Botanical Drinks, Michael Isted – Book Review

I don’t usually buy coffee table books about herbs. Luscious, full page photo spreads are visually stimulating but generally accompanied by fairly basic introductions to the subject. They make nice gifts but take up a lot of space on the bookshelf. So when I stumbled upon Michael Isted’s book I was surprised and delighted to find something truly unique; a ‘cookbook’ style compilation that contains original formulae inspired by the history of herbal medicine and magic.

Isted has a slightly unusual background for a herbalist, working for luxury hotels, spas and restaurants to create concept drinks. His middle eastern clientele have required a non-alcoholic approach to cocktails and the influence of traditional Arabic ingredients and techniques can be found throughout the book. Isted is a qualified phytotherapist who understands the medicinal properties and benefits of the plants he works with and acknowledges the traditions of both Eastern and Western schools of herbal medicine. The introductory chapters feature a brief history, a short herbarium and instructions for several methods of processing and preparing herbs. This is delivered in a concise fashion that demonstrates the author is familiar with all the methods and plants he describes. It is approachable to newcomers to the subject, however, this is the only ‘beginners’ section of the book.

 

The recipes themselves are extraordinary. This is a book of potions. Drinks designed to heighten the senses, strengthen memory, induce love, astral projection, dreaming, to heal, clarify and sedate. Unlike the tinctures and teas that make up the apothecaries of most herbalists (present company included) they’re also intended to look and taste exquisite. Isted draws on ancient remedies like theriac and mithridatum for inspiration. There is a drinkable Kyphi, a love potion made with infusion of rose quartz and possibly my favourite – a cordial inspired by Dr Dee with black limes, charcoal and obsidian. Isted’s approach and world view is likewise magical, utilising semi-precious stones and recommending appropriate lunar and solar timings. He even includes a simple charm to be recited along with one of the philtres.

 

The preparations required for many of the potions are extensive. Most are formulated on a ‘base’ – a cordial, sherbet, infused honey, oxymel or glycerine tincture that is diluted with juices, infusions or other liquids to form the drink. This is an excellent idea, allowing for a concentrated and longer lasting ‘stock’ that makes the full effort of preparation unnecessary every time. And when I say effort – I mean it. I realised immediately that I could make very few of these drinks in a day from what I have on hand. Most require weeks or even months of maceration or infusion to extract the plant bases. Many require fairly exotic ingredients – and while some may consider this an unnecessary expense, I feel it heightens the challenge inherent in each recipe. Equal respect is given to foraged, seasonal herbs that can be found in temperate Europe and Isted encourages the use of organic and ethically harvested ingredients.

 

Thus far, I’ve only made one recipe from the collection, the Cognitive Theriac, which includes ginger, fresh ginkgo and rosemary. It is an infused honey, and so I’ll have to wait a few weeks to test it properly, but having licked the spoon I used to press the herbs beneath the honey, I can vouch that it is already delicious.

 

This is not a book I would give to someone starting out in herbalism, or to a student of purely medical phytotherapy. However, if you have experience with basic herbal preparations and are looking for something challenging, inspiring and magically inclined – Botanical Drinks will suit you. There are dozens of spell books out there and a few good texts of occult herbalism, but precious few formularies. While this is far more playful, light hearted and exoteric than something like Ars Philtron, it fulfills a similar desire to heighten the potion makers art.

 

Michael Isted can be found at The Herball http://www.theherball.com/

 

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