Drink To Your Health With These 10 Medicinal Teas

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Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas contain powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before opening the medicine cabinet, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading

Seasonal Eating: ‘Warming’ Foods To Try This Winter

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Winter has its challenges if, like me, you’re looking for fresh produce. And that makes it hard to resist all those imported fruits and vegetables. Still, if you want to be in sync with your environment, eating foods that are in season has only upsides for the body. That’s why I look to Mother Nature, who provides for cold weather by producing some of the best ‘warming’ foods around. Continue reading

Nature’s Flu Remedy: Antiviral Anti-inflammatory Lemon

Now that flu season is here, most of us are looking for ways to stay healthy. For some, this means getting the flu shot, for others it means building an arsenal of home remedies. For many, it means a combination of both. However, sometimes it takes only opening your refrigerator to uncover one of the best flu fighters of all — the common lemon. Continue reading

The Curious Story Of White and Black Pepper (Piper Nigrum)

The dried fruits and white seeds of black pepper, Piper nigrum

I’ve been a fan of black pepper since early childhood when my mom would sprinkle my morning eggs with the aromatic spice. Later, I grew to love the coarser varieties. Ground at the table, the dried fruits tumbled onto my salad leaves, invigorating my meals with their gritty flavor. White pepper came later. A key ingredient in many Swedish dishes, it enlivened all of our family smorgasbords. Continue reading

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.

About Antoine Jacobsohn

So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from New Jersey. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles. And in 2008 he became director of the palace’s vegetable and fruit gardens commonly known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)

The Potager is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. As Jacobsohn puts it, the garden is surrounded by an “urban desert”. He finds this worrisome for the future. As city dwellers have increasingly less access to food, he believes we should rethink how we shape our gardens. And that means incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.

“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.

In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are experimenting, all while respecting the techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.

About the King’s Kitchen Garden

The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project. 

Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie

Quintinie’s first task was to take a swamp and turn it into a working garden. To accomplish this, he drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he enriched with manure from the King’s stables. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Versailles’ architect, designed the layout for the garden. The original plan called for 29 terraced garden squares grouped around a central fountain.

Original plan for le Potager du Roi

La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.

In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees.  Today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.

The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.

Today’s garden is rooted in discovery

‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)

From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.

Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?

To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.

The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden

Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.

“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”

Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française

Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.

Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française

Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.

For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.

“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”

Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.

 

The Asparagus Story

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Some things are meant to grow with you. From an early age, Bess Abell (born Elizabeth Clements) knew that asparagus held an important place in the life of her family. Her mother was a great fan of the leggy vegetable, as was her father, Earle Clements, former Governor of Kentucky (1946-1950). He was an avid gardener and talented chef, too. Continue reading

Capsicum Named 2016 Herb of the Year

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It may be time to get out the dictionary to see what designates an herb. The International Herb Association (IHA) has chosen the pepper family known as capsicum as 2016’s Herb of the Year. The prize, which is awarded annually as a part of National Herb Week, shines a spotlight on this often misunderstood fruit; declaring it outstanding for its virtually unlimited culinary, medicinal and decorative uses.

What is capsicum exactly?

Capsicum, also known as peppers, is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants.) Native to South America, its many species have been cultivated and traded for more than 6,000 years. According to experts at the Chile Pepper Institute, there are literally thousands of varieties, ranging from fiery hot to mild tasting, with new ones constantly being discovered. And among the known varieties, the fruits go by different names, depending on the type and location in which they are grown.

red green and yellow peppersThe mild tasting bell pepper is sometimes referred to as ‘Stoplight Pepper’

Sound confusing? Capsicum terminology can get rather complicated, since pepper, chili, aji, paprika and capsicum are all used interchangeably to describe the same genus. Add to that the fact that frequent cross-pollination among domesticated species has produced even more variations and classification becomes next to impossible. Despite the huge range of varieties, however, experts now widely agree that the genus capsicum consists of 5 domesticated species:

 

Capsicum annuumThe most common and extensively grown of the five domesticated capsicums, C. annuum includes the bell pepper, jalapeño, pimiento, piquin and cayenne among others.

