How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir

This month the 8th issue of Dark Mountain (and first themed book and paperback) was published. Titled Technê, it is a wide-ranging collection of essays, reflections and maker guides on all aspects of technology and tools. At its launch at the /i’klectik/ art lab and cafe in Lambeth, I demonstrated in six intense minutes how to make a wild autumn mead, whilst Charlotte gave a slideshow of some of the artworks and photographs in this densely illustrated volume. I also joined the crew for this issue as proofreader and Charlotte co-edited the book and wrote two of its pieces. This is the first, a short practical one about making mead, which also appears on her own blog:

How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir – by Charlotte Du Cann

This is a mead made for a talk about Dark Mountain at the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, last June. My fellow editor Steve Wheeler and I had been invited to present our talk without any technology or power, as part of a ‘de-industrialising‘ workshop called ‘Breakdown breakdown’, organised by the artist and activist Brett Bloom.

I took a jar of mead along as part of the performance.

Honey and water infused by botanicals make the simplest, most off-grid, hands-on, archaic, indigenous drink you can find anywhere. You can conjure mead elixirs from any fruit or leaves or roots, depending on your intent or sense of adventure. Fragrant elderflowers, bitter dandelion roots, birch bark, hawthorn berries; the mead circles of rural Tennessee, according to master fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, make them with just about with anything. Ours had a fruity theme: conference pear, lemon balm, apple mint, lime blossom honey. The key ingredient in mead is raw honey. The honey has to be non-pasteurised, so it contains the wild yeasts that make fermentation happen.

Midway through the presentation, just after Steve had whirled about the circle of people, reading from his Dark Mountain piece, Ragnanok, about modern warrior training in Sweden, I passed the mead around to see if anyone could guess what it was. No one did, although a girl from Finland did say it reminded her of something her people made with raisins.

‘Well, if you know your Nordic mythology,’ I said, ‘you’ll know that when Odin and his sky warriors weren’t preparing for the Last Battle, they were drinking mead!’

The first time I encountered mead, I was investigating plant medicine in Oxford. One night, I dreamed my head was covered in bees. It was intense. The second time was at an editorial meeting in London. Six of us had been running a newspaper against the odds and were closing shop after three years. We sat in a circle, feeling The End drawing nigh, when the managing editor exclaimed, ‘Let’s have some mead!’ and brandished a Kilner jar containing an elixir of rose petals, redcurrants and windfallen cherry plums. Five minutes later we were all falling about laughing. I thought I was going to burst with happiness.

‘It might be the end of the world as we know it,’ I declared to the audience. ‘but at least we can have a good time!


1 handful each of mint and
lemon balm leaves

1 ½ litres of pure spring or
boiled water

1 pear (organic), chopped (or
any unsprayed seasonal fruit)

½ jar of raw honey (small
local producers rarely process their honey)

1 ½ litre Kilner jar

Pick a good handful of lemon balm and mint leaves from a garden or unpolluted location, and make them into a strong tea with some of the water (just off the boil). The water needs to be pure non-carbonated spring water. If you use tap water make sure it is well boiled,
or left open overnight, to rid it of chlorine (although it may still contain chloramines depending where you live). Let it cool.

Dissolve the honey with some of the cooled tea in the Kilner jar, then add all the rest of the ingredients, plus several fresh lemon balm leaves.

Leave the jar somewhere warmish and visible. Every day take up a wooden spoon and swirl the mixture briskly anti-clockwise and then clockwise.

It doesn’t matter if you keep the jar open or closed, but if you close it you need to ‘burp’ the jar every day. It will make a satisfying hiss as the CO2 escapes and froth vigorously. Each day the mead will look different. The colour and fragrance will change. Transformation is happening!

After about 10 days it is ready to drink – though you can bottle and keep it for years. It is particularly delicious mixed with wine, fruit cordial, apple juice and/or sparkling spring water.

