Lemon balm in history – and in the kitchen
As soon as the first leaves of this plant show in spring, I am out in a flash to pick them for my first fresh herb tea of the year! It must be one of the loveliest plants to use in a herb tea on its own, but lemon balm also combines well with other fresh herbs, such as peppermint or chamomile.
If you tend to use herbal tea bags for your cuppa, planting a lemon balm plant in your garden or in a window box will not only save you money, but enable you to enjoy a deliciously fragrant tea that the dried herb just can't provide.
Lemon balm is not only known for its distinctive aroma in tea, but also for its various culinary and medicinal uses.
The Latin name for lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is derived from the Greek.
In Greek mythology Melissa was a nymph who is said to have discovered and taught the use of honey and from whom honey-bees were believed to have received their name – melissai.
Lemon balm was quite appropriately called melissophyllon by the ancient Greek, as bees do indeed love its small white nectar-filled flowers.
Greek and Latin Classics mention it being used steeped in wine for fevers and many other disorders. Dioscorides recommended lemon balm leaves, externally applied, as a certain cure for ‘the bites of venomous beasts and the stings of scorpions’. According to the 11th-century Arab physician Avicenna, “balm maketh the heart merry and joyful,” and a few centuries later Paracelsus made a preparation called ‘primum ens melissa’ which was believed to renew lost youth.
In 1696 The London Dispensary advised that “An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.”
An aromatic cordial made of lemon balm combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, was formulated by the Carmelite nuns of the Abbey St Juste in the 14th century, supposedly for Charles V of France.
This secret recipe, later patented, was known as ‘Eau de Carmes’ (Carmelite water). It enjoyed a widespread reputation over many centuries and was deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections. In fact, it is still for sale to this day in German pharmacies.
Several of the medicinal claims made for lemon balm have now been validated. Unfortunately though, the ability to renew youth is not one of them…
Back to the kitchen, where lemon balm is not only used in teas, but also in desserts such as sorbets and jellies.
Here is a recipe for a simple apple and lemon-balm jelly.
Apple and lemon-balm jelly
- Few handfuls of lemon balm leaves
- 450ml good quality apple juice
- (not from concentrate)
- 500g jam sugar
- 300ml water
- Splash of lemon juice
Pour boiling water over the chopped lemon balm, cover and infuse for an hour. Strain, then mix the liquid with apple juice, lemon juice and sugar and boil until it reaches the gelling point (follow jam sugar instructions). Fill into sterilised jars.
For a savoury recipe try this gorgeous pesto. This refreshing pesto is delicious with pasta, grilled fish or as a condiment with couscous dishes to provide a zingy contrast to the spiciness of harissa.
- 40g lemon-balm leaves
- 80-100ml olive oil
- 20g parmesan, grated
- 30g cashew nuts, lightly
- toasted and chopped
- Juice and grated peel of
- half a lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
Simply place all the ingredients into a blender, grind to a paste and adjust the taste by adding more lemon juice or salt and pepper if needed. Instead of cashews, you could use pine nuts or walnuts.
NEXT TIME Lemon balm’s present-day medicinal applications.
Sabine Hiller BSc(Hons) MIIMH MNIMH – is a qualified professional medical herbalist based in Westport. She is a member of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists and the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK). She can be contacted at 098 35909.