Chocolate volcano-ring cake for the beekeepers

As regular readers of my blog will know, the Ealing and District Beekeepers Association is really a tea-and-cake association. Everyone turns up on a Saturday afternoon for a bit of cake at the apiary table washed down by a very good cup of tea. Occasionally, there is some beekeeping too. Yesterday I baked a chocolate bundt cake that disappeared very quickly. It is easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 200g (7oz) butter
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 300g (10.5oz) self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 medium eggs (beaten)
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 100ml (4oz) semi-skimmed milk
  • 3 dsp assorted chocolate sprinkles
  • icing sugar
  • 22cm (8–9in) bundt tin
  • large mixing bowl
  • wooden spoon

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (338°F) and grease the bundt tin with butter and a light dusting of flour. Also whip the eggs and put to one side.

2. Mix the butter and sugar in the large mixing bowl until the mixture is golden and creamy

TIP: I use a wooden spoon for all my mixing.

3. Gradually fold in the whisked eggs.

TIP: a teaspoonful of flour added each time helps to stop the mixture from curdling.

4. Fold in the flour and baking powder, then fold in about half (50ml / 2oz ) of the milk until the mixture is soft and easy to stir.

5. Stir in the cocoa powder and chocolate sprinkles, then keep adding a drop of milk until the mixture is soft and dropping again.

TIP: I find that I never need to use all of the milk.

6. Pour the mixture into the bundt tin and smooth it around the tin using the back of the wooden spoon.

7. Bake the mixture in the oven at 160–170°C for about 30–40 minutes.

TIP: the cooking time depends on your oven and how much time it takes to prepare your mixture. (Yesterday I got distracted by a woodpecker visiting the garden.)

TIP: insert a skewer to test that the cake is cooked (if it comes out clean).

8. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes then turn out on a wire rack and leave to cool for 20 minutes before dusting with icing sugar.

It wasn’t my intention, but when I first started experimenting I found that baking in a bundt tin sometimes makes the cake mixture crack as it rises. (This can be fixed by reducing the temperature of the oven.) However, I liked the effect. The ‘crater’ makes the ‘hole’ in the ring-shaped cake look like a volcano’s caldera – inspiring the name chocolate volcano-ring cake!

Stan cut the cake at the apiary using a hive tool and I took one slice for me and one slice to crumble for the robin. It was a busy day in bee-world. Tom was giving a beginner session on queen-rearing, John was taking off the honey from his hives, and Emily and I had our own queens to visit. You can read about that in my next post.

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A beeswax-and-lavender butter and a pear-and-black-grape delight

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The frost fairies left their sparkle on cars and rooftops every morning this week. On Saturday there was plenty of crisp sunshine to continue winter checks on the bees.

Afterwards I went home to warm up in the kitchen. It’s been so chilly that my skin was feeling chapped and dry. I’m also trying to be healthier, which means eating as much fruit as I do cake. So I made a couple of recipes that are fun and easy to do: a comforting beeswax-and-lavender butter for winter skin, and a delicious poached pear with black grapes and honey for cake-filled beekeepers.

Beeswax-and-lavender butter
Lavender is an old friend. I have used the herb and the essential oil since I was a teenager for homemade lotions and potions. My grandmother would make buckets of lavender water from the bushes in our garden. She taught me to pick the lavender when the bees were feeding, because they knew when the plant was at its best.

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Lavender is one of the most popularly used oils in aromatherapy, it is well balanced and remarkably versatile in its actions. There are several different types and I tend to use that known as true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). You can read more about living with lavender in my essential oil profile, from folklore to chemistry, here.

Lavender stands out in skin care for its moisturising and healing properties for almost all skin types from dry and oily to problem and sensitive. I love using this butter in my bathroom after a shower to deeply nourish dry skin and to relieve aching muscles. I also find the fragrance is calming and uplifting.

