Birch Bark for Bowel Remedies and Other Boons

At eighty feet high and close to two feet thick, the black birch dwarfs its fellow trees. It’s solitary, preferring to make its home on craggy, mountain precipices, where its branches can reach over deep chasms and it roots can burrow between rocks into moist, rich soil. But it’s also handsome, having large oval leaves laced with fine veins that turn yellow in autumn and bark that in youth is a seamless near-black and in maturity becomes cracked and furrowed.

The astute observer of nature knows that this cracking is a most auspicious development. At such a stage the bark, grown redolent of wintergreen and imbued with a spicy flavor, separates easily from the trunk, and can be harvested for a number of products, such as tea, chaw, a nostrum to ease bowel complaints or a salve to cure cankers.

The birch tree’s youngest twigs make the best – and most ecologically sensitive – tea; the thick inner bark, though tasty, leaves the trunk scarred and disfigured when removed. Drying the bark does nothing to diminish the tea’s flavor, which is best enjoyed with sugar, cream and cookies of the sort featured in this recipe from the San Rafael Cook Book (1906).

Economical Cookies

1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon soda. Flour to make soft dough and flavor to taste.

Bilberries: A Late-Autumn Treat

Variously monikered “the blood month” for the many animals slaughtered during it, the “wind month” for the icy gusts that swept the land, and “the month of blue devils and suicides” for reasons unstated, November was to those who lived before T.S. Eliot the cruelest page of the calendar. Occult influences of the sun’s moving into the house of the constellation Sagittarius were blamed for the merciless turn taken by the weather, which beset London with endless days of leaden skies, torrential rain, and stifling fog. So sharp, in fact, were November’s winds that farmers believed them to suspend “the vegetable powers of nature,” which would resume only with the arrival of spring.

Yet this suspension proved less than total. In 1864 Scottish publisher and geologist Robert Chambers advanced the idea that, rather than arresting the vegetable powers of the year’s final crop of berries, sleet and frost ripened it to perfection. Brambleberries, blueberries, dewberries, cloudberries – all reached maturity in November’s chill embrace.

The fact of this late development proved a real boon for the rural poor, who could brighten the otherwise blear approach of winter with a selection of pies. A particular favorite among them was the bilberry; its smallness and perishability ill-suited it for market, and it grew only in the wild, which meant that anyone who wished could pick them. Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland had (and still have) on their law books provisions for the free gathering of this fruit irrespective of land title, private gardens and nature reserves excepted. The bilberry was, then, truly a common fruit. This democratic character perhaps inspired Abraham Holroyd’s long forgotten poem, “The Bilberry Moors” (1873).

As we march to the bilberry moors.
The wealthy man’s wall bounded not what we call
The common, and bilberry ground;
His broad-acred lot—nay, we covet it not—

Ye wealthy keep all that ye bound!
But the bilberry blue oweth nothing to you—

It groweth for the rich and poor;
Oh! mean were the might that would question the right
To roam on the bilberry moors.

If mean might should happen to question your right to gather bilberries close to home, you can always range the wild, arid places where they like to grow. Your efforts will be amply rewarded; the fruit’s light, tart flavor makes for delicious puddings, jams, and syrups of the sort presented in the recipes below.

Bilberry Pudding, Jam, and Syrup

70. Bilberry Pudding.—Make a suet crust, grease and line basin, half fill it with fresh bilberries, strew 2 tablespoonsful of sugar over them, and continue to fill the basin till it is heaped up. Put the top crust on and flour a cloth, tie it over, and boil for 2 hours. Bilberries in any form, either uncooked, made into pies, puddings, jam, or syrup, are particularly good for people suffering from scrofula, whether of the lungs or however it may be developed.

71. Bilberry Jam.—Gather the berries on a fine dry day, and after the sun has had time to dry the dew or moisture off the berries; weigh the fruit, put into a preserving pan with 1 pint of water, let it boil half an hour, and then add 6 pounds of sugar to every 7 pounds of fruit. Boil for three quarters of an hour; test it at the end of that time by putting a little in a saucer; put it out of doors to cool, and if it sets, it will be found to be sufficiently cooked. If not boiled enough it will not set firmly. Fill dry jam pots in the usual way, and cover down when cold with brown paper.

72. Bilberry Syrup.—Put 2 lbs. of loaf sugar into a saucepan with 1 pint of water; let it boil for a quarter of an hour, stirring all the time. Put on the fire, in a saucepan, 3 lbs. of bilberries; let them boil for half an hour, pass them through a jelly bag, and add the juice to the syrup. Clear with the white and shell of one egg, lightly whipped, and put into the syrup. Put it on the fire again, let it boil well up for three minutes; lift it carefully to one side, skim all the froth off as gently as possible, then pour into bottles and cork for future use. 1 tablespoonful in a tumbler of water before breakfast is considered quite a heal-all by some of the people in the midland counties. It certainly contains some valuable acids, and is a refreshing beverage on a hot summer’s day.

Wartime Blueberry-Honey Cake

Warm weather heralds the arrival of berry season, and thoughts naturally turn to the various trifles, cakes, parfaits and tarts that make this season all the sweeter. The following recipe for blueberry-honey cake, which appears in  Joanne Lamb Hayes’s informative 2003 tome, Grandma’s Wartime Baking Book, makes for a delightful summertime dessert.

Because butter and sugar were rare in wartime America, Hayes’s recipe, which is based on one from the February 1943 issue of Farm Journal and Farmer’s Wife, calls for honey and chicken fat. Though you may not want to exchange now-abundant sugar for honey, using butter in place of chicken fat does make for a tastier cake.

Hayes suggests serving “this cake with colorful lemonade that has been sweetened with the syrup from the jar of fruit.”

Blueberry-Honey Cake

2 3/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup honey
2/3 cup chicken fat (or butter), softened
2 large eggs
2/3 cup milk
1 cup drained canned blueberries, blackberries, or cherries
Penuche Frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour three 9-inch round baking pans.  Stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, soda, salt, and nutmeg in a medium bowl.

Beat the honey and chicken fat or butter with an electric mixer on high speed until fluffy; beat in the eggs all at once. Spoon the dry ingredients over the honey mixture; add the milk and beat on low speed, scraping side of bowl occasionally, just until smooth. Fold in the berries.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the centers spring back when lightly pressed.

Cool layers in pans 5 minutes. Remove to wire racks and cool completely. Fill between layers and frost just the top with frosting.

Penuche Frosting: Combine 2 cups packed light brown sugar, 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup shortening or butter, and 2 tablespoons light corn syrup in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook to 220 degrees F., stirring constantly, about 1 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat until thick and spreadable.

10 servings