All the ingredients in this mead are traditional herbs for relaxing and cheering you up. Contrary to expectation, facing the end of the world as we know it can be a cheerful thing, as every attempt to deny the situation, or to keep things going against the odds, disappears. It opens up a space you didn’t think was there. Suddenly you can see what or who was around you all the time, but you were too fraught to notice. 

The alchemical mead jar at the centre of the talk was a kind of metaphor for the Dark Mountain Project. I wanted to show hown if you gather some creative uncivilised ingredients (people) together, they can made a heady, healing and joyful brew. What is happening in that Kilner jar is the magic and medicine of fermentation – communities of microorganisms working together, exchanging material, creating new forms, making life happen. All the active ingredients in honey are dormant until you mix them with water, and then everything wakes up. The yeasts that live on the surface of leaves and the skins of fruit add to the live action and flavour. The sweet nectar of flowers gathered and processed by millions of bees feeds them, and then us. Rewilding in a jar.

Sip, share and enjoy!

Images: front cover of Dark Mountain 8 designed by Andy Garside; a late summer mead with cherry plums, rowan berries and mallow (Mark Watson); Mark in action at recent Raw Food and Drink demo at Giddens & Thompon’s Bungay (photo by Josiah Meldrum)

Sunflowers and Tree Spinach to Brighten up the Back of the Library

A couple of years back I suggested to Charlotte and Lynne at the local library that it might be nice to brighten up the back border behind the building with some summer flowers. They thought that was a good idea, and this year I got round to it.

I felt it should be kept simple, with some tall plants to reach the top of the fence – so I started off some sunflowers and tree spinach at home, dug, sieved and prepared the soil in spring and popped the young plants in at the end of May.

Here is a collage of the border, starting in May and going up to the end of August. Unfortunately there are no pictures of the moment when most of the sunflowers were blooming – including a very large one which decided it wanted to face the house over the fence and not the libary! – because I forgot to take them.

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But as you can see, it did make a difference to that bare edge… and as of today, 8th September, the ‘China cats’ are still putting out blooms, the tree spinach has flowered, and the one here has outgrown the sunflowers:

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Hello and thanks for visiting Mark in Flowers

A few words about plants and me.

I usually call myself a ‘plant person’, which is what people who are really into plants and spend a lot of time working with them call each other in the United States. I spent a lot of time getting to know the plants in south-eastern Arizona and I’ve always loved how inclusive and open this description is. Anyone can connect with plants, we’ve been co-existing with them for ever on the planet. It’s a question of attention.

I’ve been a community activist for many years and live near the east coast of Suffolk in the UK, where plants continue to inform and occupy a huge part of my life. Throughout 2012 as part of Sustainable Bungay in Suffolk, I curated a Plant Medicine bed in the local Community Library garden, drawing attention to just how much plants actually do and how multi-faceted they are. In conjunction with the bed I organised and hosted a whole series of monthly ‘Plants for Life’ talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers on everything from hedgerow medicine to growing organic and biodynamic herbs, from book readings on the dreaming of plants to ‘medicinal’ winemaking and ‘walking with weeds’. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come to any of the events I organise.

These days I also refer to myself as a plant activist, as a lot of what I do and teach is about connecting people, plants and places. I’m particularly, though not exclusively, drawn to native, medicinal wild plants and I have a fondness for members of the mint and sunflower families and plants from Mexico, where I have lived. I work a LOT with Ribwort Plantain, and Lemon Balm and Rosemary always feature strongly. Recently I’ve been drawn to the powerful-smelling and enigmatic Epazote. And then there is always Anise Hyssop.

PFTeapot1-5And I love making (and teaching people how to make) plant teas and drinks, appearing in many places with my teapot, from Dark Mountain’s final Uncivilisation festival where I led a medicine plant walk, to Transition Town Tooting’s previous two Foodivals, where I gave herbal tea demos. I continue to travel with my teapot, making fresh delicious teas from whatever herbal edibles and drinkables are within reach. Next stop is the Two Degrees Festival on 6th June at 6-7pm where I’ll be brewing up a freshly foraged and locally gathered convivial floral summer tea alongside Playing for Time author and friend Lucy Neal.