When I make aromatherapy recipes I do so instinctively, because they are familiar to me. A cup of olive oil, five or six teaspoons of beeswax, two or three teaspoons of distilled water or herbal tea, and drops of essential oil until it smells right… That’s not very helpful though, this time I’ve measured the recipe as I made it.

Ingredients
• 30g beeswax
• 100ml olive oil
• 3 tsp distilled water
• 15–25 drops of lavender essential oil

Method
1. Put the beeswax and oil in a heat-resistant glass bowl. Then place the bowl in a saucepan of shallow water. This is a make-do Bain Marie method.

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2. Slowly melt the beeswax in the oil over a low heat as you stir.

3. Once the beeswax is melted into the oil, remove the bowl from the heat. The oil-and-wax mixture will take some time to start to set, stir steadily and be patient.

4. Stir until the mixture feels it is ‘trying to resist’, then add distilled water a drop at a time, using a hand whisk to blend in completely.

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5. Pour into a jar before the butter starts to cool and stiffen. Add the drops of lavender essential oil and use a chopstick to stir in.

6. Leave to cool before placing the lid on the jar to avoid condensation gathering under the lid and on the surface of the butter.

7. Label the jar including the date. The beeswax-and-lavender butter should be stored in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight.

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The beeswax-and-lavender butter usually lasts a week in my cupboard, it is a winter treat. Only a very small amount is needed to rub on parts of your body, or a tiny dab as a rich moisturiser for hands and feet. I make smaller quantities of recipes with added water, because, without preservatives, the water attracts bacteria and makes homemade cosmetics go off faster. I also prefer my cosmetics to have a subtle delicate fragrance and find 15 drops of lavender oil is enough, but you can add up to 25 drops.

I always add a safety note to my recipes with essential oils (leaning towards over-caution when giving a recipe online) and here it is advised not to use the lavender oil in the first three months of pregnancy, and thereafter at a lower dilution of essential oil (perhaps 10 drops) with advice from your GP or midwife.

Pear-and-black-grape delight
This recipe is really easy. Core a pear and replace the cored flesh with chopped grapes and runny honey. Steam lightly for 20 minutes and enjoy a healthy dessert or snack. I’ve used medjool dates instead of black grapes for this recipe in the past, which is yummy.

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I was disappointed this weekend to miss Harrow Beekeepers wax workshop, particularly as I’ve kept beeswax in my kitchen cupboard to make homemade products for years. Harrow runs many excellent courses, which I hope to go to in future.

Something else I learned this week that’s quite interesting, shared here as an aside, is the difference between frost and frozen dew. This is frost – it is feathery and white in appearance with crystal formations, while frozen dew looks like droplets of frozen water. How does this happen?

Dew is formed at ‘dewpoint’ when the ground is cold and the moisture in the air goes from gas to liquid. If it is cold enough, the liquid dew freezes to become a solid – frozen dew. Frost occurs at ‘frost point’ when it is below freezing and the moisture in the air goes from gas to solid. You probably already know this, but I found it fascinating.

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Nature magic or nature science? Both are beautiful.

The London Honey Show 2014

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Autumn brings lots of good things like misty mornings, crispy days, bonfires and fireworks – and the annual honey shows.

The London Honey Show at the Lancaster Hotel celebrates the end of one beekeeping season and the start of the next.

For a small fee of £1, donated to Bees for Development, you’ll enter a room filled with bee paraphernalia – honey, mead, honey beer, honey cakes, bee art, wax candles, wax flowers, cook books, bee books, cosmetics, jewellery, exotic hives… and lots of beekeepers, quite a few from Ealing.

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What I enjoy most about The London Honey Show are the talks. They are not too long or too many to stop you from walking around and sampling the stalls, but they leave you sparkling with bee knowledge. It’s like the Ted Talks of beekeeping, so here’s a bonus post for this week on the three speakers.

Products of the hive and what to do with them by urban beekeeper Judy Earl gave us new ideas for old ingredients: honey, propolis and beeswax. A beekeeper for 10 years, Judy has spent hours experimenting in her kitchen. Skipping over pollen and royal jelly (she had rarely met a beekeeper in the UK who uses these) Judy explored medicinal, cosmetic, decorative, culinary, and other uses of the hive.

