Ye Olde Apothecarie: Electuaries, Oxymels & Cordials

Behind a studded oak door, in the shadowy, stone-lined stillroom of an ancient castle, a healer thumbs through the parchment pages of her leather-bound herbal. Her patient, a lad of ten, sits with his mother beside the hearth, at once shivering and sweating in the grips of a troublesome ague. He coughs, his bony body shuddering painfully, and his mother hastens to tuck a woolen shawl more snugly around the ailing boy’s throat. The wisewoman slides them both an appraising glance, thinks a space, then nods and closes the book with a decisive thud, sending the candles sputtering. She bustles about the workroom, taking down herb jars from a cupboard, opening a pot of dark golden honey, her mortar and pestle at the ready. She knows what to do…

The wisewoman – perhaps someone like Claire in Outlander – likely chose an electuary, oxymel or cordial to treat her young patient. These are old-time remedies that most people have never heard of, but which some folk still use today.

20161012_122046-3Electuaries are herbal pastes made by mixing medicinal powders with a sweet binding agent (an excipient) such as honey, sugar-water syrup, nut butters, maple syrup, molasses or jam. In the past, they were a common way to make any unpleasant-tasting medicine more palatable; electuaries can be used today to help ease mild sore throats or colds, i.e. minor complaints which do not require a doctor’s supervision. The consistency can range from a syrupy liquid to a thick paste; adjust the ratio of sweetener to herbs for the desired texture. A good rule of thumb is 1/4 tsp of each dried, powdered herb to 1 tbsp honey. Electuaries can be eaten right off the spoon as needed (usually one teaspoon a day for a short period; do not overuse), rolled into lozenges, stirred into hot water, milk, tea, a smoothie, yogurt or oatmeal, or spread on fresh or toasted bread. Here are some choices for cold and flu season; use another type of sweetener if you don’t like or can’t use honey.

Cold Buster:  Powdered echinacea root and/or sage in honey
Vitamin C:  Equal parts hibiscus and ground rosehips in honey
Throat Lozenges:  Equal parts powdered peppermint leaf, sage and marshmallow root in honey thick enough to roll into a marble-sized ball (to suck on); roll lozenges in marshmallow root powder and set on parchment-lined cookie sheet to dry; store in jar.
Be Well:  1 tsp dandelion root powder, 1 tsp slippery elm powder in 2 tbsp honey
Tummy Tamer:  Equal parts powdered ginger and peppermint leaf in honey to calm upset stomachs
Get Your Rest:  Chamomile in honey

Cautions:
⇒ Never give honey to children under two years of age.
⇒ Do not give lozenges to small children, as these could be a choking hazard.
⇒ Before taking any herb, be knowledgeable of its benefits, risks and contraindications. If unsure, consult a licensed health care professional before embarking on any kind of therapy.
⇒ Avoid using if you are on medication or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
⇒ Honey is high in calories and high on the glycemic index, so use in moderation.

Oxymels are made by combining honey and apple cider vinegar, both of which have health benefits, with herbs. The ratio of vinegar and honey varies depending on taste; if you prefer a sweeter oxymel, use 1 part vinegar to up to 5 parts honey. For a tarter mixture, use 1 part honey to 3 parts vinegar. I’ve never made an oxymel, but the method seems simple:  fill a jar 1/4 to half full of herbs; mix raw honey and apple cider vinegar, pour over herbs and continue filling the jar to an inch from the top. Close lid tightly and let sit in a dark, cool place for 6 to 8 weeks. Shake or turn the bottle upside down every day or so. Strain out the herbs and store in a tightly-closed jar for up to a year.

Cordials can be syrup, a boiled infusion of honey and fruit, leaves or flowers, or an alcoholic liqueur. (Remember when Diana gets tipsy on ‘raspberry cordial’ – which turns out to be currant wine – in Anne of Green Gables?) Alcoholic cordials, also known in bygone days as robs, were taken for medicinal purposes. Non-alcoholic varieties made with sugar or honey are more common these days (technically speaking, a syrup is made with fruit juice and sugar, and cordials are made with honey). They can be taken for their health benefits, or used to flavour drinks, as sauces, or simply sipped on their own.

dsc_2965-5How to Make Elderberry Cordial:  For centuries, people have been easing cold symptoms and warding off the flu with a cordial or syrup made from black elderberries (Sambucus nigra), which contain Vitamin C and immune system-boosting antioxidants. Throw in the benefits of honey (antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory) and rob’s your uncle – you’ve got a delicious, versatile and healthful old-time home remedy!

2/3 cup dried elderberries (available at health and natural food stores and online)
3 ½ cups water
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger root
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp whole cloves
1 cup raw honey (Manuka or buckwheat are great for colds)

To a medium saucepan, add water, elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by about half. Remove from heat and mash the berries with the back of spoon or other flat object. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve into a large glass measuring cup or bowl; discard (or compost) the berries. To the lukewarm liquid add the honey, mixing well. Pour the cordial into a glass bottle or jar and allow to cool completely. Keep tightly sealed in the refrigerator for two weeks or more. Elderberry cordial can also be frozen; try pouring into ice cube trays and thaw for individual servings when needed. Makes 2 cups.

To take:  Children ½ tsp a day during peak cold and flu season; Adults 1 tsp a day. If you get sick, these amounts can be doubled until you start feeling better. Take from the spoon or add to hot water for a soothing drink.

Cautions:
⇒ Elderberries can be a mild laxative, so use in moderation.
⇒ Please see other Cautions above.

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5 thoughts on “Ye Olde Apothecarie: Electuaries, Oxymels & Cordials

  1. Most interesting! I work in a GP surgery and so many patients get really cross or ‘demand a second opinion’ if they are advised to gargle with salt water for a sore throat. People seem to want drugs or meds for everything, yet often natural remedies are just as appropriate, or more so.

    Liked by 1 person

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