Recently I have expanded my plant activities to include fermentation and passing on what I’ve learnt to others through demonstrations and workshops. Herbal meads are on the cards for 2015.

I am available for talks, walks, workshops and travelling teapots and charge according to a sliding scale – I charge more if you’ve got more, less if you have less.

A note about photos and text on Mark in Flowers blogposts: All text, photos and artwork are by me unless otherwise credited. I’m happy for you to use them so long as you credit them to me (Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives)

‘Kimchi Slaw’ Variations and a Jar of Smreka

Dear Reader, this post follows the variations on my recent ‘kimchi slaw’ fermentations. See here for original recipe link.

11th March 2015
Kimchi-Smreka March 2015New ‘kimchi slaw’ in the jar, this time leaving out the shitake mushroom water, powdered kelp and onion and adding organic sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). This was dried, so I rehydrated it, draining the first 1/2 cup of water away (the smell was a bit strong for me, though I may give it a go next time).

I added another 1/2 cup water, then liquidised both sea lettuce and liquid for the sauce along with the cranberry juice, garlic, raw honey (from Bungay Community Bees), 1 homegrown Ring of Fire chilli, a lot of fresh ginger, half a dried pear and the flesh of a small apple.

These pickles/slaws/kimchis are really versatile. This morning’s version has a good, fresh smell of ginger and leek – I’ll be burping the jar from tomorrow and starting to eat it in three days.

The bubbling jar in the background is fermenting juniper berries aka smreka, following a recipe from Bosnia which appears in Sandor Katz’s excellent The Art of Fermentation. It’s been on the go for three or four weeks now, I release the lid at least once daily for burping, and I’ve had a sip – very light and sweet, even though it’s just juniper berries and filtered water with nothing added.

Early Feb 2015
The bulk of my latest fermentational ‘kimchi slaw’ experiment is made up of a Chinese cabbage Charlotte brought back from a Turkish shop in Tooting (on a recent Playing for Time visit to Lucy), along with local organic carrots, leeks, apples and a little chopped red cabbage.

This time I added a dash of organic cranberry juice to the sauce and the whole jar smells completely fresh and amazing. See here for full recipe and method of my previous kimchi slaw along with all relevant references, acknowledgements, inspirations and links!).

I’ll be tasting this one on Tuesday 10th Feb (giving it a full three days in the jar) and will report on it here (below the picture) for anyone interested.

Kimchi-Slaw 8 Feb
11 February 2015
Well that is my favourite ‘kimchi slaw’ ferment so far (even though I say that every time!). I enjoyed the fresh tartness of the apple (no pear this time), and the pungent flavour of those leeks goes brilliantly with the ginger. We opened the (litre) jar last night and finished a third of it, with handcut (by me) chips (French fries) done in the oven with rosemary, green peppercorns, rapeseed oil and lemon.

Text and Image by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license.

Is it Kimchi, A Slaw, Both Or Neither? I Don’t Know But It’s Delicious

P1020654 800x600It’s a ferment; it’s alive; it’s a revelation; it’s a meditation; it’s raw veg in brine; it’s part of a movement; it’s inspired by a dish that’s a national treasure; it’s fizzy; a few days later it’s not so fizzy; it’s radical; it’s an addiction.

It’s cabbage and carrot and radish and onion and garlic and chilli and ginger.
And a pear and/or apple, and honey, tamari and sea kelp and chives and salt water.

It’s also shitake mushroom water but that didn’t scan in the verse.

Anyway I’ve been making this pickle for a few months now, based on Korean kimchi and inspired and aided by fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, and the recipes by Garden Betty in California and Holly in Argentina, which I came upon on their blogs.

