Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Tudor Stillroom

There are quite a number of words in the English language that I find very evocative, two of them are Tudor and stillroom - put them together and I am transported to another world filled with the scents of roses, herbs and spices, where gentlewomen and their maids used skills and recipes learned over centuries and passed on from one generation to the next. I think that monasteries were the first places to have herb gardens where they grew herbs which were used to prepare medicines for treating the sick and they had dispensaries and stillrooms. Readers of Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels will be familiar with this. With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1546 this free medical service disappeared and the Lady of the Manor began to take on the task of preparing medicines for her household. The stillroom would already have been in use for distilling aromatic waters, preserving, making cosmetics (some of which were pretty lethal!), drying herbs for winter use and for strewing herbs which were used for pest control. To this was now added the preparation of ointments, cough linctus, rubbing oils for rheumatic joints and so on.
The photo at the top is of Tina, our tutor, gathering herbs in the garden at Bayleaf Tudor farmstead.

The results of her labours - by no means all herbs would be grown in the garden of course, many would be gathered from the lanes around the village - elder, hawthorn, cleavers, nettles, cowslips among them. Gathering herbs is such a pleasurable occupation, so many of them have wonderfuls scents, roses, various mints, lemon balm, rosemary, southernwood(opinions differ here, I love southernwood but not everyone does, it has a slightly musky edge to the lemon scent). Then there are the beautiful colours of the roses, pot marigolds, hyssop, borage and many others.

The contents of the basket were added to the herbs that Tina had gathered and brought from her own garden. One thing I've realised is that a simple jug filled with a mixture of herbs is a very attractive sight, perfect for a kitchen windowsill or anywhere else for that matter.

The start of a healing ointment - extra virgin olive oil with a selection of herbs including ribwort plantain, pot marigold petals, thyme, marshmallow, scarlet pimpernel and fumitory. This is put to heat gently for 3 or 4 hours then strained and melted beeswax added. At this point speed is required to pour it into small dark glass jars as it starts to set incredibly quickly.

If you don't have any muslin to strain it through no problem - you go out and gather a large bunch of cleavers, make two circles put one on top of the other lying in opposite directions and hey presto! or abracadabra or whatever you wish to say:) It works extremely well too.

Not everything that is made in the stillroom is purely for usefulness, some are decorative such as the various flower sugars. This is one of the ladies taking a turn at pounding marigold petals into sugar - quantities are simple,one cup of petals to one cup of sugar. I have to say that one or two members of the class, including this lady had obviously not used a mortar and pestle before. It requires a rather more robust action than this I'm afraid :)

We also used rose petals and this is the rose sugar spread out on greaseproof paper to dry. When it's dry you store it in an airtight glass jar and use it to decorate cakes - and very pretty too. The sugar retains the scent of the roses so has a wonderful flavour as well as a pretty colour.

These are the flowers of rosa gallica officinalis otherwise known as the Apothecary's Rose. The scent is divine and the uses are surprisingly varied - rose petal jelly, the rose sugar, candied rose petals, rosewater, rose honey and, of course, pot pourri.

Before using the petals they need to have the white heel at the base cut off and then to be washed and dried. Here they are spread out on muslin to dry.

This is another use for the rose and marigold sugars - people in Tudor times loved sweet things and the shape was made using the sugars mixed with rosewater and gum tragican. The rose and marigold are done individually, rolled into thin sausage shapes and then plaited together. After this they are sliced into rounds and left to dry out and the finished product looks very pretty.

Finally I have to bring to your attention Peppermint Liqueur. I can only say that if you have never tasted this you haven't lived!! It is so simple to make and the result is out of this world but unfortunately you have to wait two years for it to mature properly:( This is Tina Stapeley's recipe from her lovely book Herbcraft Naturally. You need 1 bottle of brandy, a cup of roughly chopped or torn peppermint leaves, a cup of roughly chopped or torn lemon balm leaves, 1/2 tspn of dill seeds and 1/2 tspn of cinnamon. Use only perfect undamaged leaves, wash and dry them and add them to the brandy. The leaves don't need to be chopped that small, you are simply trying to release the flavour. Pound the dill seeds in a mortar, grind enough of a cinnamon stick to produce 1/2 tspn of powder and add them to the brandy and herbs. Screw on the top of the bottle or jar tightly, give a good shake then store it in a warm,dark place for 6 weeks, give it a gentle shake each day. After 6 weeks filter it through a paper coffee filter into a clean bottle or jar and add about a cup of sugar. The exact amount varies according to personal taste. Now comes the hard bit - put it away in a cupboard and forget about it for at least 18 months, preferably 2 years. The wait will be worth it. It's medicinal too as it's a good remedy for indigestion! Only a liqueur glassful at a time please:)


FrenchGardenHouse said...

