Tansy – A Herb Used Since Antiquity but Forgotten in Modern Times
The world is an amazing place – there are so many things around us that we don’t notice and don’t know what they are – but when you know something you see it bloody everywhere. Next time you go for a walk along a river or in the countryside keep an eye out for this pretty plant as you are likely to come across it. It is called Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and is recognisable by its little flowers, which look like yellow buttons. The picture above was taken along the water of Leith in Edinburgh. To cooks of the past this would have been immediately recognisable as a common herb and was considered an essential in a kitchen garden. Tansy was so popular in the 17th century it gave its name to a type of sweet and thin omelette. Samuel Pepys wrote about them as if they were commonplace:
‘I had a pretty dinner for them, viz., a brace of stewed carps, six roasted chickens, and a jowl of salmon, hot, for the first course; a tanzy and two neats’ tongues, and cheese the second; and were very merry all the afternoon, talking and singing and piping upon the flageolette.’
Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) had no less than four recipes for tansy – to make various boiled and steamed puddings with almonds and rice. If you squeeze the leaves it has a clean spicy menthol scent. I can’t tell you what it tastes like as I haven’t plucked up the courage to do so. Taken in large quantities it can be extremely toxic. A little can be enough to induce cold sweats and paranoia. Tansy is common throughout Europe and has been cultivated since antiquity. It is one of numerous plants that are neglected in the kitchen, whereas in the past they knew what to do with it, and knew to use it sparingly. It is all around us but, after reading about it, I for one am too scared to try it. I can’t see chefs using it either – what if they made someone ill and got sued? It seems a shame we don’t use it as it is supposed to be delicious. But is it worth the danger?
If you have tasted it and if its good let me know. I doubt that anyone is looking for a Tansy recipe, but here is one for historical interest and novelty. This one is from an old Scottish cookery book – Elizabeth Clelands book A New and Easy Method of Cookery, first published in 1755. Do not try this on my account as I don’t want to get sued either.
To make a Tansy Pudding.
BEAT ten Eggs, with eight Ounces of fine Sugar,
then put in half a Mutchkin of Spinage Juice, a Mutch-
kin of Cream, a little Brandy and Nutmeg, eight Ounces
of Spunge Biscuit, or white Bread grated fine, a little
Juice of Tansy to your Taste; the Tansy must be pound-
ed and shred; a Quarter of a Pound of blanched and
pounded Almonds; mix all these well together in a
Stew-pan, with three Ounces of Butter; set it on the
Fire, stirring it till it is hard, then put it in you Dish,
and bake it. Strew Sugar and sliced Orange on it. You
may make a Tansy without Almonds the same Way.