I’ve introduced my version of ‘kimchi slaw’ to people in the Raw Food Demos I’ve been giving at Giddens and Thompsons local greengrocers in Bungay, and talking about it to everyone else! Fermentation is something that really seems to excite people. It’s certainly got me going lately.

photo 4

The recipe here is my version as it stands now. It appears everyone does it differently. And the ‘kimchi’ never comes out the same twice. It must be the influence of all those shapeshifting microorganisms!

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home grown vegetables are always my first choice)

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot. Sometimes I leave this out if it’s not available and just use cabbage and carrot as the main vegetables.
handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water)

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 thumb ginger, peeled & cut into small chunks
2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 table spoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder
dessert spoon korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder
Note: for the most recent ferment I omitted the red pepper flakes/paprika, as I used two homegrown Ring of Fire chillis in the sauce – mainly deseeded but with just a few seeds left in. It was just the right heat, definitely pretty hot but without going into overburn!

Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 1½ – 2 hours or more, stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly at least once or twice during this time.

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 mins.

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I soaked the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water for the latest batch).

Rinse cabbage 3 times and let drain in a colander.

In a liquidiser/food processor place peeled, seeded and diced pear, roughly chopped garlic, sugar/raw honey, chives/onion, ginger and mushroom & kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce.

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked papriika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients.

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the sauce.

Keep in a cool visible place. Burp the jar frequently if you’ve closed the lid (see cautionary note below)*. You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ within three days. And mine never last much longer than a week before they are eaten up!

*A Word of Caution – take note but don’t let it put you off! If you are fermenting vegetable in glass jars with the lids on, you should keep them in a place where you can see them easily, because you will need to ‘burp the jar’ frequently whilst they are first fermenting. Even in a cold kitchen (like mine!) in the winter gas can build up in the jar quite vigorously. You do not want the jar to explode! The trick is to keep the lid on loosely so trapped gas can be released.

Kimchi ferment 2 [smaller]

I ferment my ‘kimchi pickle slaw’ in a mason or kilner jar. After pushing down the vegetables with the folded outer leaves of the cabbage and then with a weight if necessary to keep them submerged (the fermentation process is anaerobic), I place the the lid with the rubber seal on top of the jar leaving the metal clasp off (see pictures). This means the lid sits loosely on the jar, which can then burp itself and release the potentially explosive CO2 safely.

The picture above shows my latest pickle, bubbling happily and tasting great! (It was a full jar the day before yesterday!)

Kimchi & Squash

Sources and inspirations:
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing) for detailed kimchi recipes and methods (and everything else about fermentation). Just makes you want to try everything in the book from dosa flat breads to herbal meads. Excellent. Sandor’s book Wild Fermentation is brilliant too. Check out his website here.
Korean cook and blogger Holly at Beyond Kimchee. Lovely, very friendly and informative blog by a Korean cook living in Argentina (written in English).
Another great blog is from Garden Betty aka Linda in California. Again very friendly and informative with great pictures. The first kimchi recipe I tried was the red cabbage kimchi from Garden Betty’s blog.

Text and Images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license: Fermenting ‘Kimchi Slaw’ with lid on (see *note above); Raw Food Demo at Giddens and Thompson Dec 2014, me (left) and glam-fab assistant Simon Thompson (right); keeping the lid loose with fermenting vegetables* and fizzy (delish!) kimchi slaw; red cabbage ‘kimchi slaw’ & cha-cha or bom-bom squash with sage in brine fermenting (see recipe on Cultures for Health website).

In the Raw with Super Slaws

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This coming Sunday 7th December I’ll be making a second appearance at local Bungay greengrocers Giddens and Thompson, demonstrating some of the joys, great tastes, healthiness of and rationale behind live, raw food and fermentation.

The response to our first Raw Food demos in the shop “What Delicious Dish Can I make With?…….” at this year’s Waveney Valley Food & Drink Festival was really positive, so we decided to do three more on the same day as the annual Bungay Christmas Market.

