Sometimes this column goes where no gastronome has gone before. Take mistletoe for example. I had seen dried mistletoe leaves in a health food store. I knew it was used as a herbal remedy and thought it might be worth a taste.
Of course, by the time I got around to buying the small bags I had seen, they were gone. Fortunately, it is the Christmas season and many florists carry sprigs of fresh mistletoe at a few dollars each.
Mistletoe comes with a great pedigree. It is one of the many symbols we use at this time of year that go back t the pre-Christian British Druids. There is even a link to the ancient Roman fête of the Saturnalia. Both Druids and Romans knew there was something special about the winter solstice, that day of the year when the sun is at its feeblest. More than the beginning of a new year (which did not necessarily have to be a week or so later), the solstice marked the beginning of renewal. Each day after, for the next six months, promised more light and warmth. Spring, renewal, and fertility would be on its way. No wonder the solstice was seen as a good time to party.
Mistletoe was part of the sacred rites. It usually grows on apple trees, occasionally on oak, a tree which the Druids revered. It bears fruit in late fall and is one of the few plants that are not dormant this time of year. Druids felt the sprigs could ward off evil spirits and help fertility. A kiss under the mistletoe, for those who planned to marry, promised a fertile beginning. One custom states that a berry is plucked from the sprig each time there is a kiss under it. When the berries are gone, the enchantment ceases.
A British custom has farmers feeding the Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to give birth in the New Year, promising health and heartiness for the entire herd.
The Latin name for mistletoe is viscum albumwhite glue. The berries of the most common varieties, the ones available here, are white and very gluey. The leaves are flat, green and dull. They look a little like bay leaves but smaller.
The taste of mistletoe leaves is similar to young grass and the berries are sweet; however neither should not be used for food. The herbal remedies for mistletoe leaves include relieving high blood pressure and as a mild sedative. For these purposes, it is often sold as a tincture or tablet. The berries however should not be eaten and may be poisonous to young children.
Birds, however, love the stuff and it is through them that we give this plant its name. The seeds are usually transferred to trees through bird droppings. In fact the name mistletoe is Old English for dung on a twig. So much for romance.
On the other hand, ancient Romans would sometimes quaff a draft of mistletoe liquor as an aphrodisiac. Maybe its best to think of the custom and not the name when you and your love meet beneath the sprig.