets, you may not take it for granted the next time you shake, or now hopefully grind, it.

Remember, do your own research and educate yourself before trying anything, and everybody’s body is different. Make sure this won’t have interactions with your medications by checking sites like WebMD, and if you have any doubts at all if this is for you, ask a professional!