Tansy – Have you tried this toxic herb?

Tansy - Have you tried this toxic delicacy?

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.

Tansy - Have you tried this toxic delicacy?

3 Comments:

  1. Wow, that recipe was interesting! 🙂
    There is much scare-mongering about tansy… too much.
    First — I browsed many articles about tanacetum vulgare and have never seen any explanation of what exactly is so toxic in this plant. Many articles states that it is thujone,
    and sure thujone is toxic, but it is soluble in alcohol but NOT in water.
    So any kind of tansy tea should be mostly free of thujone and if so what IS in fact toxic,if anything is in tansy tea after all??
    Many herbalists say tansy tea is a fantastic remedy for common cold. Even more herbalists say a tansy infusion in oil is great for rashes and skin diseases. And indeed, it worked on me any time I had any kind dermatitis.

  2. I tried a stiff cup of Organic Tansy tea this evening. It’s now a couple of hours later. No noticeable effects. The flavor has nothing going for it. I’m going to spray it on to reply dust mites !

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