Staying true to form I have selected another incredibly common herb for this installment…Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). It’s used in cooking the length and breadth of the world, and can be found in fresh bunches, as potted plants and dried in jars in supermarkets as well as the token sprig of Parsley ‘garnish’ adorning restaurant plates since the 1970’s!
Growth & Cultivation
Parsley is a fairly low growing leafy member of the Apiacea family, which can be confused (albeit rarely im pleased to say!) with its taller and more deadly relative, the Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Parsley exists as a plain leafed variety, occasionally called ‘French Parsley’ (Beware as ‘French Parsley’ is also another name for Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) which is also related to Parsley but with very different attributes) and English or ‘Curled’ Parsley…that wonderful frilly leaved form…yes…the 70’s garnish complete with its own Afro!
Parsley thrives in a partially shaded cool site with moist soil but is also fairly tolerant of warmth and a little dryness. Given how easy it is to confuse Parsley with other things, its best to use Parsley grown by you or an equally reliable source. Parsley is easily grown from seed although is slow to germinate compared to similar plants. It can be grown in pots or open soil and slugs and snails don’t seem to like it much either which makes it relatively easy going and low maintenance (at least in my plot anyway). Sprinkle seeds over the surface of the soil where they are to grow and cover with a light sifting of soil, water regularly and wait….once it gets going it goes and keeps growing the more you harvest. I tend to grow parsley as an annual herb although one year I did chop it back and it regrew…it very much depends on if you let it flower. As a general rule, herbs should never be allowed to flower if you intend to eat them as flowering will make a herb tough and woody and once seed has set the plant will never quite recover if at all.
The appropriate question here is what isn’t parsley used in?!? To be honest most of Parsley’s general uses these days seem to be as a garnish, a token sprinkling over a finished dish to make it look pretty however there is one particular use of Parsley which I am incredibly fond of (owing to my Cockney heritage) and that’s Parsley Sauce.
Parsley sauce is served over the traditional ‘Pie’n’Mash’, the original ‘fast food’ for Londoners. Pie’n’Mash had its beginnings in Victorian London when women would prepare the meal, and serve it out of their kitchen windows directly onto the street. It later became available from street sellers with carts and eventually shops began to open like the famous ‘Manzes’. Pie’n’Mash shops still exist today in London (Greenwich and London Bridge are two I know of) as well as around the Essex and Kent border towns.
The Pies themselves are traditionally minced beef with a steamed suet crust base and baked rough puff pastry top. Potatoes are mashed plain (perhaps with a little butter). Traditionally pie and Mash was served with stewed Eels (another cheap readily available meat in London). The water from stewing was reserved, flavoured with handfuls of chopped Parsley and thickened with corn flour. The resulting sauce (called ‘liquor’) turned pretty ordinary cheap food into something amazing (well I think so anyway….Pie, mash and Liquor would and will always be my last meal if I ever had to choose!).
A recipe I have tried can be found here for those willing to try. I cooked this last All Hallows for our ‘Feast for dead’ (my Grandparents were Cockneys and loved Pie’n’Mash as much as I still do)
(Disclaimer: To anyone who has ever had real Pie’n’Mash from a real Pie’n’Mash shop; this recipe does not taste the same but it’s not bad…unfortunately spit n sawdust floors, marble benches, stewed eels, chilli vinegar and general atmosphere are distinctly lacking from any home tried version!)
“It is delightful to the taste and agreeable to the stomache, the roots or seeds boiled in ale and drank, cast foorth strong venome or poyson; but the seed is the strongest part of the herbe”
What many folks don’t realise with Parsley is its ability to detoxify. Many people are aware that Parsley eaten after a meal containing strong flavours, especially Garlic, will nullify the odour and freshen the breath. (I firmly suspect this is how it originated as a popular garnish!). Parsley also negates the effects of many poisons, being an antidote to many. In fact the Romans wore Parsley to prevent intoxication at their indulgent feasts. Many people who have researched traditional Witches Flying Ointments will note that ‘Parsley’ is sometimes mentioned. Many people also believe that this is to confuse the ‘uninitiated’ when what they are actually referring to is Hemlock (also called ‘Poison Parsley’). I don’t doubt for a second this may be the case, however I also think it’s just as likely that Parsley was perhaps included as an antidote to the extremely harmful, toxic substances also included….after all you want the psychotropic affects from Flying Ointment, your don’t want a one way ticket to the other side. Herbs are always a bit of an unknown…no two plants are the same, no two leaves have the same concentrations of active ingredients in…it’s always a gamble playing with ‘poisons’ and it would make sense to balance them with an antidote in the form of something like Parsley…just a theory of mine! Please remember it takes practitioners years of research and careful application and study to understand these plants.
