The Spring Pottage

Traditionally Imbolc was celebrated as the day that signified the beginning of the spring transition. As I’ve written extensively about that, I wanted to put this up before our green friends started to pop up and I thought today was fitting. Although with all the snow we have, it seems silly to be thinking of that now.

Spring is a time of year when people often addressed nutritional deficiencies of the winter by loading up on the early greens that pop up in the coolest days of early spring.. I know that you have been told that they did this by drinking a lot of “nourishing infusions” but that’s not usually the case. They were more often eating the leaves, saving the roots for making nettle ale and decoctions.

It’s an long held Irish belief that eating nettles three times in May, specifically the three days between old May Day and new, would protect your health for the coming year. I think clever women just devised a way that was easier to get certain greens into people in the form of creamy soups. I’ve also seen it recommended to put nettles in colcannon.

Potherbs are the key ingredient that often distinguished a pottage from other gruels or thick porridges that people ate more regularly during the winter season. The base recipe for the pottages are often similar with different potherbs and vegtables being used as they became available during the growing season. Elizabeth Clelland shares a recipe for a summer pottage in her cookbook published in 1755, that reminds me of the summer soups made with cucumbers and lettuces.

Herbs put in the spring pottage were those that popped early in the spring and were said to nourish or “sweeten” the blood. Nettles, wild garlic, leeks, and cleavers were common ingredients in spring pottages. English herbalist John Gerard wrote of a pottage women made with mutton bones, cleavers and oatmeal.

I shared my base recipe for a spring pottage when I posted the Brotchán Foltchep recipe, years ago. When I make a nettle pottage I simply replace the leeks with blanched and chopped nettles.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0527, Page 046 National Folklore Collection, UCD ca 1933

That brings me to another bit lost bit of knowledge which is how to cook with leafy greens. I can bring up dozens of examples where cooks of old recommended blanching the leaves and tossing out the cooking water at least once before eating them. I was taught to do this three times for some greens like nettles. We sometimes used the first batch of nettle water as a hair rinse, or to wash our faces. I might might add a post about using the roots for decoctions and making nettle beer later in the spring.

In The Scots Kitchen 1929 we are told to gather young nettles from patches growing high on the wall (nettles were often planted on the stone walls to dissuade visitors) and strip the 4 or 5 most tender young leaves from the top of the plant and then wash in several changes of salted water. So even though my family didn’t use salt, I started adding a little salt.

(While we are on the topic of Scottish dishes made with nettle…Nettle Kail is not synonymous with nettle soup. It’s a very specific dish I will share the recipe for in a different post with pictures.)

There’s a very good reason for this. Nettles and a lot of other leafy greens are particularly high in soluble oxalates. Too much prevents our body’s assimilation of soluble calcium by binding with it to create insoluble complexes which contributes to diseases like kidney stones. Oxalates also contribute to inflammatory issues like gout. Boiling reduces soluble oxalates in vegetables by 30-87%, but you have to discard the water the greens are first cooked in.

It didn’t matter if you were putting it in a tart or soup. That’s how they managed greens. It’s the same way Southerners work with poke leaves and it was used for other plants that might contain anti-nutrients, like in this receipt. My guess is that this Southern practice is a leftover remnant of that knowledge.


How to make Tartes of Spinage

Boyle your Spinage very tender, and three or foure apples with it, and when it is very tender, straine it through a faire cloth, and then season it with the yolk of an egge, Sugar, Sinamon, and Ginger.

Tartes of Borage after the same fashion.

A Book of Cookrye (England, 1591)

So my recommedation to you is to get back to seasonal living . Harvest your spring greens and eat them in tasty dishes when they are fresh, and then move on to other herbs as they pop up. It’s far more enjoyable than a bland infusion and probably a little safer when cooked properly.

Hamid, Ns Thakur, and Pradeep Kumar. ‘Anti-Nutritional Factors, Their Adverse Effects and Need for Adequate Processing to Reduce Them in Food’. AgricINTERNATIONAL 4, no. 1 (2017): 56.

Chai, Weiwen, and Michael Liebman. ‘Effect of Different Cooking Methods on Vegetable Oxalate Content’. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53, no. 8 (20 April 2005): 3027–30. 

