Spring in the Medieval Garden and Still Room 2016

Spring in the Medieval Garden and Still Room 2016

by Lin Saines, Medieval Garden Advisor and Still Room Consultant

Herb garden 1Everyone looks forward to Spring, the most keenly anticipated season of the year. In the Still Room of a Castle or Country House, with stores now running low after a harsh winter, spring would herald a new beginning.  Fresh flavours gathered from the Garden just outside, and the promise of both warmer weather and a more varied diet must have lifted the spirits from the gloomy days of late winter.

Sorrel, that bitter herb used as a Medieval addition to “pottage” or simple stews and broths, was later transformed by French chefs into the classic “Sorrel Sauce” (named from the French “Surelle” for “sour” or “bitter”). In Medieval times it was simply known as “alleluyia” because it was one of the first green herbs of the new growing season to appear, sometimes even under snow! This plant can be seen in the culinary raised bed just by the Women’s Tower, and I will also be introducing a more attractive variety in summer, called “Buckler-leaved Sorrel” so named because the leaves look like a Medieval “buckler” shield, therefore a very appropriate addition to our Garden.

Another plant keenly anticipated through the centuries has been the attractive Primrose, the “primus rose” or the “first rose” of spring.  A pot of primrose tea, made in the Still Room using leaves and flowers freshly gathered from the garden then steeped in hot water, strained through muslin and sweetened with a little honey, was taken as both a blood tonic and a help for those suffering from arthritis. The roots were also helpful, boiled in water, strained and sweetened in the same way, and this “tisane” or “tea” was widely used for easing coughs and associated problems.

IMG_0149Primrose flowers also provided colour when strewn over fresh salads, and were popular even as far back as the Elizabethan period. This is my own spring salad using leafy Fennel strands, wild garlic leaves, varied salad ingredients and lots of fragrant Primrose and Viola flowers placed over the surface. Of course crystallising these pretty spring flowers using egg white and caster sugar is a popular way today to preserve them for a longer period, and the Easter “Simnel Cake” is traditionally decorated with crystallised or fresh primroses around the base.



Spring was a busy time in the Still Room! With burgeoning new growth around the garden, all manner of tasty treats were prepared here for onward transmission, first to the kitchens and then to the table. It is interesting to see how the Still Room developed over the centuries. At first it was almost a chemical laboratory; lots of IMG_0048herbs being pounded away in a mortar and pestle, and simply distilled in water for herbal cures or heated to reduce into important essential oils, tisanes and even perfumes. Herbs and flowers were hung upside down in bunches to dry, or worked on when freshly gathered. Combined with other ingredients these simple herbs were included in many syrups, medicines, soaps or added to soups and stews.

Garden produce and expensive spices combined with sugar to make confectionary, sugar a hugely expensive commodity first introduced by Crusaders returning from the Middle-East. In the Elizabethan period intricate, edible sweet decorations were worked on in the Still Room, usually by the most trusted of servants, because of the expensive nature of each item used. In later centuries those larger Still Rooms introduced huge coppers to “distill” drinks such as whisky, eventually growing into the huge “Distilleries” of today!



IMG_0192It is easy to recreate some items popular in the Victorian and Edwardian periods in our own kitchens, herbal vinegars being a good start. For instance Tarragon was bottled in white wine vinegarand is still an important addition to salad dressings, hollandaise sauce and béarnaise sauce, popular accompaniments to chicken or fish. Just bruise a small bunch of fresh Tarragon leaves, place in an attractive bottle and pour the vinegar right to the top. I add white peppercorns for more flavour. Keep in a dark, warm cupboard and after 3 weeks strain off, and it is ready to use. The same method can be used for many fresh spring herbs, such as Lemon Thyme, Rosemary, Garlic and Sweet Marjoram. Herbal vinegars make welcome gifts for the keen cook, and a nice touch is to add a fresh sprig of the chosen herb into the bottle with a pretty label to finish. Fresh from your own Still Room!




IMG_0186Taking this one stage further, I use herbs to provide tasty oils for use throughout the year. This spicy one mixes Olive Oil with Bay leaves, Rosemary, peppercorns, a Cinnamon stick and peeled Garlic bulbs. It is great for basting over sausages, burgers, chops and barbeque food, using a Rosemary basting brush seen regularly in our Still Room display at Ypres Tower and shown here in an earlier photo.


Try making a collection of oils for your kitchen to your own taste, and by wrapping string tightly around the base of a large bunch of herbs such as Rosemary or Thyme you will make a convenient handle for a basting brush to accompany them. Lemon thyme is a perfect match for fish dishes for instance, and baste food with aromatic oil placed in a deep dish. Making oils and vinegars in this way is a great start to the growing year and the contents of each bottle can be varied seasonally, as future articles will show.

In the Summer Still Room article we will be looking at ways to use Roses, Lavender and some of the Culinary Herbs to be seen in our lovely Medieval Garden just outside; as I have previously called it “The Garden beyond the Tower”.


First posted in Featured, Medieval Garden, Rye Castle Museum on 5th April 2016
Last updated: 6th April 2016