John Gerard’s Herball (& 2 colcannon-inspired recipes)

John Gerard holding a potato spray

John Gerard, born in 1545, began his career as an apprentice barber-surgeon at the age of seventeen. For most of his adult life he lived in a tenement in London and tended the garden of Lord Burghley. He published a catalog of the flowers grown there, and through the popularity of this he found work as gardener for other noblemen, and he curated the physic garden of the College of Physicians.

Gerard was a bit of a charming charlatan, claiming skills and experience that don’t quite hold up to examination, and surrounding himself with influential friends. Friends and patrons both at home and abroad sent him seeds and specimens, which he grew in his own tenement garden, where he cultivated rare and exotic plants. His friend described it as “all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, floures and other such things, that it would make a man wonder, how one of his degree, not having the purse of a number, could ever accomplish the same.”

In 1597 he published his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants. This was something of a magpie effort: the book was a translation of a popular herbal in Latin, which was itself a translation of an herbal in Flemish, which was greatly influenced by De Materia Medica, an early Greek text written by Dioscorides. Gerard inherited the job of translating the book from a man named Dr. Robert Priest, though he maintains that the work represents “the first fruits of these mine own labours.” The images were taken from an earlier work, which had in turn taken the images from several earlier works. The book is riddled with errors and mismatched illustrations. But despite all of this it was popular and influential at the time, and would remain so for centuries.

The Goose Tree

Gerard was not a scholar, and his interest in the plants he describes was that of a doctor and a gardener and a story-teller. To the original work he added his observations on the plants he grew, on their special virtues of healing or their nutritional value. Though his descriptions often sound like folklore to us now, many of his remedies are still used to this day; spearmint for an upset stomach, for instance, or cucumber for smooth skin.

Many of his descriptions, though strange and somewhat whimsical, make a beautiful sort of sense. Basil is a “remedie for malancholicke people,” the scent of it good for the heart and head, and will make a man merry and glad. Anyone who has harvested fresh basil on a summer’s day can attest to the truth of this! And we know what he means when he says of the violet “Nothing for behind the best for smelling sweetly, a thousand more will provoke your content.”

He did have some slightly more outlandish ideas: wild parsnip mixed with wine will protect deer from snakebites; peppercorns make good medicine for eyes; rocket causes headaches; wine boiled with mandrake root “provoketh sleep and assuageth pain”; and that the Goose tree bears actual geese.

His herbal also included many fruits and vegetables from the new world, including the first mention of the potato, and it is believed that he is the first to have grown them in England. Of course the potato spread throughout Europe and America and changed the way we eat to this day. And in Ireland it impacted the entire history of the country.

One Irish potato dish that inspired an abundance of folklore of its own is colcannon, a simple dish of potatoes, butter, milk, and cabbage or kale. It was served with prizes hidden in the portions that would tell the future of the person eating it. A ring would mean marriage, a button would denote a bachelor, a stick would mean an unhappy marriage, a rag would predict a life of poverty. Unmarried women would put the first and last bite of colcannon into a stocking and hang it on their door. The next unmarried man to pass the threshold would become her husband. And you could feed colcannon to the fairies by placing a bowlful under a hawthorn tree.

Gerard’s Potato

The nostalgic properties of this homey and comforting dish are immortalized in a song.

Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.

Well did you ever take potato cake in a basket to the school,
Tucked underneath your oxter with your book, your slate and rule?
And when teacher wasn’t looking, sure, a great big bite you’d take,
Of the creamy flavoured butter and sweet potato cake. Refrain

Well did you ever go a-courting as the evening sun went down,
And the moon began a-peeping from behind the Hill o’ Down?
As you wandered down the boreen where the clúrachán was seen,
And you whispered loving phrases to your little fair Colleen. Refrain

Here are two recipes inspired by the simple, delightful flavors and comforting qualities of colcannon. The bread is a lovely, light but dense, pale green bread with darker green flecks. The flavor is very subtle – you don’t actually taste kale, just a nice savoriness. I added plenty of freshly ground pepper for flavor, and an egg and a bit of milk to make it soft inside. It’s got a nice crispy chewy crust. The bread can be made vegan with a substitution of chickpea water for the egg and any kind of plant milk you prefer

The croquettes are basically colcannon with cheese, eggs and herbs mixed in, and then baked in olive oil till they’re crispy outside and soft inside. You can use any herbs you like (or no herbs at all).If you find yourself making colcannon for St. Patrick’s Day, and why wouldn’t you! and you have leftovers, you can use it to make these croquettes (though they are worth making from scratch as well!)

Colcannon Bread

1 T yeast
1 t sugar
1/3 cup flour
2/3 cup warm water

1 potato, peeled and chopped
2 large pieces kale, stems removed, washed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup kale-cooking water
1 egg
1 t salt
lots of black pepper

3 1/2 cups flour, ++

olive oil for the baking sheet and the bowl

Combine the yeast, sugar, 1/3 cup flour and 2/3 cups warm water in a large bowl. Set aside in a warm place for at least half an hour to get all bubbly.

Meanwhile, bring a medium-sized pot of water to boil over medium heat. Boil for about half an hour till the potato is nice and soft. Process this with the 1/2 cup of warm milk until completely smooth.

In the same pot of water (if you like) boil the kale for about fifteen minutes, until it’s soft but still bright. Remove from the water, (but save the cooking water). Combine the kale with 1/2 cup cooking water in a processor and process until very finely chopped, but not pureed. You want some flecks of green.

Add the flour, kale, potato, salt, lots of black pepper and the egg to the yeast mixture, and mix well. Combine with your hands to make a workable dough. It will be a soft, sticky dough. Add as much flour as you need to make it kneadable – add a small amount at a time, so you add only as much as you need. (I think I added at least another half cup of flour.) Knead for seven to ten minutes, until it’s soft and elastic, and when you poke it with a finger it springs back. 

Put a small amount of olive oil in a large bowl. Put the dough in, and turn it over so it’s coated on all sides.

Cover with a damp cloth, and put in a warm place for about two hours to double in bulk. Punch it down. Lightly oil a large flat baking sheet. Form the dough into one large or two smaller balls, and position accordingly on the sheet. Leave to rise in a warm place, uncovered for another 45 minutes to an hour. 

Preheat the oven to 450. Brush the top of the dough with water, and put a small dish of water in the bottom of the oven.

Bake until the whole top is golden brown and firm to the touch, and it sounds hollow when you tap it. The time will vary according to whether you’re baking one or two loaves. For one large loaf it took about half an hour (in my oven!)

Let cool briefly, and then eat!

Colcannon Croquettes

4 largish potatoes, peeled and chopped into big chunks
1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed
1/2 cup milk
3 T butter
2 eggs
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
fresh herbs…I used rosemary, basil and tarragon
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
olive oil to cook

Boil the potatoes in plenty of salted water until they’re just tender. Drain and put the pot back on the warm burner (turn off the burner) to dry out a bit.

Meanwhile, boil the kale in plenty of salted water until tender but bright, 5 – 8 minutes. Drain and let cool.

Mash the potatoes with the butter and milk. Leave to cool slightly. Beat in the eggs and the cheese. Chop the kale finely and stir that in, too. Add whatever herbs you’d like. I like a big mix of herbs, usually, but because I used tarragon, which is a strong unusual flavor, I kept it simple this time. Season well with salt and pepper.

Lightly coat a large baking sheet with olive oil. Drop the batter by big spoonfuls onto the sheet.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until they’re browned underneath, and puffed and golden brown on top.

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