What is Wormwood and How Do You Use It?

FR: Absinthe, Armoise amere, Genepi GER: Absinth, Hilligbitter, Wermut, Wurmkraut IT: Assenzio SP: Ajenjo

BOT: Artemisia absinthium FAM: Compositae

Wormwood is a close relative of tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). It grows wild occasionally in Britain and, from there, right through Europe and Asia to Kashmir and beyond. It is a bitter aromatic herb with grey foliage covered with fine hairs and yellow flowers. It has been used for thousands of years as a medicine (to cure worms) and in the preparation of various aperitifs and herb wines. Even today, it is often difficult to say exactly where medicine begins and drinking for enjoyment leaves off, especially in the Mediterranean countries, where it is still customary to prop up congested livers and flagging appetites with semi-medicinal drinks (always alcoholic, of course) which, even if they do no direct harm, are guilty of putting off the evil day to a yet more evil one. Possibly the worst result is that people even get to like these semi-medicines. Wormwood is a common ingredient in many of them as well as more pleasant drinks. It gives the name to vermouth via the German, Wermut; Old English, Wermod; and finally wormwood.

Modern vermouths contain many ingredients, and their exact formula is usually a trade secret, but in the less developed parts of Europe it is still common to find wine in which sprigs of wormwood have been steeped (in the Carpathians, for instance) and botanically-minded gastronomes, who find this plant on a walk or grow it in their garden, can try putting a large sprig in a bottle of vodka. It will impart a bitter flavour which some vodka drinkers like. A Polish friend of mine even purloined pressed leaves of wormwood from my collection.

What is Wormwood and How Do You Use It? Photo Gallery

The essential oil of wormwood is produced in France and the United States by steam distillation.

In concentrated form, wormwood is a narcotic poison and so should be used in moderation. The alarming effects from its use in absinthe are only too obvious in some of the villages in southern France.

There are many other species of wormwood, indeed ten species grow on the Riviera coast alone, nearly all in the mountains. Roman wormwood (Artemisiapontica) is one of these and is also commonly used in vermouths. (See Southernwood.)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a common hedgerow weed in parts of Britain, is sometimes used in the stuffing for goose in old English country recipes. In Germany it is known as Beifuss, Ganse-(goose), Johannis – or Besenkraut and used with game, wildfowl, eels, and even stewed veal, also for sauces and in salads. In Spain Artemisias are used in such diverse dishes as onion and vegetable soups, with eels and carp, with roast pork and duck, goose, and as a sauce.

These are the sort of herbs which can add an individual tang to cooking if used well below the level of recognition.

Most people know bakers’ yeast as a cheesy-looking substance smelling of beer. It is, in fact, composed of millions of yeast plants, small single-celled plants which multiply by budding when grown in a suitable warm sugary medium such as fruit juice. Yeasts are very tiny, though larger than bacteria and are usually oval in shape during their ‘vegetative phase’. They produce ‘spores’ when a tough resting stage is needed to survive adverse circumstances.

Yeasts produce enzymes which act on simple sugars to make carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. This is the normal process that goes on in wine making and in leavening bread and various cakes, to which this process adds a distinctive flavour. There are, however, a vast number of different kinds of yeast, and they create different flavours in the liquids they ferment. In making home-made wine, it is better not to use bakers’ yeast, as suggested in the old recipes, but to find one of the true wine yeasts, cultures of which are now available in specialist shops. These yeasts are naturally present on the

grapes from various parts of the world, and their flavour is superior. One must also always beware of rogue wild yeasts which are in the kitchen air and can get into home-made wine and spoil it completely.

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