Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shiso syrup; tincturing and infusing

Back in the early '80's, during my last semester of art school, I took a class which I barely remember except for two things: first, the teacher instructed us to keep a journal which included the phases of the moon .   And second, he asked us what happened to the turpentine everyone, in those days, poured straight down the studio sinks.

The world shifted a little for me, in that class room.  For four years I'd been living in a city, engrossed in my work, often painting in the studio from 8 a.m. until ten or eleven at night.  And although I'd walk from home to school and back-- I didn't have a car in those years--my thoughts seemed more real to me than the physical world through which I walked.  I marked time by the school calendar, not lunar cycles.  Landscape was something I passed through on my way from home to studio while thinking of something else. 

But the class woke me up.  It placed me in a particular place, at a particular time--time as measured by seasons, tides, and migrating birds.  I remember being embarrassed by my sudden awareness, the way I'm always embarressed whenever I finally locate what's right in front of my face.

Red shiso, photo by Kay Pere
All of this came back to me a few days ago when I visited my artist/musican friend Kay Pere.  Kay knew I'd just made a perfume featuring shiso or perilla--a Japanese culinary herb related to mint--and wondered if I'd like some of the shiso she was about to thin from her garden.  "Oh yes, " I said.  I wanted it very much.  So I drove out to her home and saw, for the first time, her herb garden Gaia Luna, which includes a rock she moves around the garden's perimeter to mark the moon's phases.

Cedar buds
Of course, even without a lunar time piece, gardening is one way to ground us in the physical world. Gardeners keep track of frosts and droughts.  We notice insects and clouds. Natural perfumery, I'm finding, grounds me the same way.  More and more often scents stop me in my tracks.  I wonder where they come from.  I go exploring.  Only in the last few weeks did I learn how pervasive and sweet is the scent of blooming milkweeds.  And last year, wondering if it was true that fougeres are only a fantasy and that ferns have no scent, I buried my face in a stand of ferns and discovered that at least one variety smells soft, green, sweet and spicy, sort of like hay and nutmeg.

Some of my infusions and tinctures
And so I've begun trying to preserve some of the scents I love.  Last year I tinctured and/or infused figs, dates and vanilla, as well as some botanicals gifted to me by my perfumer friend Kaitlyn ni Donovan of VireoPerfumes.  But this year I'm infusing some of the botanicals which captured my olfactory attention as I walked through my neighborhood: cedar buds, bayberry (a favorite since childhood), as well as medicinal herbs like Saint John's wort.  Later this week a beekeeping friend is giving me some old hive goo: I'm looking forward to working with that. 

And what about all that shiso?  I've transplanted some, and am tincturing some.  But mainly I've used it in a recipe Kay invented: shiso sugar syrup. 

Kay's Shiso Syrup

Shiso syrup
1 large yoghurt container of red shiso leaves, washed
1 cup sugar
4 cups water

Bring everything to a simmer, turn off the heat, and cool to room temperature.  Strain and refrigerate.  A tiny bit of shiso syrup added to a whole lot of seltzer makes the most intriguing, delicious and refreshing drink you can imagine: a little minty, a little spicy, a little like sarsparilla.   If you use more sugar--one part sugar to one part water--the syrup will keep much longer.  But it will also be much sweeter--too steep a trade off for me.

But as long as I'm thinking about herbal/sugary concoctions, I bet shiso jelly would be divine, too.