by Kate Briggs, CH
I recently attended a cordial-making class taught by NAIMH graduate and certified herbalist Amber Brisson. A lively discussion ensued on the history of cordials, preparation methods, and ingredient choices. We sipped Damiana, fresh Rose, and tequila cordial after port wine, crystallized Ginger, Fennel, and Cardamom pod cordial. There were others both purely medicinal and purely fun. The class was an inspiring reminder of how delicious herbal preparations can be and how creative medicine is. The week following the class I found myself scribbling down flavor combinations and ideas on page corners. Yesterday I finally put those scribbles to use, made a mess in the kitchen, and made cordial.
I learned from Amber that cordials emerged out of Renaissance Europe during the refinement of distillation. The word cordial stems from 14th century French meaning ‘of the heart’ and from Medieval Latin cordialis meaning ‘of or for the heart.’ Basically an alcoholic maceration of herbs and spices, cordials were popular medicinal panaceas used to “invigorate and revitalize the heart, body, and spirit, as well as cure disease.”
Today, cordials can be enjoyed as delicious beverages, as medicinals (immune tonics, sleep remedies, aphrodisiacs, and digestive aides), and for other practical purposes. They can be added to marinades, glazes, and jams; used to enhance carmelization when roasting vegetables and meats; and can be a way to utilize excess herbs and fruit. Cordials also make great gifts.
From Fenner’s Complete Formulary and Handbook 1888: “Cordials and Elixirs: those which contain aromatic substances and mild medicines, sweetened and combined with sufficient alcohol to keep them and hold their properties in solution.” Technically speaking, elixirs use dried plant material and cordials use fresh but the formal distinction between the two is largely lost today.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to cordials. While brandy is the most traditional menstruum used, a variety of other base alcohols can balance flavors or highlight nuances of selected herbs. Sweeteners vary too. Think beyond typical sugar and bring in flavor complexity with honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit concentrates, glycerin, or Stevia. Most importantly, have fun, be creative, be open to experimentation, and don’t be afraid to make a mess.
The first cordial passed around at Amber’s class inspired the following recipe. The pairing of Damiana and tequila produces a dramatic smoky and sweet flavor I find brilliant. Amber aged her version by placing a Cinnamon stick in the menstruum after sweetening it.
3 parts Damiana
1 ½ parts Rose petals
½ part Cinnamon chips
1 part Cacao nibs
2 parts Tulsi
This is a true experiment. I haven’t tried it yet because it is still macerating. The combination of Fig and Anise is fabulous in other food preparations and I’m excited to try it in cordial. To see if the flavors worked together before making a cordial, I decocted the Anise, Fennel, and Black Peppercorns on the stove. The mixture of sweet and spicy effectively warmed my digestion.
1 part Anise seeds
1 part Fennel seeds
½ part whole Black Peppercorns, un-ground
4 parts dried Figs
1 Vanilla bean, slit lengthwise and seeds scraped out
2 parts Licorice
1 part Echinacea root
1 part Elecampane
¼ part dried Ginger
1 Cinnamon stick
Fenner’s Complete Formulary and Handbook, 1888
Herbal Preparations, Bastyr University, Winter 2011
Herbal Infused Cordials and Elixirs for the Holidays, Amber Brisson, November 2013