Hippocras

Since the topic came up in a conversation. I thought I might talk about Hippocras. I make up batches of my hippocras spice blend and give it to people as holiday gifts. I think it’s a nice warming winter beverage which is is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and the digestive system.

Hippocras is Middle English name for an aromatic wine derived from the Old French word ypocras. This is likely named after the Latin vinum Hippocratum — a spiced wine strained through a Hippocratic sleeve. This was a cloth bag hung and used as a strainer to remove all fine particulates as in the picture below.

The first few times I had this it was made with a sweet desert wine to which they add cupsful of sugar. As I am not a sugar person. I didn’t care about making Hippocras for a very long time after that. One day I was reading through the English Texts Society’s printing of Harleian MS 4011 The Boke of Nurture (1465) in which John Russell shared that when making ypocras you should use a “red wyne” that is “whote [hot] and drye to taste, fele, & see.”

That was a game changer for me. I experimented with several versions before I settled on my favorite. The one I settled on adapting is from a 1559 English translation of Konrad Gesner’s Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri.

I think it’s worth noting that Gesner wrote about many types of aromatic wines as medicinal preparations which were said to be beneficial to people with cardiac problems, weak stomachs, or “defaultes” of the lungs. The one I chose kind of lets you pick and choose your corrigents as the situation warrants.

The inner barkes of Cinnamon. vi drammes: halfe an ounce of white Ginger hoole, Nutmegges elect .ii. drammes, Cloues, graines of paradice, of ether a dram: Cardamomum, Pep∣per, Calamus Aromaticus, Coriander prepared, of euery one a scrupull, mixte them and beate them somewhat groose. Eight poundes of wine, clari∣fied honye .xxvi. ounces, mixte all, and strayne [ xxx] them accordinge to Arte. Some clarifye theese spiced wines with Almond milke.”

I generally use galangal instead of ginger. It’s the most common ingredient in the receipts for “Cardiacall” persons. It’s a similar flavor profile to ginger and has similar antioxidant actions in terms of neuroprotection, without being quite so dry which I prefer for elders. You could also use hard cider or cider instead of wine. I also rarely add sugar, even to the wine. So feel free to add the amount of sugar that is to your liking.

The last sentence speaks to the process of clarifying a beverage that was wildly popular in the Early Modern period. It is similar to the way I use egg whites for fining wine. Cooks Illustrated wrote a great article about it several years ago, so I am not going to duplicate efforts on that topic.

Hippocras

Adapted from Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri

Ingredients

  • 12 grams Cinnamon (2.5 tsp)
  • 4 grams of dried Galangal or Ginger (1 tsp)
  • 4 grams of nutmeg (1 tsp)
  • 4 grams of grains of paradise or cloves (1 tsp) (I use both)
  • 2 grams of dried coriander, dried calamus, or cardamom (1/2 tsp)
  • 3 liters of wine ( Two of the magnum bottles)
  • 750 mL sugar or clarified honey ( 3 cups)

Directions

  1. If you are starting out with powders, you just mix the herbs together. I have to grind my herbs into a coarse powder to get started because I don’t keep powdered herbs around. I think that the coarse powder works better, and herbs definitely stay fresh longer if you don’t powder them.
  2. Once the ingredients have been ground to your liking you stir them into the wine. You could tie the mixture up in a small bit of butter muslin or cheese cloth, or seal it in one of those press and seal teabags. I will say that I think you get better flavor from the first method, but the second method is easier especially if you start with powders.
  3. The phrase “according to Arte” needs some explanation here. Traditionally this mixture is stirred into the cold wine, the wine is slowly warmed and then strained through a muslin bag. You want to use very low heat so that all your aromatics don’t steam off. Some recipes for Hippocras mentioned setting it near a warm fire in an earthen jug, rather than sitting it on the heat.
  4. I think the easiest way to do this without cooking the ingredients too much is to put it in a crockpot that has one of the keep warm settings.
  5. How long you allow the spices to infuse, is a matter of taste. I like to let mine warm for a couple of hours.
  6. Add the honey or sugar to the mixture, stir until dissolved, and serve.