Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Throat Jam for Winter's Coughs and Colds (And It's Scrumptious!)

(Also known as "Lemons and Honey and Ginger-- Oh, My!")

The seasonal change has rolled past.... A sunny gorgeous autumn is upon us; even as temps reach into the upper 80s each afternoon, the days are shorter, and the mornings are becoming cooler and darker. Around this time of year, I'm putting food up furiously-- canning, freezing, drying, and sharing the wealth with the neighbors. It's a response to an ancient calling, a push to prepare for the coming cold months, to fill the larder and rebuild the pharmacopaeia in readiness for the dark season.

Back in 2010, I saw a Pinterest pinning of a glass jar filled with lemons and honey, and it flashed me  back to a recipe taught to me by my grandmother, and even more deliciously, to the "hot toddy" that can be crafted from it. The women of GG's time, circa the early 1900s, were industrious and resourceful. They not only grew and processed most of their own food but also understood a great deal of folk magick and folk medicine, and they knew how to take the herbs and other plants that grew around them and make those into infusions, tonics, toddies, and more. My grandmother didn't just cook for and feed her family: she doctored them, too, and she ministered to a good many neighbors and sick animals as well. In her footsteps, I've been drying and storing seasonal herbs for the last several weeks: sage, thyme, mint, oregano, red clover, hyssop, rose hips and more, and feeling quite accomplished with my progress. But the image of golden honey and sliced lemons reminded me that I still had work to do.

The mixture in question is an ultra-simple blend of fresh lemons, fresh ginger, red pepper flakes, and honey, which, after sitting for a few weeks (if you can manage to let it last that long), matures into a jelly-like concoction that can be spooned into a mug and used as a base for a hot, steaming cup of medicinal goodness. Sound good? You can't even imagine.... So don't try to imagine: make some of your own!

For one jar full, you'll need the following:
  • A short, squat 8 oz (1/2 pint) jelly jar with lid-- ideally with a wide mouth (I have starting using screw-on plastic lids when I can find them; they're easier to be in-and-out of than the traditional canning lids.)
  • Two lemons
  • An inch-long piece of fresh ginger root
  • Red pepper flakes-- for best results, they should be fresh; you'll need maybe 1/4 tsp. per jar
  • Honey-- somewhere between 1/4-1/2 cup
  • Optional: powdered cinnamon, black peppercorns
Note: for best results, use organic materials. Before using, scrub the lemons with detergent and water to remove any surface wax. Rinse well and pat dry. Make sure the jar and lids are freshly washed--dipping jars and metal lids in boiling water is recommended.

The Making

1. Slice the lemons very thinly, removing seeds as you go.

2. Peel the ginger root; using a spoon's edge is an easy way to do this. Slice the peeled root into very thin slices, and chop up a bit.

3. Layer several lemon slices in the jar, then top with a few pieces of ginger and add a few red pepper flakes. Repeat this until the jar is full. Cut the lemon slices as needed for a better fit: the more lemon and ginger you can fit into the jar, the better--and feel free to press down on the mixture a little bit.

4. When the jar is half-full, begin adding spoonfuls of honey. Slide a knife down the edge of the mixture to release air bubbles. This process can take time; you'll want enough honey to fill every nook and cranny and to cover the contents. Repeat the addition of honey once the jar is full.

5. If you want to add a big pinch of cinnamon and a few peppercorns, add them as you proceed. These are optional, but they do add warmth and heat to the blend.

6. Screw on the lid, and let the jar sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Then invert the jars a few times before opening them to check the fluid level. The goal is to have them filled to about 1/2" from jar's top, and you may need to add a bit more honey.

For best results, refrigerate the throat jam for at least one or two months-- three or four months is even better. I usually make several jars and push them to the far back of the fridge. I find that I end up giving at least half the annual batch away to miserable friends.

Notes and Experiments

Warming the honey a bit before using will thin it and make it easier to work with.

The finished jam may vary in consistency from a thick preserves-like texture to a very liquid, juicy mixture. Either performs equally well-- the variance simply depends on juicy the lemons were and the honey's viscosity.

