Saturday, October 08, 2011

Herbal Snaps

Five good snaps

Some  are collectors of stamps, others of coins or books or tin  soldiers, and some are collectors of herbal snaps. They have a whole regiment of bottles with fine etiquettes, telling which herb is in the snaps - and when it was added to it. They are often members of a snaps-guild,  (Brændevinslaug) - and they take their hobby very seriously. The gathering of herbs, the knowledge about the plants in nature and how to make a fine herbal snaps is important.  And the drink must not be swilled down - no, a glass of herbal snaps has to be enjoyed at a special occassion, it is not a means of intoxication. They take care of their bottle regiment!

The snaps, known in Denmark as Brændevin, was once the simple drink of the peasants. It has to be taken into consideration that drinking water was rather bad at that time. Brændevin means Burnt Wine or Burning Wine. It was also used as a  medicine, both internal and external. Just 50 years ago were in some Danish farms a bottle with a bitter snaps in the house. It was used in occurring diseases. This snaps, called a Bitter, was made by the oldest members of the family, who Sunday morning sneaked out to gather herbs on the church dike. They had to do it in secret.

Strange things were added to the drink. Tales about snaps with wall-flower, crisp rusks, oak fern, dead man's bones, peony, feet of a bittern, spleen from a fole, red oak shots, white vitriol, great mullein, moose-hooves, capon-water, tobacco, swallow stones, agate, unicorn. This must be the so-called unicorn powderIn ancient folk medicine it was sold by wise women - and pharmacies, probably something they crushed from common animal bones.

The name Aqua vitae is mentioned already in writings by the Moorish alchymists.  The snaps was common in Sweden in 1500, and in the last half of the 1600s in all of Scandinavia among peasants, commoners and nobility. Aqua vitae, or the akvavit, was considered an eminent medicine because of its stimulating effects.
Asger Jorn: Dead drunk Danes
The snaps spread fast caused by its wonderful qualities, and people drank too much. They took a snaps or two in the morning and before meals , and king Frederik II had to issue an open royal letter in 1593 to the Danish Thing that the meetings had to begin early in the morning before people were dead drunk. Christian IV had an Aqua vitae regia with 23 various plant drugs and pulverized pearls. It was recommended for use on the morning after a booze. He had also a recipe from the astronomer Tycho Brahe's sister on Elixyr Thycons, a bitter akvavit, which among other things contained aloe, root of angelica and juniper oil. This snaps was effective against plague and epidemics. So they said.

In the 1840s there was a  strange custom among men in some places in the country. After a funeral  they gathered at the death-house for a guild, called ligdrikkeri (body-drinking). The men played cards and smoke tobacco and drank snaps. At such an evening they smoke about 1 pound of tobacco and drank 10 jars of snaps. 

Up till present the snaps was given to the cow and the wife when they had respectively calved and given birth. The cow even got bread and salt herring too.

Today the snaps is enjoyed cold, but once people used to heat it on the stove.

How to gather herbs:
Flyndersø, Sweet gale in spring
Gather roots in the autumn or early spring, while they still hold the reserves. Throw away the rotten parts and cut off the fine roots. Wash the roots or brush them clean with a dry, stiff brush. The large roots has to be split before drying. Gather stalks, leaves and flowers in clear, dry weather, best in the morning, when the dew has left the grass. Some have to be plucked as soon as the leaves have sprung, before the flowers arrive - others as soon as the flowers have opened (Wormwood and Sct. John's Wort). The plants must be free of dust, when they are gathered, since it is impossible to cleanse them later. Take the seed, when it is ripe and before it begins to dry - before it falls off by itself. The wild plants are better and more spicy than the culitvated plants, except for angelica and possibly wormwood.

How to dry the herbs:
Drying the herbs has to be in a shadowy, airy place - in the summer fx on a warm loft. Spread the plants on paper, like old newspapers. If the weather is moist or the plants are difficult to dry, they can be put in the oven at last to prevent them from going mouldy.  The drying has to be done as quickly as possible and finished as quickly as possible. Comminute the dried plants, (the drugs): cut into pieces, if they are tough, or pound in a pestle; keep them in bottles or boxes, but best not for more than a year. They must be looked after for mould and insect attacks, which often reveals itself by cobwebs in the drugs.

