The Garden Gate: Could what cures death be in your spaghetti?

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Almost any spice or herb used today has an ancient history that is as romantic as poetry or music.

In ancient times, spices, herbs and perfumes were interchangeable. Herbs were used for everything from cooking and decorating to medicine.

Rosewater and musk were used to flavor food. Vanilla and cinnamon were used as perfumes.

Frankincense and myrrh, used both in the kitchen and perfumes, were the gifts chosen for the Christ Child because they were the most valuable and expensive commodities in the ancient world.

Herbs and spices are really no different now than they were then.

We don’t use the variety of herbs in each recipe that ancient and medieval cookbooks recommend, but the fragrant taste of the one or two we do use are just as much to be enjoyed as they were by John Parkinson, who wrote in 1629, “to set down the very many particular uses whereunto thyme is applied were to exhaust the reader.”

Or Dr. Garcia DaOrata, who wrote in 1563, “The scent of cloves is the most fragrant in the world.”

Paprika, used all over the world, has so much vitamin C that 1 tablespoon provides more than the juice of four lemons.

The soldiers of the Sultan of Turkey carried paprika when they came to conquer Hungary in 1699. It has since been a mainstay of Eastern European cookery.

Saffron, mentioned in the Song of Solomon, was used by both the ancient Greeks and Romans. Saffron has also been used for many centuries to dye the yellow robes worn by Buddhist monks.

How nice it is to know that basil has for generations been known as a love token. Or, as famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote in 1652, “Neither witch nor devil, thunder or lightning, will hurt a man where a bay tree is.”

To cook with herbs and spices is to capture a little bit of that romance. And to use herbs and spices in their many other ways bring an aura of history — and perhaps of prophecy — into our lives.

In medieval times, herbs and flowers were used to strew upon the floors of castles, manor houses and small dwellings to scent the rooms and provide a sort of carpeting underfoot, a custom which has survived in the strewing of flower petals in the paths of brides.

Rosemary is the herb of remembrance and faithfulness. It is often used in Christmas decorations and funeral wreaths for this reason.

An old romantic tradition says if a woman offers a sprig of rosemary to a man and he accepts it, he will love her forever.

From early times, herbs have been used in cooking and medicine, and they have played a large part in folklore, with all sorts of magical properties ascribed to them.

As early as 3000 B.C., the Assyrians, who are among the earliest of recorded civilizations and who settled along the Tigris River in what is now Iraq, were familiar with and used many of the herbs we use today in our modern kitchens.

The ancient Egyptians sprinkled parsley on the graves of their dead, and the Greeks and Romans put sweet marjoram in funeral wreaths.

The Greeks and Romans also believed in love potions made from various herbs, including anise, basil, fennel and garlic.

It was thought that anise made one’s face look younger than one’s years, basil attracted scorpions and thyme would not grow unless it was blown upon by the winds of the sea.

Culinary herbs were popular during the Middle Ages. Many of the same ones are still popular today, though they were sometimes thought to have other properties than what we think now.

For instance, there was a belief that marigolds, in addition to being used to flavor soups and drinks, would stop “angry words” and quarrels.

Basil was “for potage” and was sometimes put on the table underneath a dish of food “to prevent any woman to eat of it” because “men say that she will eat none of that which is in the dish under which the basil lieth.”

One wonders why this was a desirable idea.

Herbs have always been used in beverages, and many people today are supportive of herb teas and wines.

Woodruff is a traditional ingredient in the “Maibowle” of ceremony, and wormwood is used to make absinthe.

England’s Queen Victoria often spoke of the violet tea she remembered her mother recommending “to soothe the system” in case of fevers or colds.

Herbs have long been used in cosmetics. Sir Hugh Platt, an Englishman writing in 1609, claimed that sorrel would “take away freckles from the face.”

According to him, you “wash your face in the wane of the moon with a spunge morning and evening with distilled water of elder leaves distilled in the month of May.”

Herbs have always been connected with magic, superstition and astrology. Astrologers in the 17th century said every disease was caused by a planet and could be cured by plants gathered in the same planetary sign.

Both then and now, a popular use of spices and herbs is in the making of potpourris.

In Elizabethan times, pomanders were very popular and could be seen in many portraits of the time. They are apples stuck thickly with cloves and dusted with spices, or hollow globes of ivory or porcelain filled with herbs and spices and worn as a fashion accessory.

Garlic has, for many centuries, been regarded as a magical herb. It is said to ward off vampires, the evil eye and witches, as well as to soften ivory and to ward off insanity, sterility or mischief.

In fact, it was claimed that “it cures every infirmity except death, where there is no help for.”
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.