I’m winding my way down to the quarry near our house to pick wild chamomile. I could have stuck to the path, but in preference I’ve wondered through the maze of olive groves and scrambled down a wall. The sky is moody and it threatens to rain. The clouds in the distance are a dirty purple – the colour of water used to wash out watercolour paintbrushes. I don’t mind the change in the weather. It’s not cold and the drops of rain land on my hood with a comforting rustle.
As I finally make it back onto the stony path, I slow down and take in the sights and sounds. The olive trees are putting on fresh green growth and the lemon trees are smothered in yellow fruits.
I noticed the wild chamomile as I walked Dora-dog this morning. Just as we entered the quarry, the yellow and white flowers caught my eye. The quarry is quiet and peaceful. Terrific slabs of stone lay like slices of sweet halva* and a digger sits stationary. In comparison, the chamomile is dainty and delicate. Fronds of feathery foliage give way to long stems capped with daisy-like flowers. They are beautiful, unassuming…they smell…terrible. The smell reminds me of nanny’s old incontinent cat, Tabitha.
*Halva is a sweet treat made of crushed sesame seeds and sugar. It’s crumbly and addictive…perfect with a cup of coffee.
The flowers look so perfect as they sway in the breeze – quite the opposite of me as I crouch precariously on rocky mounds. I’ve come to the conclusion that wearing a short dress is not good foraging practice. I haven’t seen any Greek ladies wearing short dresses. They wear dresses of the long, black conservative variety and it’s starting to make sense.
Reflecting on childhood…
I notice a hole in my tights; probably from scrambling down the wall. I make a mental note to stop wearing my favourite clothes when foraging. It’s a mistake I make over and over again. All nice clothes, since the age I could roam free, have been ripped, stained and ruined from mud sliding, blackberry picking, dog walking, tree climbing and all manner of other outside activities.
As I slowly pick the chamomile I wonder if I’m trying to re-live my childhood. Is this lifestyle about re-creating those care free days when my ultimate objective was to own an island like George from the Famous Five and responsibility was a word I couldn’t spell. Those long summer holidays spent sitting under the apple tree, picking moss out of the lawn, eating three apples in a row. Those days when I brewed ginger beer, pressed flowers, made fires with a magnifying glass and we holidayed in the mediterranean.
Foraging food from the countryside feels very natural. I feel grateful to have a simple lifestyle, to find pleasures in the small details and for the chamomile growing wild. I’m grateful for a childhood that allowed me to experiment and make things and for parents who laughed at my muddy jeans and the ginger beer explosion on the dining room carpet. If I hadn’t had such a happy childhood, would I be craving the life I have now? Where would I be without that solid foundation?
A dog barks in the distance and my thoughts fizz away like lemonade. As I glance up towards the mountains, I notice the cluster of colourful bee hives on the adjacent hill. They look like liquorice allsorts. I imagine a giant greedily delving into his favourite bag of sweets whilst clumsily dropping some that roll down the hill. The dog has stopped barking but now I can hear the tinkling of bells from far-off sheep; a motorbike zooms through the village.
Picking wild chamomile…
The delicate flowers pull off easily; I have a rhythm going. I use my hand like a comb, my fingers secure the flowers whilst I use my other hand to break the stems. I’m conscious to only pick the mature flowers and I make sure there are plenty for other people to pick and to go to seed.
Being so close to the ground opens up a secret world of insects and bugs. Tiny snails cling to the petals and I carefully remove them not wanting to crush their perfect shells. Little beetles the colour of peacock feathers hastily move out the way and bees buzz as if they’ve forgotten the lyrics to a song.
Satisfied that I have enough chamomile flowers to be getting on with, I head back home snuggled beneath my hood, swinging my bag of herbal gold.
Making chamomile tea…
“Look what I’ve got.” I excitedly show Mr Sidestepping-normal.
The kettle is boiling in preparation and my favourite vintage tea cups are waiting in readiness. I carefully place the little flowers in the cups and pour the boiling water over the top.
The distinctive chamomile smell is released and as we wait for it to steep, I post a photo of the chamomile on our social media blog pages. Impatiently, we sip at the hot yellow liquid and I marvel at how much work has gone into this cup of chamomile tea. The flavour is very delicate, less potent than the tea we’re used to drinking, but as our flowers dry, the flavour should intensify.
I check the post I’ve just published on Instagram and read some of the comments.
“Looks like daisies not chamomile, I’d check if I were you…they should smell sweet like apples”
I look at Mr SN as he finishes the last sip of his tea and smiles. Panic sets in and my heart pounds. Have I just poisoned my husband? My flowers don’t smell sweet like apples. Do I hint that I may have picked the wrong plant? He already gets nervous of my concoctions and recipes. I don’t want to feed the doubt that never quite subsided after I made toothpaste out of bicarbonate of soda.
He rises from his seat and kisses my head before heading back outside. As soon as the door shuts behind him, I frantically search the internet and zoom in on photos of chamomile plants whilst comparing them to the tray of flower heads in front of me. Chamomile is supposed to calm the nerves, but this might not be it…I certainly don’t feel relaxed right now.
In a panic…
A few fleeting thoughts run through my head:1) Why do I think chamomile smells like cat urine? 2) Do daisy flowers also smell like nanny’s incontinent cat? 3) Are daisy flowers dangerous if one misidentifies them as chamomile and drinks them as tea? 4) Did I put that load of washing on the line?
After a few minutes of panic, I convince myself that it is indeed chamomile and that there’s no need to unnecessarily worry Mr SN. It turns out that there are two varieties of chamomile and I think I’ve been picking the Roman variety rather than the German variety. I’m still stumped as too why chamomile smells horrible to my nose, but it seems I’m not alone. I’ve found fellow chamomile-puzzled-people who also hate the smell. On a positive note, Mr SN put the washing out.
I’ve laid all the flower heads on a tray, all I need to do is wait a few weeks for them to air dry. Then we can store them in a glass container and drink them as we please.
So in summary, picking wild chamomile turned into a reflection on life and past experiences. I’ve learnt that a) foraging should not be undertaken lightly – a detailed knowledge of plants is very important. b) If I had misidentified the chamomile for daisies then we would have bee fine as daisy flowers are edible. c) I’m lucky to have a husband that tests and tries everything I make without any doubt…If only he knew!