Wednesday, 1 April 2020

An old Spring drink

When I was a kid one of the things I loved about April-May was the drink my mum made. A golden-brown liquid, fizzy and sweet and a little murky with yeast. She would pack me up a small glass bottle of it for me to take to school.

Just as much, I loved collecting the ingredients. It'd be a family outing on the weekend, to somewhere the London suburbs started turning into countryside. We'd look for the four herbs, two of which were very familiar, one less so and one I'd never heard of till mum showed it me.
Goosegrass

Then there was the fragrant cooking up of all this greenery in a massive pan with the sugar and then the yeast, baker's yeast from the bakery spread on a slice of toast and floated on top of the lukewarm liquid. A couple of days later, it was bottled and left in the cupboard to fizz up a few more days.

Mum called it Dire, and had different names for two of the herbs, names from her Northampton village. What I later learned was generally called Goosegrass she called Scratchweed, and Germander Speedwell she knew as Gill.

Germander Speedwell used to grow all over the place, apparently. You'll probably have more trouble finding this herb than any of the others, unless you live in the country. This may be connected with its history as a medicine - it was drunk as a tea in 18th century London for lung, skin and blood problems, to the extent that it was practically eliminated from the capital's green places. If you can't find it in your neighbourhood, you may be able to order the plants online. I pre-ordered some small plants for delivery late April.

Dire was in all probability a herbal health drink for the spring, a broadside of herbal goodies to banish the sicknesses of winter. Here's the recipe, in honour of my mum and the lineage she drew upon, and in honour of the spirits of springtime.

Dire Drink

Dandelion heads, picked when open: 4 pints (these are all Imperial measures)
White deadnettles, or stinging nettles, stems and leaves: 2 pints
Scratchweed stems and leaves: 2 pints.
Gill: 1 pint.
Sugar 1lb
Yeast (beer yeast is good)
Water

Boil herbs for 1/2 an hour or more. Strain liquor off, dissolve sugar. Make up to 1 gallon.
Allow to cool to blood-warmth. Add yeast.

Allow it to ferment in a covered crock or brewbin till it's fizzing. Siphon off from the yeast deposit and bottle in strong screw-cap bottles. Leave a few more days until it's clear-ish and fizzy.

Added after this year's brew:
I had a vague memory of my mum maybe using a lemon in it. So, added a teaspoon of citric acid to the brew - flavour is definitely more as I remember it from childhood!

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