Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Xin Nian Kuai Le!
Happy Year of the Dragon :-)

Today marks the beginning of another 12 year zodiacal cycle, and being a dragon myself I can only hope for the best. This year it's a black dragon, or a water dragon, and it also marks the end of the cycle of wood and the beginning of a cycle of fire. The dragon is a mythical creature of remarkable size. So big that you can't see both of its head and tail at the same time! So it always has something new to show you when you least expect it. Dragon, unlike the Western evil fire-spitting monsters are believed to brings good fortune in Chinese culture. From all that I gathered means that it's a year of unpredictable things, surprising turns of events that could change for either better or worse - according to all the sources that like to predict things... How convenient for them!

On a more on-topic for this blog notion: my spontaneous search today for a dragon-related plants (preferably aromatic) did not yield anything of interest besides what I already knew about... There is the obvious - 9 bend dragon red tea (probably not the only dragon-inspired tea in China though!) which I've tasted and reported about earlier. But I'm speaking of dragon's blood (the resin of the plant pictured above), which is blood-red, and is used in incense more than in perfumery. I've used in in my Clarimonde perfume. It is associated with the planet of Mars, and is burnt in magical rituals to return a lost love. It has a scent not unlike frankincense when burnt on hot charcoal.

The other dragon-related aromatic plant is tarragon - aka estragon - which means "little dragon". It has a sweet, balsamic, anise-like scent because of the methyl chavicol content (it might remind you of exotic or Thai basil as well), but brighter and greener than aniseed or fennel, and the absolute is out of this world lovely, with buttery, lactonic aspects that are rare to find in plant extracts. I've used it in my Vetiver Racinettes and Black Licorice. And of course - the culinary uses of tarragon are quite delightful - I use it in fennel & orange tea sandwiches, in salad dressings and on fish.

Since I've been so absorbed in my botanical research of aphrodisiacs I think writing about these two in more depth will take place later. But I hope you found this very little bit inspiring and that the year will bring you only happy surprises!

Vetiver Bath

Vetiver Roots 02, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

This afternoon I blended some vetiver bath salts... You may remember from a short while back this summer, I mentioned how unpopular were the Lavender bath salts, and how I was going to replace them with a vetiver scent... The lavender is probably not the problem, but rather - the accompanying notes (or their names... go figure): licorice and vanilla. Vanilla is popular alright, but licorice tends to divide people: most either love it or hate it. Very few feel lukewarm, on the fence or just pleasantly ok about it. And for the most part, it is an acquired taste... There are some cultural preferences around licorice. I knew for quite sometime that most Asian cultures do not enjoy licorice candy or licorice flavour (though they seem quite fond of star anise! Go figure…). And just recently, I learned from my Swiss intern Olivier, that in Europe there is something that is called “the licorice border” that runs along the Elbe river: everyone north of that line loves licorice, and to the south of it – they cannot tolerate it… The border runs along a river.

Back to vetiver: the bath salts I’ve created are a simplified version of Vetiver Racinettes. It has a hint of coffee, spices, wild mushroom and tarragon (can’t escape the licorice, can I?) but really, just a hint. It’s all about vetiver, and a lot of Australian sandalwood to boot – which gives it this smooth woody scent which I find to work beautifully in body products. I used some special salts in this which I’m very excited about: Ancient Canadian bath salts from Saskatchewan, Dead Sea salts from Israel. So you can understand why I’m feeling really at home with this bath…

While my stuffed grapevine leaves were cooking on the stove*, I immersed myself in a Vetiver Ritual Bath this evening and the scent lingered for a long, relaxing hot bath even though I haven’t used that much salt; and my skin still smells delicately of vetiver and sandalwood as I write this.

* You won't believe it! I found some freshly picked leaves in the farmers' market last Saturday and I'm making them for my brother's birthday feast tomorrow... So excited: it's been 2 years since I had these last, probably 3 since I last made them from fresh leaves!!!

Tier 1 & 2: Sandwiches and Savouries

Eggplant and Polenta Appies, originally uploaded by So Misguided.

Here's a closer look at the assortment of savoury canapes and tea sandwiches we served at the party. At the bottom: curried egg salad sandwiches (with a bit of raisins - that was Lucy's idea!) on fluffy brioche; Smoked salmon tea sandwiches with capers, dill and chives (a classic!) - made with Russian rye bread; and behind them (you can't see them) - smoked cheddar & gala apple sandwiches, on multigrain bread.

2nd tier featured roasted eggplant rolls filled with chevre and fig pesto (recipe to follow); and wheat & dairy free "bruchetta" - polenta slices with tomato, basil and black olives drizzled with the lightest sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. The olives makes a good substitute for cheese (this would more typically be served on bread with a sliced of bocconcinni - fresh mozzarella cheese).

8 dried figs
1/2 cup red wine
12 dry black olives (pickled in coarse salt, rather than brine), pits removed
1 cup walnuts
2 Tbs. fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. walnut oil
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Soak figs overnight in red wine. Strain, remove stems and chop figs up. Blend with other ingredients in a blender until a chunky pesto-like consistency is achieved.
This pesto can be used on breads, cheeses and appetizers as well as pasta sauces.

Chartreuse Eau de Vie Tisane

Licorice meets flowers in this unusual tisane that’s described as a “luxury digestive tonic”, and was inspired by the Green Chartreuse liquor. Like its namesake, this tisane is prepared as an either cold or warm cordial and has a sweet anisic flavour, which comes from the fennel and anise seeds. Combined with milky chamomile flowers, it is sure to soothe the digestive system, yet thankfully it escapes the familiar baby-colic-relief brew because of the presence of other unusual elements, most importantly French tarragon, which contributes a quirky and refreshing, slightly minty and sweet clove-like character that is a departure from the familiar licorice and anise flavour; and lemon verbena, which is invigorating and balances the richness of the licorice. To top this off, osmanthus flowers and lavender buds add a perfumed element that complements the chamomile and adds not only to its therapeutic, soothing effect but also to its rich, sweet floral bouquet.

Chartreuse Eau de Vie tisane is available directly from Inner Alchemy Tea Co. in Vancouver (604) 731-1529 and is also sold in select Farmers’ Markets around Vancouver during the Spring, Summer and Fall. It costs $16 for a 2oz tin.

P.s. Like most antique liquors, Chartreuse liquor originated in a form of a medicinal concoction created by monks in a monastery of the same name. This one came from France, and for centuries is prepared by monks of the Carthusian Order who to his day are the only ones who know its secret recipe. Its origins are dated as far back as 1605, and its secret formula containing some 130 herbal extracts withstood many historical challenges including several expulsions of the monks from their monastery, restrictions from the French government, and the ruin of the distillery itself.

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