You don’t need to worry with good old Parsley though!! All parts of the Parsley plant are edible and therefore beneficial. The Seeds are said to have the most concentrated active ingredients (although if you use your herb a lot in the kitchen for example you won’t get seeds I expect but you could always grow a couple of patches…one for leaf, one for seed and then when the seed patch has done its work, dig up and harvest the root!). Tea may be employed to reap some of the detoxifying benefits however a nice way to use parsley is in juicing. I’m not a big juicer I admit but on a few occasions I have had vegetable juices with a bunch of parley juiced in with them…delicious and rich in iron, magnesium and Vitamin C!
For those who keep fish, it is said that leaves scattered on the water will heal sick fish…never tried it myself but its one to bear in mind!
Finally a note on Parsley essential Oil: is incredibly potent and should never be used in massage and certainly not if pregnant, nursing or suffer from any kidney disorders. The essential oil however is said to be an incredibly potent detoxifier.
As I mentioned above Parsley takes a long time to germinate which sparked all manner of folk lore, the most famous being that Parsley travels to the Devil and back seven times (some sources say nine) before it germinates…how deliciously underworld of it!! It is also said that seeds which don’t germinate have been kept by the Devil but if you sow on Good Friday they will come up double. It is also said that boiling water should be tossed upon the earth before sowing to drive away the devil, and only women or bachelors may plant Parsley safely.
The fear Parsley once instilled is documented in a story by Mrs Bush of Guernsey who tells of a man who asked his gardener to move a patch of Parsley. Out of fear the Gardener refused and his master, dismissively went ahead and moved the plant himself. Within months the man was dead.
So strong was the association with death that it became unlucky to transplant Parsley and to even think of someone or speak their name whilst picking the herb would guarantee their death within seven days. How apt for this time of year!!
The Greeks associated Parsley with Death, so much so they were virtually terrified by the very sight of it, later however it became less feared more revered. Here is quote I found recently:
“The Greeks’ fear stemmed from parsley’s long association with death. According to legend, the plant first sprouted in the blood of Archemorus, the old fertility king, whose very name means “forerunner of death.” Wreaths of parsley were laid on Grecian tombs; the expression De’eis thai selinon, “to need only parsley,” was a euphemistic expression equivalent to “one foot in the grave.” Throughout the centuries, the association lingered on, changing to suit the deities of the day. The Romans dedicated the herb to Persephone and to funeral rites; tradition held that it grew in abundance on Ogygia, the death island of Calypso; and early Christians consecrated it to Saint Peter, guardian of the gates of heaven.”
(The full article may be read here)
Perhaps Parsley is one for a Hallowmas Garland!!
When researching Parsley it’s very difficult to discern how much of the lore is attributed to actual Parsley and how much could be attributed to ‘Fool’s Parsley’ (Aethusa cynapium) another close relative of Parsley which is less toxic than their deadly cousin Hemlock, but still considered poisonous. A lot of Parsley lore is associated with the dead, death and the underworld which would make sense for a plant which could cause death, not a plant like Parsley which is completely safe and actually beneficial. In fact Culpeper assigns Parsley to the planet Mercury making Parsley a somewhat ‘airy’ herb magically speaking. That being said Mercury, was once seen as a Psychopomp ferrying the souls of the dead to the Underworld!
Could it be they are actually referring to Petroselinum or some other more deadly relative? Who knows…I haven’t found any evidence to say either way.
This does however illustrate how reliant we can become on book smarts…it’s so easy to learn verbatim what we are told in books, we must remember that not all authors are scholars, not all books are well researched we must learn the art of questioning what we read….each book or article we read should act as a gateway to study more all the while remembering that books provide knowledge but practice breeds power. When I first set up this blog it was never intended to be academic, but written in large from the point of experience and opinion. For the green world to become our true ally we must work with herbs, watch them grow, speak to them, nurture them, harvest them, dry them, smell them and imbibe them if appropriate and safe! Only then can we turn knowledge into wisdom and gain understanding from what we’ve learnt. Parsley…as commonplace as it may be is no exception…do not take it’s lessons for granted!