What an absolutely smashing post, Rowan!!This looks so very very interesting and fun.

Thanks for visiting my herb garden just now, and yes, that's a bee skep, but it is purely "for looks" it has wood and wire bees all over it!
:) Lidy

Pear tree cottage! said...

Rowan, I loved this post and had to read it twice to take it all in.

It was like a breath of summer air and that is just what I need at this moment in time. The herbs looked wonderful and we have to note down the recipe your gave us and come summer tackle the task that is for sure.

Be happy always. Lee-ann

Miss Robyn said...

once again, I skimmed through the post so that I could comment - I was holding my breath as I was so enthralled... oh Rowan, I didn't realize that you went to a 'class' like this, I am sooo envious. Next time you go, squint, and see if you can see me in a past life, because I am sure I was there. perfectly sure!
off to re-read xoxo

Ragged Roses said...

I want a Tudor Stillroom of my own, or at least to go on that course! Every part of it sounds appealing (I think it goes back to when I was little running around the garden picking petals and mashing them up in water!). The rose sugar looks wonderful, iI've made lavender sugar which is great but not nearly as pretty! Can you buy the peppermint liqueur?
Kim x

Rowan said...

Kim, I'm pretty sure the liqueur is a do-it-yourself affair! Maybe worth checking online to see if it can be bought though - you never know. I would guess that the homemade version with fresh herbs would be better anyway.

PAT said...

Loved this post Rowan. I certainly enjoy all your adventures and classes!

Back Porch Musings

Julie said...

Rowan, I keep saying the same thing over and over again, but: "Thank you for showing me such a wonderful glimpse of England. I enjoyed every minute of it."

How I wish we had such interesting things to do around here.


meggie said...

Another wonderful post! I just love reading your informative posts, & can almost smell the roses!

Lynda (Granny K) said...

Very interesting and colourful, I would love to smell those rose petals! Good old Cleavers! How many times have I picked those off my dog!

rel said...

Ahhh, what intoxicating aromas must have filled your nose those days. In past years D. has dried many herbs and flower petals for sachets and pot pouris, but not so much in recent years, with working full time and all.
My sister makes a homemade raspberry liqeur and shares a small bottle with us each Christmas.
D. has a huge patch of southernwood, and sometimes I'm in the mood to smell it and at other times I find it less than pleasant.
I do envy (in a good way) your trips, excursions, and courses. Most of all I'm happy that you share these experiences with us!
Up til now we've had an unseasonably cool summer here on the east coast, but the gardens are thriving none the less.

What's your next adventure?

Miss Robyn said...

Rowan, I am back, after re-reading this post. I was in heaven as I am sure you were... what fun! I have pot marigold in flower right now and I am tempted to bake a cake just so that I can make some sugar.. Oh,how I would love to go to a class like this... maybe, just maybe I could try to when I get over there...
thankyou from the bottom of my heart for sharing this xoxo

Jenny said...

What a wonderful class that must have been! Making such useful (or pretty!) things from herbs and flowers is just fascinating to me. Thanks for sharing with us!

Shropshire Girl said...

What a fantastic course, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your account. Are cleavers what we call Goose Grass? They are too abundant in my garden and are so pesky, I didn't realise they had a use.
Thank you for your recent comment, much appreciated.

Kelli said...

What a lovely post! The herbs are beautiful and I love the idea of rose sugar. What a special topping for a cake!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a lovely scent-filled post. I tried to make medieval damp pot-pourri to a 16th century recipe, but I forgot the salt and it went bad, eurgh! We grow alot of herbs here, they are my favourite 'type' of plants, excepting of course, trees!

Have a lovely week!

Julie said...


You are welcome regarding the blogger award. As far as the award logo, I just right clicked on it and saved it to "My Pictures." Then when I had my blog open I just inserted it like I would any picture. Hope that helps! Believe me I am SO NOT computer literate.


Elisi said...


Sophie Honeysuckle said...

Another interesting, informative post!! Do you have a historical background Rowan, or just a keen interest?

Rowan said...

Sophie,Honeysuckle - I just have a keen interest in history - not so much the political stuff but the everyday how people lived kind of history. It was always my favourite subject at school.

