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Holiday Herbs for Decor and Digestion

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Like no other season, Christmas is disposed to olfactory-triggered nostalgia

Like no other season, Christmas is disposed to olfactory-triggered nostalgia. In particular, the aroma of coriander, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and cinnamon, can open the floodgates to the memories of Christmases past.

Decorations like pomanders add beauty to your home during the festive season. Making them is a fun project for the whole family: children get enthusiastically involved in the hands-on creative activity.

Make a Holiday Pomander To make a holiday pomander you will need the following:

Four to six firm, thin-skinned oranges (lemons, limes and/or apples will also work)
1/2 cup (125 ml) of ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (60 ml) of ground cloves
Approximately 100 grams of whole cloves
1 Tbsp (15 ml) of ground allspice
1 Tbsp (15 ml) of ground nutmeg
1 Tbsp (15 ml) of orrisroot

The oranges should be completely covered with the cloves if you're planning to place the pomanders in a bowl. If you want to hang them from the Christmas tree, mantlepiece or wherever, leave a half-inch vertical groove around the fruit to accommodate the ribbon. The cloves can be directly inserted into the oranges, or to help prevent bruising of the fruit, use a sharp instrument such as a skewer to first pierce the skin.

The cloves should be close, but not crowded or touching. The fruit will shrink to about 75 percent of its original size during the curing process. Also, the skin may split if the cloves are too close. Don't leave a half-studded orange to finish the next day as rot may start to set in.
Mix the curing spices, the cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and orrisroot in a small bowl. Orrisroot is the ground dried root of the orris iris. It's commonly used to "fix" or set the fragrance of the other ingredients in pot-pourris and perfumery and has a barely perceptible fragrance of violets. It's readily available in any craft store or floral supply store. You may also find it in the health food store.

Place half the mixture in a large bowl and lay the studded pomanders on top. Pour the rest of the spice mix over the pomanders so they are completely covered. Add more spice mixture if necessary. Place the pomanders in a dry, dark closet or cupboard and daily turn them in the spice mixture. Depending upon the fruit and it's size, the curing process will take three to four weeks. When the pomanders are firm, they are cured. If the pomanders haven't fully cured by the time you wish to use them, they can be removed from the curing mix. Place them in another bowl, away from the curing mix for a day, and then use them. This removal will not have a negative effect on the curing process.

The pomanders are not only fragrant, spirit-lifting and beautiful, they will repel moths if hung in your closet or placed in drawers. They will last forever. When their scent wanes, just add a little essential oil of your choice.

Fun And Fragrant Garlands

Another simple holiday decoration that's fragrant and fun are garlands. Take a piece of kitchen twine and suspend bunches of fresh dried herbs and slices of dried fruit such as apples, oranges and lemons. Dried fruit slices can be purchased from your local craft store, but if you prefer to do it yourself, use a dehydrator or slice the fruit thinly and then place them on a rack in a 95°C (200°F) oven for about six hours.

For the first two or three hours it's best to prop open the oven door just a crack with the handle of a wooden spoon to allow the moisture to escape. When drying apples, first dissolve one teaspoon of salt in a quarter cup of lemon juice. Dip the apple slices in this solution and they will retain their natural colour after drying. Suggested herbs for your garland or swag would be sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks, but you can use whatever is available. Health food stores usually have a reasonable selection of fresh herbs in December. Your garland can be draped across chairs cabinets, cupboards, windows or the fireplace mantelpiece. Add your own creative touches such as small bunches of mistletoe or holly.

Herbal table napkin holders make a fragrant and appealing table decoration. If you live on the West Coast and still have fresh herbs in your garden such as rosemary, sage, thyme, and possibly parsley, just make a small herbal bouquet with them. Fasten it with an elastic band and tie the bouquet to the napkin ring or directly to the napkin with a ribbon in a bow. If your garden is frozen or under snow, check your local health food store or grocery for whatever fresh herbs they have in stock. The herbs must be fresh. Dried herbs will just make a mess on your table.

Gastronomic Over-indulgence

Post-meal digestive aids are worth considering during the season of gastronomic over-indulgence. My personal favourite digestive herb is anise. Due to the presence of the compound anethole, aniseeds are an effective reliever of gas, bloating and indigestion, which is why they are often served after a meal, particularly in Asian restaurants. A small dish of aniseeds on the table makes a thoughtful, decorative, fragrant and useful addition to dinner. Throughout the Mediterranean, anise-based liqeuers like ouzo in Greece, pastis in France, sambuca in Italy and anisette in Spain, are served as after-dinner drinks. However, a cup of anise tea is a refreshing way to cleanse the palate after a heavy meal without the added calories and alcohol of a liqueur. Aniseeds are also customarily given to children to relieve colic and nausea.

The standard ratio for all teas is one teaspoon of herb per cup of water. To make enough for three or four doses, the ratio would be 25 grams of herb to 500 ml of water. For flatulent colic, aniseeds may be combined with equal amounts of fennel and caraway. Children usually like the taste of anise, so getting them to drink some anise tea shouldn't be a problem. For some children, adding a little honey may be a good idea. Sometimes just one cup is enough. If not, one cup every three to four hours until the nausea or colic subsides.

Other favourite digestive herbal teas include peppermint, camomile, lemon balm, angelica, fennel, ginger, marjoram and coriander. Lesser known, but equally effective, digestive herbs include Iceland moss, slippery elm, arrowroot and meadowsweet (especially for acid indigestion).

Asafoetida is known throughout the Middle East and in Indian cuisine as a spice that's beneficial for the digestive system. You won't want to make a tea from this spice because asafoetida is also known as devil's dung on account of its offensive odour. But when a mere pinch is used judiciously, it is sinfully good. Saute it lightly in oil and it develops a pleasant onion or garlic-like aroma. Add a small amount to any vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish (other than dessert!) and it will make a valuable contribution to both the piquancy and digestibility of the meal.

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