The Garden Gate: Romany people on the right track with herbs, foods

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The Romany people, also known as Gypsies, are descendants of an ancient warrior class of northern India.

They traveled west in about 1000 A.D. Migrating through Persia and Armenia, they traveled through Europe and, much later, the Americas.

Today, the Roma are scattered all over the world. Their largely nomadic lifestyle is greatly influenced by the effect this had on their culinary ways.

Gypsy cuisine depends largely on whatever is in season and readily available, such as wild fruits and vegetables, berries, herbs, flowers, shellfish, fish and wild game.

Theirs is a unique way of life that has almost disappeared.

Wild foods have been vital to their survival, and most Roma people have a phenomenal knowledge of them and where to find them. The know which plants are poisonous, which are edible, which are medicinal and for what, and how to recognize everything edible in fields, byways and forests that’s free for the picking in the countryside.

The practice of using flowers in cooking is old. Medieval monks cultivated marigolds, lavender and daylilies to add variety to food, and Gypsies have long been famous for their many ways of using these fragrant, colorful plants in the same manner.

Daisies, dandelions, carnations and violets were used in salads and stews. Sunflower buds were cooked as a vegetable, and bracken ferns or fiddleheads were cooked like asparagus. Bracken and other ferns, such as swordfern and horsetail, have a similar flavor to asparagus. They are picked in early spring, when the young shoots are still uncurled.

In the area of medical lore, the Romany people searched for wild herbs in woods and fields. They used familiar vegetables to treat illnesses and heal wounds.

For instance, cabbage was popular in many food recipes and as an ingredient in soups, stews and salads. It was highly regarded for its germ-killing and anti-inflammatory properties.

Cabbage leaves were used as bandages to cover wounds, boils, sores and abscesses long before sterilized bandages were invented.

Insect bites and stings were treated with crushed cabbage leaves. A hot leaf was used as a poultice for aches and pains of all kinds, including arthritis.

The water that cabbage was boiled in was sipped for stomach ailments and was believed to prevent nightmares.

Garlic has long been famous for its medicinal properties. Since very ancient times, it has been valued for its nutritional and natural antiseptic properties. The Romas have long known the effectiveness of garlic in the many ways that have been proven by modern research.

It’s used to reduce cholesterol levels and increase resistance to infection. It’s also known to benefit the blood and the heart.

An old remedy for colds and coughs was chopped garlic mixed with honey.

Wild garlic was eaten raw as a spring tonic. It was sometimes mixed with chopped wild roses, sorrel or clover and watercress.

A tea made of boiling lettuce leaves was effective as a remedy for sleeplessness.

Generations of Romas have studied and utilized hundreds of wild herbs and plant in the realm of medical knowledge. It is truly amazing how many of them are still important.

Wild onions grow everywhere and may be used the same way that we use scallions in salads and other dishes.

Wild onions, garlics and leeks have been used since ancient times all over the world. They are readily available in their wild state across North America and are eaily recognized by their familiar odor.

“Shikako,” or “skunk place,” was a name the Menominee tribe of Native Americans called a region rich in the strong-smelling onions and leeks. This became “Chicago” in English. Stockyards, highways and apartment houses have long since buried the wild ones.

An old Anglo-Saxon record lists violets among the herbs that may be used to dispel evil spirits. Violets are amazingly rich in vitamin C, and the leaves are full of vitamin A. A half cup of violet leaf greens will supply as much vitamin C as four oranges and provide more than the recommended minimum daily allowance of vitamin A.

Violets have long held a prominent place in herbal medicine. The syrup is still listed in the British Pharmacopeia. Violet jam was sold during the reign of Charles II, and it’s still available in apothecaries as a remedy for respiratory ailments.

As spring turns into summer, wild fruits will be available in woods and fields.

“Many herbs in the springtime are commonly dispersed throughout the woods, good for broths and sallets, as violets, purslane, sorrel and others,” wrote John Smith in early colonial days.

What can you find in your own garden? Happy foraging!
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.