Annabel Langbein: Brain food (+ recipes)
Have you ever noticed when you slice a carrot that it looks like a human eye? Or that the deep red juice from a beetroot resembles human blood? Or when you crack open a walnut it looks just like a brain?
In our early folklore, with remarkable frequency in cultures all over the world, the idea grew that the signature of a plant - be it the shape, colour, form or even taste - could be used to divine its medicinal properties.
North American Indians used black cohosh and wild indigo as snake medicines because the seeds in the seedpod produce a rattling sound. They also thought that the stalks of common purslane, which resemble worms, could be used to treat worms in humans. In ancient India, plants with a yellow flower were recommended for the treatment of jaundice.
Dioscorides, who practiced and wrote about medicine in ancient Rome, was one of the first to describe a plant signature in the year 65: "The Herb Scorpius resembles the tail of the Scorpion, and is good against his biting."
The idea took hold and was penned during the Renaissance as the Doctrine of Signatures, based in the idea that the features of plants resemble, in some way, the condition or body part that the plant can treat. So, bloodroot's scarlet roots could treat diseases of the circulatory system, while the bud of a peony, which looks like a human skull, was used as a remedy for epilepsy and brain injuries.
We now know it's obsolete as a medical theory, if not downright dangerous - mushrooms, for example, may look like an ear and so might have been assumed to treat earache, but choose the wrong mushroom and it may well be your last meal.
The current thinking around the Doctrine of Signatures is that it was a good way to remember cures, and in that way was useful for early peoples who did not have a written language. Yes, eating carrots will help your eyesight, as they are a good source of the carotenoids that support eye health. And beetroot juice, a powerhouse of antioxidants and phytochemicals, is considered a blood cleanser.
The botanist William Coles wrote that walnuts were good for curing head ailments because, in his opinion, "they have the perfect Signatures of the Head". A recent study published in The American Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found that walnut-eaters scored significantly better on a series of cognitive tests, variously measuring everything from reaction time to story recall. It is thought that this may be related to the walnut's high content of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. It's a no-brainer really!
Roasting walnuts brings out their sweetness and delivers a wonderfully crisp texture. Blue cheese, leafy greens and juicy pears are perfect partners in this winter salad. I always make extra dressing so I can keep the extra in the fridge. Get the recipe
This rich Middle-Eastern sweetmeat makes a great after-dinner treat, and is a lovely gift to take to a dinner party. It's great with any combo of nuts - try a mixture of pistachios and hazelnuts for a change. Get the recipe
Thanks to their high fat content, walnuts are prone to rancidity so shelled nuts should be stored in the fridge or freezer. However, if left in the shell, they will keep fresh for months. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com