How to draw the herbs:
The effective flavourings are drawn from comminuted plant-parts by the help of neutral snaps or Vodka. The drawing time for herbs is usually 8 days in bottles, 3/4 filled, shake a couple of times a day. Filter the herbs, keep the tincture in a cold, dark place. It has to be clear with the smell and scent of the herbs and contain all the effective substances.

Five good herbal snaps:
Wormwood (Danish: Malurt)
Sweet Gale, Bog Myrtle (Danish: Porse)
Sct. John's Wort (Danish: Perikon)
Yarrow (Danish: Røllike)
Walnut (Danish:Valnød)

The Wormwood Snaps: 
Malurt snaps
The Sea Wormwood grows along beaches and in beach meadows and is easy to gather. Some call a wormwood snaps "the king of snaps", but if it draws too long then it gives a bitter substance. Drawing time 10-12 hours. Store for a year, but it is probably consumed before that since it is so good. Dry the herb about a week before drawing, but it can also be used fresh.Take the first light green shots in spring. Avoid the flowers, they might give a bitter taste, although some use both leaves and flowers. Flowers in August-September.  This snaps is first light green then dark green and at last brown. When you thin the essence it changes colour.

Kalø, Sea Wormwood
History and Legend:
Wormwood was used already more than 3.000 years ago in Egypt and Greece. Since the Middle Ages it was used as a spice in beer, since people thought it was able to prevent intoxication. It was also recommended for seasickness and much more. According to a legend wormwood was the favourite flower of the godddes Artemis, who chose it when she was mourning her husband's death. Absinthium means abstaining from, referring to Artemis who was the goddess of chastity. Another legend says that wormwood grew up in the traces of the snake, when it was leaving the Garden of Eden.

People hang branches of wormwood upon walls and doors of their house to keep away all evil, although the practical use was not forgotten. Wormwood was used against moths. The moth larvaes were partly almost extinct when small branches of wormwood were placed among the woolen clothes.

It is a brilliant herb for snaps, but it is also used extracted in water to help the kitchen herbs against insect attacks, and the branches can be put under the cabbage, when it has grown big. The scent of the herb keeps away unwanted insects. Branches keep fleas away from the basket of the dog and cat. The dried stalks among clothes and linen keep away the moths. The bitter taste of the snaps keeps the stomach in order. Wormwood has a lot of good qualities like many other herbs.

It is not advisable to drink too much wormwood snaps. The substance absinthin can cause nerve- damages, which shows itself by dizzyness and cramps.  The bitter substance is used as a flavouring of vermouth and absinth. It is prohibited today to sell absinth in its original strenght of 68 %.

The Sweet Gale, Myrica Gale, Bog Myrtle Snaps
Porse Snaps

Moor by Aqua Silkeborg
Sweet gale, Aqua by Silkeborg
The Sweet gale/Myrica gale/Bog myrtle  has a strong aromatic scent;  flowers in April-May, grows in heaths and moors. It is common in Jutland where it is called porse, but rare in other places of Denmark. A couple of branches, (both fresh and dried can be used), are enough for a bottle of neutral snaps; drawing time 5-8 days, then filter and store for 3-5 months. Thin the essence with neutral snaps. You can use both the flowers or ratkins for making the snaps.The first leaves of spring gives a fine lightgreen snaps. 

The wax coating on the fruit of several porse species, known as Bayberry wax, was used traditionally to make candles. It was used for that purpose in the novel The Swiss Family Robinson. The foliage of Myrica gale is a traditional insect repellent used by campers to keep biting insects out of tents. Several species are also grown as an ornamental plant in the garden. The fruit of Myrica gale are an economically important crop in China. It is also a traditional ingrediense in Royal Wedding bouquets and in various perfumes and as a condiment.

Sweet gale in spring
The Vikings used Sweet gale/Myrica gale as a spice in beer. In northwestern Europe it was much used in a mixture called gruit as a flavouring for beer from the Middle Ages to the 16th century, but it fell into disuse after hops had become widely available. In modern times, some brewers have revisited this historic technique. Danish brewery Thisted Bryghus produces Porse Guld, a strong beer flavoured with the plant. A brewing company in Canada produces 'Bog Water', a seasonal strong ale made with sweet gale. In Denmark and Sweden, the plant is commonly used to prepare home-flavoured snaps. This special flavouring is also produced commercially. (Porse Snaps).

