Borage is not boring!
No, this not a phrase made up just for the sake of a catchy title! This must have been the perception of the plant Borago officinalis in 16th and 17th century England. In his colossal work Herball-Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597, English botanist and herbalist John Gerard wrote:
“The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirme. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person.” Likewise, 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon stated that borage has “an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.”
As a remedy for sadness, dullness and melancholy, borage looks like true comforting soul food. Apparently, its virtues were known since ancient Greek and Roman times, mentioned by Greek herbalist Dioscorides and by Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist.
Now I understand my longing for the plant every spring, and I’m more than happy to have plenty in my new life in Kuzguncuk, one of the saved heavens on the Anatolian side of Bosphorus, where bundles of foraged borage have been available in the local grocers and market since early March.
Borage is a much-favored foraged wild green in Turkey, quite common especially in coastal humid regions like the Marmara and northern Black Sea regions. In ancient times it must have been very popular in the south as well, as Dioscorides who mentions it in his De Matera Medica, is a native of Anavarza, ancient Anazarbus in the southern Adana province of Turkey. It has numerous names in Turkey, the usual one being hodan, but also known as kaldırık, ıspıt, zılbıt, zirbit, mancar, sığırdili (bull’s tongue) or Tamara in the Black Sea province of Trabzon and ılıştıra in the Marmara province of Kocaeli and some parts of northwest Turkey. It is never cultivated as a vegetable but used as a foraged vegetable in regional cookery. Often all parts of the plant is used, just boiled and pan-fried with loads of onions. It is best matched with eggs, or just boiled and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Like for many other wild greens, people attribute a certain beneficial function to borage and try to eat it at least a couple of times in spring as if making a spring detox diet. It is believed to give a sense of relief to soul, and act as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic and diaphoretic agent. The Latin name Borago is suggested to come from Arabic “abu buraq or abu araq” meaning father of sweat, which explains its sweat inducing properties.
Borage is not only good company for the soul but a good companion plant to many other plants. It protects or nourishes various vegetables when it grows near spinach, brassicas or legumes and even flirts with strawberries. Needless to say bees have a love affair with the honey-scented pretty blue flowers of borage. In English it is sometimes referred to as beebread. This courtship in the field continues at the table, where fresh leaves of borage goes well with spinach and lifts up salads made with legumes like beans and fava or brassicas like cauliflower; but the loveliest of all is a few borage leaves added to a strawberry salad with a drizzle of honey, and perhaps with a cool touch of a scoop of lemon sorbet. An excellent way of celebrating spring might be such a simple bowl of strawberries in the good and definitely not boring company of borage!
Recipe of the Week:
The most common use of borage in Turkey is with eggs. Borage plant, all its root, stem, leaves, and flowers are boiled, chopped and pan fried with plenty of chopped onions and scrambled with a few eggs. This recipe comes from a cookbook of Kocaeli (unfortunately only available in Turkish), where it is called “ılıştıra.” Have a bunch of borage stems, leaves and flowers weighing about 500 g, wash thoroughly, chop roughly and boil in a little amount of water until tender. Better to have the tougher parts of stems or root parts boiled first and the leaves and flowers added at the last minute. Meanwhile chop two medium onions and fry them in a few tablespoons olive oil until slightly pinkish. Add the drained cooked borage (I do not even drain them but boil until the cooking juices reduce to almost none), continue to stir fry until all is heated thoroughly. Break 3-4 eggs in a bowl, and add 2 tablespoons milk cream; salt and pepper to taste. Add the egg mixture to the pan and scramble until the eggs are cooked. Serve warm.
Fork of the Week:
If you look for borage in the neighborhood markets ask for “hodan,” the most common local name. It is also known with the names kaldırık, ıspıt, zılbıt, zirbit, mancar and sığırdili. Do check local eateries, they may happen to have a batch already cooked for you…For everything green head to Cantinery at Zorlu, İstanbul, for a pop-up menu with wild spring greens that will be served till 30 April.
Cork of the Week:
Borage flowers look so pretty in cocktails; they particularly taste well in Gin &Tonic’s with their refreshing cucumber-like flavor or as in tradition a Pimm’s Cup Cocktail. Note that borage is one of the botanicals used in Gilpin’s Westmorland Extra Dry Gin, so try the trick in a dry martini; actually any other London Dry Gin will benefit from a few leaves and flowers of borage. As suggested by the great herbalists and philosophers of history, adding pretty borage flowers to white wines can be nice. My favorite whites these days are of Nif Winery, Viognier Private Collection 2016 and Chardonnay Solaris 2016; of course the wonderfully aromatic Bornova Misketi 2016 from the indigenous Muscat grapes is heavenly. I think with these formidable wines I’ll have my borage flowers prettily placed in a little glass, and eat them afterwards. Companion to spirits and wine, now who can say that borage is boring?