and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature... and, being warned by Mr.Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish to the world, I have done it." - Nicholas Culpeper.
So there is this guy named Nicholas Culpeper.
Pretty active around England in the early 1600s, he was kind of the Robin Hood of medicinal herbs. Not to say that he stole the herbs from the rich, I mean it more in connection with his desire to bring medicine and pharmacology to all levels of society, and not just the wealthy and the latin-speakers*. Frankly, he was pretty reviled by the physicians of his day. He treated the ill for free and published books actively encouraging laypeople to source their own cures from the surrounding wilds, rather than paying top-pound for a complex concoction from Dr.Bespectacled.
Culpeper gleaned his knowledge from spending many years mucking around in the English countryside. He wrote several books cataloguing the various herbs and fungi that grew there and detailing how these native plants could (with the judicious application of astrology) be used to heal everything from excessive flatulence to an ectopic pregnancy. Not that he called it that, of course, but you get the idea. He also lent his expertise to some imported herbs from that time. But, given Culpeper's political leanings, I'm inclined to believe that he stuck to whatever was properly accessible. No point in giving a farmer the advice to soak his gouty foot in a bath of gold bullion, is there?
I was introduced to one of his books: The Complete Herbal...
when I was first trying to suss out how authentic some traditional recipes I found were. "Would they really have had access to that then? What can I include in my list of 'British Spices'?" and other questions. I, and a billion other internet users, got a hold of a copy pdf-ed from the library of none other than my-once-upon-a-time neighbour: The University of Toronto.
And I was put in mind to pull this post forward after our first market this past Saturday when I couldn't answer a question about cayenne pepper**. I had written most of this post some time ago, but I didn't give Nick the credit he was due back then, so he's headlining now.
ANYWAY, moving along.
This manual of herbs is truly great. Maybe not so much if you're actually seeking medical aid - I can't speak to the accuracy of any of these remedies - but if you're trying to determine what spices you can get away with including in your 'British sausages', you could hardly ask for more.
Going by Culpeper's inclusions, and a couple of more modern botantical books, I came up with a list of herbs and spices that were not only delicious but also in line with C&Q's mission statement.
Now came what I didn't realize would be the tricky part.
Just because it comes from here, just because it still grows here...well, that doesn't mean you can actually buy some. You remember that Hilarious Acronym from my last post? One of the most important control points in any business is sourcing. You can't just buy ingredients from any schmo off the internet. How do you know whether they are being as careful about safety as you are? All the HACCP plans in the world won't help you if you make your products out of malarial-infested peppercorns.***
So I contacted every spice and herb merchant I could find - many of whom advertised using British farms as suppliers... and nothing. Zip. Bupkis. They rarely wrote me back when I asked about which items were being sourced from inside the country, and when they did it was a pretty clear shut-down. In one memorable case, a purveyor who advertised their use of British farms all over their website told me that: "We cannot maintain a list of which herbs come from British farms because we cannot ever guarantee that this is currently the case." When I said that I just wondered if they had an idea of which herbs might ever, EVER, even if they rarely had them, have come from England - they wrote back the rather succinct response of 'no'.
This is amazing to me. I know this grows here! And you mean to tell me that I cannot have it?
When we discuss the odd problems that come with our economies going global, the 'global village', and the high cost of low price, I never once suspected that it might reach as far as an herb garden. Would you? More than once, among the few merchants who I spoke with, the words quality and consistency came up. "We would source our juniper berries from England - but they are just so much better when they come from Croatia". Now, it's worth mentioning that juniper is actually having trouble surviving recently in England and Scotland. There's even a Plantlife conservation effort drive dedicated to trying to keep this native bush around. One of the key elements of encouraging new seedlings to grow, wouldn't you know it, is harvesting the berries. So our reliance on Croatian imports is hardly helping.
And what does this mean for Crown & Queue?
Well, let's just say I hope you appreciate how much work went into our statement of "as many indigenous herbs and spices as possible". After a long and generally fruitless search (pun definitely intended), I finally managed to find some very small producers with whom to work. Rich, pungent Sage from Hampshire. Bone-white Sea Salt from Cornwall. Spicy Elephant Garlic from the Isle of Wight. To name a few.
But I'm not going to deny that it is tougher than it should be. And from a entrepreneurial's point of view, that it is more expensive than I might wish. Plus, I won't lie, there are some ingredients that I had to make the second-best choice of working with a small-scale family-run British importer to get because they just cannot be had from a local producer. Black peppercorns, of that malarial-mention, spring to mind. (But hey! India was a colony, right? Still counts.)
Ultimately, my hope is, if I continue to do my part, no matter how difficult, and maybe if other producers take the time and money to as well, we can look back 20 years from now and revel in a cornucopia of local abundance.
* Some context. Medical texts were still written in Latin around that time. Medicine and the practice of started in Greek and Arabic mainly, and when these were less commonly understood, it moved into Latin. Not just the terms mind you! The sentences explaining the terms too. Even after colloquial language had moved to Shakespearean English (Will actually passed away the same year our boy was born), medical texts were still completely in Latin - all the way until the 1800s actually
** I know that Cayenne isn't indigenous to England. It's named for a city in French Guiana - that's a prettttttty big hint. So I omitted it when I found it in a recipe for collared pork recently. But when a market-goer questioned whether a writer from 1807 would even have had cayenne, I was stymied. I pulled out my copy of Nick's book to settle the question, and it turns out, yes, they were using it as far back as 1653... so it makes sense that a Lady a couple of hundred years later might have had it in her larder too.
***I'm pretty sure you can't infect peppercorns with malaria. Sadly, Nicholas Culpeper wasn't as helpful about solving that query. But I'm pretty sure.