It is a favorite food of beavers, and low beaver dams can be found where sweet gale is present. The ponds thus formed are often completely submerged at high tide but retain water at low tide and provide deep enough water to provide a refuge for fish, including juvenile salmon where the water is too deep for predation by wading birds. Thus the presence of Sweet Gale can enhance salmon recruitment.

NB: Myrica gale is listed as an abortifacient and, therefore, should not be consumed by women who are, or might be, pregnant. 

Sct. John's Wort Snaps 
Perikon snaps 

The Sct John's Wort is a common plant in Denmark, it flowers in July-August. For snaps use the fresh flower buds, drawing time 3-4 days, then filter. It gives a ruby red snaps with a spicy taste, good for the lunch table.
It is one of those snaps which get better when thinned. It can be used at once or stored.

The Sct John's Wort has got many names: Man's Blood, Man's Power, Christ's Blood, Sharon's Rose, Aron's Beard etc. -  and Snaps Wort.  It has an old Danish byname jordhumle (= earth-hop), which refers to that the plant was used as a spice in beer. 

The Latin Hypericum comes from Greek hyper = on and erike = heather. Perforatum refers to the oilglands, which look like the leaves were perforated with small needles. Because of the red colour in the leaves people considered the plant to be blood-cleansing . It was used in oilments and oils. The oil was used to rub on body in rheumatisn and fever. Today the pericum-medicine is used to treat light depressions.

If a weapon was rubbed with Sct John's Wort, you couldnt get hit, and if you had lumbago the plant would help healing it. The Devil was irritated over the healing powers of the plant, and he pierced it without killing it. Sct.John's Wort has to be plucked or digged up on Midnight's Eve. According to legend the plant came from John the Baptist's severed head, where the blood hit the ground. Sct Johns Wort grew up there. In the ancient North it was dedicated to the god Balder. People used it in witchcraft and to awake passionate love. The herb was considered to work against impotence.

NB: Too much intake of Sct. John's Wort makes the skin sensitive to sunlight.  (photo-sensitivity)

The Yarrow Snaps

Flower field by the sea with yarrow,  Mols
A common plant in fields, meadows and along roads.  Flowers in July-September. Use the newly sprung flowers , 1 dl for a bottle of neutral snaps,  drawing time a few days,  then filter. Store 2-3 months. The essence has to be thinned with snaps. Yarrow snaps is a fine red snaps, good for herring.

Legendary names:
The name Achillea is after the hero Acchilleus, who used the plant to heal the wounds of his soldiers. He was invulnerable except for his Achilles-sinews. Other names: common yarrow, gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man's pepper, devil's nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier's woundwort, thousand-leaf (as its binomial name affirms), and thousand-seal. The English name yarrow conmes from the Saxon (Old English) word gearwe which is related to both the Dutch word gerw and the old High German word garawa.

Yarrow was one herb identified at Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal flower burial of northern Iraq, dated c.60,000BCE along with a number of other medicinal herbs.Stories about yarrow feature in traditional Chinese culture. For example, it is said that it grows around the grave of Confucius.Yarrow also featured in British folk customs and beliefs. Yarrow was one of the herbs put in Saxon amulets. These amulets were for protection from everything from blindness to barking dogs. In the Middle Ages, yarrow was part of a herbal mixture known as gruit used in the flavouring of beer prior to the use of hop. (like sweet gale). The yarrow was used against fever, stomach ulcer and other inflammation diseases - and to wash hair in order to prevent hair loss. In the 1700s it was used in the kitchen -  and in cosmetics to smooth out wrinkles

pink yarrow
Yarrow is used in herbal tea and as a spice on snaps. The styptic effect of the plant is documented. Yarrow is also used in cleansing lotions for greased skin and in dandruff-shampoos. The juice can prevent cracked skin and is used in face masks.  The flowers and leaves are used in making some liquors and bitters. Several cavity-nesting birds, like the common starling use yarrow to line their nests. In the manga and anime series Bleach, the insignia for the Eleventh Division is the Yarrow; the meaning behind it is Fight.