The theme this time is Super Slaws and with the help of Simon ‘fabulous, glamorous (and indispensable) assistant’ Thompson, we’ll definitely be creating a storm, we just won’t be cooking it up.

Simon says, “Mark will be making delicious dishes that are not only very good for you, but taste amazing. You’ll be able to sample all the dishes being made and take away recipe sheets (as well as purchase any ingredients you might need, of course).”

And you will never look at a red cabbage at Xmas in the same way again!

Demonstration times are 10am, 12.30pm and 3pm. £5. Booking essential, please see here. Giddens and Thompson, Greengrocers, 01986 897944

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Images: Raw Food demos October 2014 with Mark Watson and Simon Thompson, by Chris Giddens; Sunflower seed ‘cheese’ by Mark Watson

Real Seeds and Stories 2014

A post that visitors to Mark in Flowers look at regularly is Huauzontle – Let’s Grow from Real Seeds, which I originally wrote about 18 months ago in response to the planned EU plant material regulations. As you can see I updated it over the following year as the discussions and campaigns progressed.

Essentially it’s all about anyone anywhere having and keeping the freedom to save and sow our own seeds, whether we’re gardeners, smallholders, farmers or plant people like me. This freedom is one of the things under threat from those planned regulations.

So this is a short post about some of the real seeds I’ve saved this year and some of the connections they have for me, along with a picture of the seed board I made yesterday.

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I’ve been very excited to grow and save seeds of the Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chilli, which is used all over Latin America, particularly in Peruvian cooking.

first lemon drops detailNot only are the fruits an astonishing deep lemon yellow in colour, but the taste is a phenomenal five second journey through various delicate aromas including citrus! Then the bite hits and it’s pretty strong. It’s well worth it though if you have the stomach. I’ve been making raw and cooked salsas with just tomato, lemon drop, a few finely chopped onions, lemon or lime juice and salt to taste. My mouth is watering!

I don’t know what it is about the Solanum family, but from potatoes and tomatoes to daturas and deadly nightshades, in one way or another they all seem to have the ability to grab our attention!

Lemon Drop chilli seeds are available from the Real Seed catalogue – then you get to save your own (that’s what’s great about Real Seeds, they encourage you to save and grow your own!). Lemon Drops don’t cross-pollinate with other chillis either as they are a different species.

I grew some ‘Sunzilla’ giant sunflowers (also from Real Seeds) this year; three of them took up residence in our centre bed at home and they looked great. I’m not sure whether seeds I’ve saved from these will be the Sunzillas next year as I had other types growing. But since my experience in 2011 with sunflower interpollination, I’ve grown much less controlling about it.

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Then there are the orange cosmos seeds. These seeds are truly real and saved, being the descendants of plants growing in Arizona when I spent quite a bit of time there at the beginning of this century. They are annuals so I plant them each season. I almost lost them in recent years as germination hadn’t been great, but this year they bloomed happily over the summer outside the back door (alongside feverfew, spearmint and Japanese mugwort) and I have good seeds for next season.


Real Seed Catalogue is great, but there’s nothing quite like swapping and sharing seeds directly with others. That’s sometimes how I’ve made friends with people. And so a word about the envelope marked Nick’s place in Bungay. Inside are seeds of Babington’s poppy (Papaver lecoqii), a UK and Northern European native wildflower which grows in all sorts of places including Nick’s garden. Nick is a formidable grower of vegetables and downsizer and over the years I’ve known him and through our involvement in Sustainable Bungay, we’ve swapped all sorts of stories and seeds and plants and vegetables. We’ve felled dead elms and organised home medicinal wine-making demos together.

So it was a poignant moment when he moved to Wales last month to start a new life. Nick is no longer there to visit at his place in Bungay but he leaves behind many great memories (and seeds!).

Images: saved real seed envelopes 2014; lemon drop chillies Capsicum baccatum 2014; Sunzilla is coming! 2014; epazote (left) and feverfew, orange cosmos, spearmint and yomogi, 2014

(All text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license)


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