Linda G. said...

rowan, another fascinating post! I've always had an interest in healing plants-have taken some classes and know a bit about the medicinal qualities of our native plants.
A friend used to make a remarkabley healing salve in much the way you describe, solidifying it with beeswax. It contained comfrey, yarrow, and aloe vera for three. We grew apart and I never got the exact recipe, but it worked wonderfully for children's everyday cuts and scrapes.
Hummmm... despite the drought, my peppermint is thriving....
Oh dear! You've got me going again and we haven't even blessed the well yet!

Amy said...

I've wondered what a still room is, I have some books by Norah Lofts which delve into old medieval and tudor England that I love reading. Thanks for explaining it :-)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos.
I love the Cadfael books.

kate said...

I am itching to try making peppermint liqueur. It sounds delicious. I am also going to try making rose sugar. What a wonderful idea.

You take the most interesting classes, Rowan. I love reading about them! What are you doing next?

mrsnesbitt said...

What a wonderful time Rowan, and so interesting!


Raindrops said...

Loved this post. I want to go on this course. Where is it held? Did I miss that bit? Is there a web site about this course? So many questions. Thank you for a brilliant interesting post. Tricia

Raindrops said...

Hi I did email you direct but it bounced back at me. If you want to email me direct my email address is on my blog

Janet said...

This post is fantastic! I always love these "teaching" posts because I always learn so many new things. Herbs have always interested me although I know very little about them. The rose sugar looks delicious. And the peppermint liqueur sounds great! My mom used to give me pappermint schnapps (just a spoonful) for a cough.

Lila Rostenberg said...

What a fascinating class to take! Perfect for an English gardener/herb lover! Thank-you for sharing so much of it!

Anonymous said...

This was fascinating, Rowan! What a wonderful way to spend a day. ♥

Sheila said...

Great post as always. I do love reading about your classes.
I especially find myself drawn to the braided 'sweet'it looks so pretty.

Anonymous said...

What a magnificent post, Rowan. I am going to go back and read it all again. I'm sure I missed some important tips. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Cherry xx

Marilyn in NM said...

Rowan, thank you so much for sharing this experience with us. I would love to visit the tudor stillroom. What an awesome post!

peppylady (Dora) said...

In school we learn about Henry the 8th and his 7 wifes and also how he broke away from the Catholic Church.

I got so much from this and like others read it twice and plan to copy it and e-mail it about.

I never heard of peppermint brandy. We have an alcoholic beverage called Peppermint Shnnups (Sorry it isn't spell it right)

Anonymous said...

beautiful fascinatiing post! I cant wait to try those sugars!

Gill said...

This is amazing stuff. There are more things in blogland that I have learned about today. I find this type of knowledge very grounding, because of its history in part, and also because of its simplicity. The everyday extraordinary.

Victoria May Plum said...

Ooh, great post.
I can smell everything from here!
There is something so magical about the Tudors isn't there? I am such a geek and love to go to re-enactments and history days! I would love to work in a Tudor kitchen and wear a costume all day long. I think that I may try making some Tudor sweets.

Victoria x

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, would I love to go on this course - it is just up my street! I've noted Tina Stapely's book and "may" just pay a little visit to Amazon in a moment . . .

I have a good herb garden here too, and would love to have one like they have at Kentwell Manor in Suffolk (where a friend has just got a job, lucky devil!) I'm going to give the Peppermint Liqueur a try. We already make Cherry Brandy and Raspberry Ratafia (which is based on any white spirit) and of course Sloe Gin or Blackberry Gin.

I also make my own hand salve with Elderflowers, which is great when you get those deep splits by your nails in the depths of winter.

Back to read your post again and indulge myself!

Spinning Jennie in Wales

Anonymous said...

P.S. Making your own pot pourri is lovely too - orris root is the essential ingredient.

If you have Buddleia, it dries very well and retains the wonderful perfume. Pick before the blooms start to brown.

Spinning Jennie in Wales

Anonymous said...

P.S. Making your own pot pourri is lovely too - orris root is the essential ingredient.

If you have Buddleia, it dries very well and retains the wonderful perfume. Pick before the blooms start to brown.

Spinning Jennie in Wales

Anonymous said...

Hi Rowan

What a fabulous post! I am a bit late in finding it, but I am so glad that I did. How I would love a still room of my own. Thanks for a glimpse of history.

Marie x