NB: In rare cases, yarrow can cause severe allergic skin rashes; prolonged use can increase the skin's photosensitivity. This can be triggered initially when wet skin comes into contact with cut grass and yarrow together. Pregnant women should avoid intake of yarrow.

The Walnut Snaps

Walnut tree, Mindeparken
Last but not least. The Walnut snaps. When it is good it is much like a brandy. It is perfect for a Christmas snaps. Use the green fruits. Cut them in quarters and cover them in neutral snaps. Drawing time at least 3 months, or 1/2 year. Soon after having covered the fruits the essence will be absolutely black, but don't despair, the snaps will be a beautiful dark brown, a golden walnut brown at last. After filter thin x 6. A walnut snaps gets better when stored,  it can be kept in store for 7 years or more. This is a noble snaps!

green walnuts
There are several opinions about how long this snaps has to be stored. Some say that the snaps can be enjoyed at Christmas Eve for a late cup of coffee, others that it is a real sacrilege to drink the noble drops before they have been stored at least one year; the extremes are of the opinion that it is not a walnut snaps until it is 7 years old. Tastes differ!

The name derives from German wal and Old English wealnuth, literally meaning foreign nut. The walnut was introduced to west and north Europe very early in Roman times or earlier. It is cultivated extensively in some countries for its high quality nuts, eaten both fresh and pressed for their richly flavoured oil. The walnut oil is used in special oil colours and in fine soaps. The wood is used for furniture and rifle butts.

The Walnut was so valued by the Romans, both as yielding a furniture wood and as a fruit-bearing tree, that they probably introduced it both into Germany and into Britain; but it is not a native of Italy. Its original home seems to have been the north of Persia. In Skopelos, a Greek island in the Aegaean Sea, a local legend says that who plants a walnut tree will die when the tree can see the sea. In Flandern a proverb says that when the tree is big the planter will be dead.

Walnut tree, Mindeparken
There is much medicinal information about the walnut on the net, but I'll only mention one thing: Compared to certain unnamed nuts, walnuts (especially in their raw form) contain the highest total level of  antioxidants, including both free antioxidants and antioxidants bound to fiber. An essence of the leaves is used to protect horses and cattle against mosquitos and stable flies.  

NB: Horses should not eat walnut leaves, they can give them a hoof disease. 

Holger M. Rasmussen og Johannes Larsen, Brændevinsgrisen,  2002; M.T. Hortulanus 131 kryddersnapse efter gamle opskrifter, 1985.

All photos: grethe bachmann
except photocopies of Asger Jorn painting, Unicorn, green walnuts, glass, jar, snaps collection .


Wanda..... said...

So many uses for almost anything. Yarrow, Saint John's Wort and walnuts grow abundantly here...can hardly walk for the walnuts in some areas. We do eat some of the walnuts ourselves, but the squirrels are very happy to have them and the hickory nuts.

Teresa Evangeline said...

I loved the image of spreading out the herbs on newspapers in a warm loft. I wish I had the nerve to pick herbs and dry them for such purposes, but I don't trust myself. :) Absinthe was van Gogh's drink of choice. I don't think he fared well under its ministrations. :)

Love your use of Asger Jorn's painting of "Dead drunk Danes."

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! It must be wonderful to have so many walnuts. We don't have many here, only a few in parks and in private gardens. But the squirrel has lots of hazelnuts and acorn. Sct.John's Wort and Yarrow are common, and there are still flowering yarrows in the countryside. But not for long. We are now completely out of summer!
Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

Hej Teresa! It is very tricky to promise oneself to gather herbs and dry them for various purpose. Keep them in order ... I have often promised myself to do so, but time flies. I only gather a few perikons and put them on snaps when I come home - like fresh yarrow and wormwood. I don't have a loft and I don't buy newspapers anymore!! But people who are collectors like to prepare a snaps properly!

You knew that painting, didn't you? Jorn was a funny guy.
Grethe `)

Gerry Snape said...

Grethe..what a great post! my son works for a Swedish firm so flies over every month. In August he brought back a collection of schnapps and we had the best evening for a long time as we holidayed together in Cornwall,...trying them ALL out!! what fun.

Thyra said...

Hej Gerry! Thank you!
"What a great party that was!!" There are so many with various taste, also in the snaps you buy, and the Swedes know how to drink a good snaps. Did you have a "smörgåsbord"? Your son knows what it is. ´)