“As Rosemary is to the spirit, so Lavender is to the soul” – Anonymous
It’s that time of year when I have to get up for work in the dark, travel across London in the dark to work inside a windowless bunker for twelve hours and then leave work and arrive home again – in the dark. So for most of October, I’m usually daylight-deprived, weary, bleary and quite often… sweary. When I get home from work, my flat is cold, my cat is grumpy and all I want is a warm, comforting cuddle and something to perk me up and lift my spirits. Quite often this involves gin.
This yearning for something that is simultaneously comforting and reviving is, I think, distinctly autumnal. The air is chill, the light is grey and we crave both warmth and vibrancy. Comfort and cheer.
I used to feel the same aeons ago when I used to work dreaded nightshifts. Before heading in to my nightshift I would drag myself out of bed (usually after far too little sleep), go for a long walk and then slip into a hot bath. The only bath preparation that provided that vital yet elusive combination of warmth and vibrancy was rosemary. My fix of choice was the German brand Kneipp whose oils were sold at an upmarket pharmacy close to my flat. After much research this week, I have now discovered that their rosemary bath oil is no longer available in the UK – only from European pharmacies online so it will cost approximately £13-£15 to get my hands on a small bottle. Over the past few days my finger has hovered repeatedly over the ‘pay’ button. This morning, a small lightbulb flickered in my head -why don’t I have a bash at making my own?! Fun and (almost) free. And not the lurid purple colour of Kneipp’s that screams of unnecessary and possibly artificial ingredients. And, while I’m snipping my rosemary bush to make oil to put in my bath, I may as well harvest a little more to bake into delicious rosemary brownies to spread autumnal cheer to my colleagues in the dark, windowless news bunker. Because I’m nice like that.
Rosemary, with its pungent, clear sharpness is one of the most recognisable of herbal aromas. An uplifting, clarifying scent. A scent that has been scientifically proven to aid memory retention (Northumbria University study) and has been used throughout history as a symbol for both memory and remembrance.
Sir Thomas More, (1478-1535) English lawyer, author and stateman wrote, “As for rosmarine, I lette it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore to friendship . . .”
Students in ancient Greece wore garlands of rosemary around their necks, or braided it into their hair to improve their memory during exams. Others would place it on their pillow the night before to enhance memory during sleep. In medieval times it was planted on or placed in graves so that the memory of the deceased would never fade. Rosemary is still worn by Australian soldiers on Anzac Day to remember their fallen heroes in Gallipoli. It flourishes in the wild along the dry coastline of the Gallipoli peninsula.
Its medicinal, anti-bacterial properties are also well known. In France, up to and including WWII, rosemary was burnt, along with juniper berries, in hospitals to purify the air. During the Middle Ages it was hung around the neck to protect from plague. And many gentlemen used to fill the hollow ends of their walking sticks with it to aid revival during long carriage journeys and to act as an anti-plague nosegay.
French legend has it that if a man didn’t like the scent of rosemary, he would be an inferior lover. Empress Josephine is said to have asked Napoleon to wash in rosemary water before entering her bedchamber. Perhaps this explains Napoleon’s obsession with rosemary. Chardin, ‘Perfumer of Their Imperial and Royal Majesties’, recorded Napoleon’s use of 162 bottles of rosemary water in the first three months of 1806. Napoleon also favored rosemary for its qualities of restoring bodily vitality, brain stimulation and its antiseptic properties. Napoleon was such a fan that as he lay dying two of Chardin’s perfumed pastilles (compressed herbs burnt to release medicinal properties) were burning in his bedchamber. Thanks to Napoleon’s obsession, rosemary water subsequently became so popular that it was the first herbal product to be commercially produced and marketed.
Its name means ‘dew of the sea’ in Latin. Ros (dew), marinus (sea). It is alleged that the Virgin Mary draped her blue cloak against a white-blossomed bush as she rested along her journey to Bethlehem. After she awoke and picked up her cloak in order to continue her journey, the flowers turned blue. Rose of Mary!
So, research binge over, I went out into the garden a snipped a couple of good thick branches. The rosemary oil could not be simpler to make and within an hour you can stand in the kitchen, close your eyes, inhale deeply and really believe you are standing on a warm Greek hillside.
Rosemary Bath/Beauty Oil
• 1 cup fresh rosemary
• 2 cups oil
• Small sealable glass container – sterilize jar and lid by boiling for 5 minutes,
then allowing to air-dry before you fill with the oil. Start by plucking the rosemary leaves from the stem, and measure one cup to use for making the infused oil. Just pulling the leaves from the stems will make your kitchen smell amazing. You can also use dried rosemary although the aroma will not be as delicious or pungent. You can use any type of carrier oil for the simmer, but a high-temperature, low-scent oil is best, such as sunflower or safflower oil (versus more aromatic and volatile olive oil). Today, I am using sweet almond oil.
Measure two cups of the oil and add to the slow cooker. Set your slow cooker to ‘low’, add the rosemary leaves, swirl gently with a wooden spoon a few times and let warm for six hours. Turn off the heat after six hours. Allow the warm oil to cool in the slow cooker for an hour, and then strain over a bowl. If you don’t have a slow cooker you can put the rosemary leaves into a jar of oil on a sunny window ledge for a week.
Seal the jar and keep in a dark place—it is perishable. Enjoy in an uplifting warm bath, as a massage oil (great for foot massage) and as a deep hair conditioner.
And here’s my rosemary chocolate brownie recipe. In the summer it’s great with the addition of redcurrants but today I added some chopped dates. For a more festive feel you could add cranberries. Full disclosure – today I accidentally made this with salted butter but it was really, really, really good, the saltiness gives the rosemary an extra tang. I may always make it this way from now on. Happy baking!
There’s a rosemary-scented candlelit bath calling me. I may be some time…