 

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Jalapeño pepper

Capsicum baccatum: Ají amarillo, also called amarillo chili and ají escabeche.

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Aji Amarillo pepper

Capsicum chinense: Includes some of the world’s hottest peppers like the habanero, scotch bonnet and red savina. Pods and plant types vary within the species.

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Habanero peppers

Capsicum frutescens: This shrubby cultivar that includes the tabasco is often considered part of the species Capsicum annuum. Fruits typically grow erect and are very small, maturing from yellow to bright red. Large clusters of berries make this a popular ornamental plant.

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Ornamental peppers

Capsicum pubescens: The least common of the five, a cultivar distinguished by its apple-like shape and black seeds. It includes the varieties rocoto and the Mexican manzano.

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Peruvian rocoto pepper

A part of cooking for thousands of years

Although chili peppers had been a part of the human diet across the Americas for centuries, they were virtually unheard of in the rest of the world. That is, until Christopher Columbus brought the unusual species back from the New World. At the time, the fruit of a plant native to India, called Piper nigrum, (commonly known as peppercorn) was the key ingredient used to flavor foods in countries like Europe.

peppercornsPeppercorn, Piper nigrum

In the beginning, Europeans weren’t so enamored with capsicum. But eventually, as traders began carrying the berry to places in West Africa, India and Asia, the pungent fruit quickly caught on. In the end, capsicum’s discovery would end up revolutionizing cooking the world over as it became an integral ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Thai, European and American cooking and medicine, all of which now lay claim to the spice as their own.

 

Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties

The same chemical that produces a pepper’s fiery sensation in the mouth is loaded with medicinal properties. This is due to a phytonutrient called capsaicin, a chemical that gives hot peppers their ‘heat.’ In the wild, capsaicin protects the fruits from being eaten by insects and other mammals. In modern medicine, the pepper compound has been successfully used to dramatically reduce the sensation of pain.

capsaicin

The amount of capsaicin in any one fruit is highly variable depending on genetics and environment. (All chili peppers have some degree of the chemical, though, with the notable exception of bell peppers, which have practically none.) Habanero peppers are among the most capsaicin-rich chilies that are commonly available. A 2006 study published in the “Journal of Environmental Science and Health” found that the species habanero (a part of C. chinense) had higher concentrations of capsaicin than any other species in the capsicum genus.

habanero mix

Habanero mix

When a capsaicin cream or ointment is applied to the skin, it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Capsaicin medications have been shown to successfully relieve pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and shingles. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a medicated skin patch made from capsaicin for treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). According to spokesmen, the pure, concentrated, capsaicin-containing prescription drug was the first to undergo FDA review

“This new product can provide effective pain relief for patients who suffer from PHN,” said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Rheumatology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

And just last year, the capsaicin patch was approved for use in the Europe Union for the additional indication of the treatment of adult diabetes patients with peripheral neuropathic pain.

Other studies have shown that pepper fruits can be used to make medicine for problems relating to digestion including upset stomach, intestinal gas and cramps as well as conditions such as poor circulation. Capsaicin has also been used to relieve toothaches and seasickness and a form of the phytonutrient is currently being studied as a remedy for migraine pain.

 

World’s hottest chili pepper identified

Recently, the world’s hottest chili pepper was identified. Known as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the golf-ball sized fruit was named the spiciest pepper on the planet. On the Scoville Heat Scale (which measures the pungency, or heat factor, of peppers), the Trinidad Moruga scored about 240 times hotter than the jalapeño, with a Scoville heat unit value of 1.2 million. (The average jalapeño ranks at about 5,000 units.)

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Moruga Scorpion pepper

Pure capsaicin, by the way, has a heat unit value ranging between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville Units.

For more information on capsicum and where many of the known varieties rank on the Heat Scale, check out Uncle Steve’s Hot Stuff.