The Stillroom in the Tower

The Stillroom in the Tower

Ypres Stillroom DoorwayStillroom Thoughts

by Lin Saines, Consultant, Medieval Garden
All photos copyright Martyn Saines

If – on an Autumn or early Winter’s night – you quietly opened the heavy, oaken door leading to a Still Room such as our own within the Ypres Tower, you would immediately smell that special scent of Christmas and the festive season shortly to unfold, for this would be the magical, mysterious space where garden linked with house or castle to provide all manner of seasonal treats, as well as the more usual healing lotions and ointments regularly prepared within its walls.

There is so much to see in the Still Room!Our Still Room contains many herbs to be seen in the Medieval Garden just outside, plus a range of then-precious spices used for cookery and healing. Still Rooms were places where freshly collected plants and flowers were utilised in many ways, and these traditions continued well into the Edwardian period.

Herbs could be hung upside down in bunches (as in our feature photo) and dried for household and kitchen use, or pounded to a paste and in their simplest form added to lotions and grease or fats to provide ointments, medicines and poultices, or added to water and allowed to quietly “distill” for bottling as herb-rich medicinal waters. These were strained off into bottles and stoppered with a cork or the fore-runner of today’s “clingfilm” – pig or sheep bladders, stretched tightly to produce an air-tight seal.

Honey-rich syrups were made by infusing herbs previously bruised in a mortar and pestle or by making a strong decoction – both methods requiring heating to reduce the liquid, then strained through muslin and honey added to sweeten. Colds and sore throats were often relieved by a rose-hip and lemon balm decoction with honey added to soothe and heal. In a static display it is difficult to show the process without a fire and bubbling potions reducing away, but we have an old copper full of herbs waiting to be infused with a ladle nearby for bottling – and a couple of completed bottles ready for use.

Iris Florentina (Orris) An important plant used in Still Rooms for centuries is Iris Florentina, which can be seen down in the Medieval Garden in the first border against the wall by the stairs. This attractive Iris provides “Orris” preservative within its thick roots. The dried and powdered Orris is added to pot-pourri mixtures to preserve the scent, and has also been used to scent stored linens in the past. Monastery gardens always contained this plant, as monks used it for making ink – so a good “Dyers herb” too!

Many years ago I was given a pot-pourri recipe from the 1700’s, reputed to be Lady Betty Germain’s own recipe from Knole House, not too far from where I live. This “moist” pot-pourri included Orris mixed with many spices as its preservative and scent base, while a mixture of leaves and petals including lemon verbena, rose geranium, lavender, rose petals, violet and rosemary leaves provided the beautifully home-grown fragrance. The whole flower mixture is preserved in sea salt, and weighted down to press out the moisture for some weeks, the liquid removed from this being a lovely way of refreshing dried pot-pourri. The flowers eventually become a highly-scented cake, to which all the preservatives are then added – cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, lemon peel and powdered orris, with essential oils of lemon and rose giving strength to the mix.

This is by no means an attractive pot-pourri, becoming somewhat brown in colour, but when placed in a wide bowl and covered with dried rose petals and lavender heads gives even the largest room the most amazing perfume.

Stillroom display shelvesCinnamon, cloves and lemon oil also combine with Orris root to form an aromatic curing mixture for pomanders … oranges, apples, lemons and even pomegranates closely studded with whole cloves and rolled in this mixture for weeks until they shrink to a fragrant hardened fruit – some of mine are 25 years old and now so wizened they resemble hand grenades! Pomanders are fun to make throughout the year for adults and children alike, scenting the home with that indefinable smell of the Christmas season, and last much longer than an expensive scented candle. Pomanders can be seen on the far right of the photo in their cinnamon curing mixture.

Back in the Still Room, a hanging rack full of herbs drying for winter use would always be present. Bay, Rosemary, Thyme, Marjoram, Sage – all the old favourites, destined for stuffing poultry or pork over the winter season, particularly for the Christmas table, and for stocks and soups to eke out the luxurious food of the feast to last well into January. In larger rooms Holly branches in buckets of water, long-stemmed and full of berry, quietly hid from the attention of local birds from early December to ensure a good festive display.

It is lovely to see the interest our Still Room has generated, within its brightly-coloured and fragrant small space. We have been gifted some beautiful old flagons for use in this room by one of the Butchers Company who visited  and these are being used for a new exhibition, on the uses of a Still Room over the centuries.

 Lin Saines, Consultant, Medieval Garden 

First posted September 2010.  Last updted March 2013.

First posted in Medieval Garden, Ypres Tower Posts on 4th October 2010
Last updated: 25th March 2013