Although layering whole lemon slices in the jar looks pretty, you can speed the "jellying" process up by chopping the lemon into smaller pieces, either using a knife or a food processor (right). It won't look as pretty in the jar, but the smaller pieces soften more quickly than the slices, and the throat jam will be ready to use sooner. It will also be easier to spoon out and handle.

In continuing to fiddle with this recipe, I have also tried chopping the lemon slices and simmering them in an open kettle for about 15 minutes over low-ish heat; this seems to help the lemon begin to break down a little and speeds the "jellying process." At the very end, I add the grated or chopped ginger, too, giving it a few minutes to soften. Again, the result isn't as pretty as with the perfectly layered glistening lemons packed perfectly into a jar, but the texture tends to be thicker, and it's much easier to use. And, the effect is the same-- so the particular process is up to you.

The Using

As the lemon-ginger-pepper-honey mixture sits in the refrigerator, it will all soften and mature into into a jelly-like mixture. To use it, dip up a big spoonful of the contents and add to a warm mug. Fill with boiling water, stir, and enjoy.

For my grandmother GG's toddy, do the same as above, but before adding the boiling water, stir in a generous shot of brandy, whiskey, or rum-- whatever you have on hand. Then add the water and stir to blend.

If you're drinking this just as a delicious tea (which it is), enjoy sipping it at your leisure: the flavor is wonderful! It's also perfect as a treatment for upper respiratory infections and flu, creating a delicious feeling of internal warmth, soothing irritated airways, and helping loosen up stuffiness and congestion. If using it as a medicinal treatment for a cold, flu, or sore throat, drink it while it's as hot as possible, and hold the mug under your nose and mouth, breathing in the steam as part of the process. In either case, you can drink this up to four times daily.

The Medicine

Lemons (Citrus limon) provide vitamins, particularly vitamin C, which may help the body resist infections. Their acidity stimulates mucous flow in the upper respiratory tract, and they also have expectorant qualities, i.e., they help us cough productively. Lemons also contain bioflavonoids, potent antioxidants which help repair the cellular damage associated with illness. And, lemons stimulate the appetite, which can be useful in someone who is ill.

Ginger, sometimes called ginger root, Zingiber officinaleis a warming spice that loosens phlegm and soothes inflamed mucus membranes. It's ideal for treating respiratory congestion, and it also relieves chills and may reduce fever. It has a strong anti-nausea effect, too, helping calm the edgy stomach that often accompanies illness and fever. 

Red pepper flakes include capsaicin, a compound that creates a sense of warmth and heat when eaten. It provides topical relief of painful sore throat and stimulates mucus flow, which can be helpful in colds and flu. It also tends to dilate (open) blood vessels and air passages, helping ease stuffiness in the nose, throat, and ears.

Honey furnishes a number of trace nutrients and has antibacterial and antiviral properties, meaning it can weaken the effects of some bacteria and viruses. It has a mild antipyretic (fever-reducing) action.

Hot water and steam dilate the air passages and help relax the muscles in the respiratory tract, making it easier to cough and clear mucous. 
The Magick

Lemon is associated with the feminine gender and with purity and longevity. It's also something of a psychic stimulant. Ginger is considered to be masculine in nature and corresponds with success and power. It's warming nature helps it heal tissues and incite passions. Red pepper, as with all peppers, corresponds with the Paracelcian element of fire, the planet Mars, and masculine influences. Honey has strong links to feminine procreative energies and is linked in story to many of the Gods and Goddesses.

The Cautions

Excessive quantities of lemon juice may damage the tooth enamel. If you tend to have weak teeth or lots of decay, rinse your mouth with plain water after drinking lemon-based beverages.  

While ginger is widely used to soothe nausea, too much ginger can upset the stomach in some people; don't exceed recommended quantities.

Honey—especially if organic or “raw”—contains small amounts of botulism toxin. While not harmful to older children and adults, unpasteurized  honey should not be given to infants and children under age 2, and probably should not be given to the frail elderly.

And, I'm not recommending giving alcohol (as in my GG's toddy) to those under legal age, although this is a decision parents might make under specific circumstances.

Sources Consulted

Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. The Definitive Reference to 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments. London: Dorling Kindersley/Eyewitness Books, 2000.

Grieve, M. “A ModernHerbal.” 2009.

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