Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region and is extensively grown in Israel, mostly for decorative purposes and also for its uses in the Jewish tradition. Its pleasant smell and year-round fresh greenery make it a great choice for decorative hedges, but myrtle also has some wonderful health properties and, as we have recently discovered to our surprise and pleasure, culinary uses.
Myrtle has some highly effective antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and astringent qualities, which makes it valuable in the treatment of many respiratory ailments and skin issues. The plant contains high levels of salicylic acid (a compound related to aspirin) and is an expectorant (helps to get rid of mucus), which makes myrtle tea an excellent choice for colds and flu. Myrtle essential oil is especially prized, often applied together with other essential oils.
It is actually possible to distill essential oils at home by steaming the leaves and directing the steam through a pipe which is cooled with the help of cold water or ice, thus turning the steam into liquid form. However, a much easier way for home remedies would be to make oil infusion by boiling the leaves in neutral base oil such as olive or grapeseed. It is also possible to make cold (no cooking) infusion by placing a jar filled with myrtle leaves and base oil in a sunshiny spot. This takes more time, but the valuable compounds of the plant are better preserved this way.
Clear, straightforward instructions for making and using myrtle oil infusion at home can be found here.
In the kitchen, myrtle leaves can be used for flavoring soups and stews in much the same way one would use bay leaves. The berries are also highly edible, with a fruity, slightly astringent flavor which goes particularly well with enhancing chicken, fish and meat dishes. They can also be made into jam (usually combined with other fruit) or, in the Sardinian tradition, steeped in alcohol and sweetened with honey to make a unique-flavored beverage.
Myrtle berries are fully ripe when their color is purplish-black. Around here this happens as late as November or December. If you don’t grow myrtle yourself, places with myrtle hedges are good spots for picking – a bit of foraging to be done in the local park. The berries don’t keep very well and must be either used right away or frozen. Warning: chickens love ripe myrtle berries, so take the necessary precautions to eliminate competition from your feathery friends.
While the health benefits of myrtle are well-known, its culinary uses are, in my opinion, greatly underrated. I hope more people get to know and appreciate this wonderful shrub with its diverse uses and introduce it into their kitchens.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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