While New Zealand’s Manuka honey is widely acclaimed for its antimicrobial properties, propolis has long been a medicinal component used for skin ointments and tinctures for sore throats. “Although reading some sources would seem to make propolis a cure-all,” said Judy.

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From honey-and-slippery-elm tablets to beeswax-and-chili plasters, Judy has tried every remedy including a garlic-and-beeswax chest rub which was so pungent the judges refused to try it at the national honey shows.

There are a wide range of do-it-yourself cosmetics from soaps and yoghurt-and-honey face masks to lipsticks and mascaras. “The easiest to make is lip balm,” said Judy, which can be blended with other lovely ingredients such as avocado oil. “Be sure to use the cleaner white wax cappings when making products for the lips and face.”

Foods like honey and mead are just the beginning we discovered as Judy described delicious recipes for flavoured vodkas and honey liqueurs. She gave an easy shopping list for blackberry vinegar made with 600ml white wine vinegar, 450g sugar, 450g blackberries, and 225g honey.

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From dipped and moulded beeswax candles, the hive has a cornucopia of practical and decorative uses. Mixing 100g beeswax and 250ml turpentine is the “easiest thing” to make beeswax polish, while “wax crayons is quite a labour of love”. Judy showed the nice things we could do with decorative wax confectionary and flowers. Her take-home message: “Anything that comes out of your hive can be used, don’t burn it use it!”

Saving our bumble bees by Professor Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, pointed out that honeybees are nice but they’re not everything. “There are around 26 species of bumble bees in the UK, the numbers keep changing, and around 220 species worldwide,” said Dave, a bit miffed.

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A plate of different bumble bee species from Collins Beekeeper’s Bible.

As an academic at Sussex University, Dave has spent around 30 years studying bumble bees, although his first foray at age seven into bumble bee conservation didn’t start well:

“On one occasion, after a heavy summer rainstorm, I found a number of bedraggled bumblebees clinging to my buddleia, and decided to dry them out. Unfortunately for the bees I was, perhaps, a bit too young to have a good grasp of the practicalities. With hindsight, finding my mum’s hairdryer and giving them a gentle blow-dry might have been the most sensible option. Instead, I laid the torpid bees on the hotplate of the electric cooker, covered them in a layer of tissue paper, and turned the hot plate on to low. Being young I got bored of waiting for them to warm up and wandered off to feed my vicious little gerbils. Sadly, my attention did not return to the bees until I noticed the smoke. The tissue paper had caught fire and the poor bees had been frazzled. I felt terrible. My first foray into bumblebee conservation was a catastrophic disaster.”
A sting in the tale, Dave Goulson

Luckily it got better.

Bumble bee colonies are annual, said Dave. They start again each year with late summer queens who have mated and leave their nests to bury in the ground over winter. In spring, hungry bumble bee queens emerge to feast on flowers and search for an uninhabited mouse or vole nest in a lawn. Then satisfied, the bumble bee queen lays her eggs and sits on them like a bird, pressing her stomach and shivering to keep them warm.

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Another fascinating fact about bumble bees is that these furry insects are like us – warm blooded. Bumble bees are thought to have originated 30 million years ago in the eastern parts of the Himalayas, where around 60 different species of bumbles still live. But being big furry insects adapted to live in colder climes, bumble bees have enormous energy requirements. “A bumble bee beats its wings 200 times per second to stay up in the air.” To maintain body warmth and function they must eat a lot and often. “A bumble bee with a full stomach has 40 minutes before starving to death.”

While Dave promised the talk wouldn’t be all gloom and doom, he couldn’t tell us these bumble bee delights without sharing a cautionary note for the future. Bumble bees are important pollinators, “While your honeybees are shivering inside in early spring, bumbles are out and about pollinating tomatoes. Honeybees are rubbish at pollinating tomatoes,” Dave told the room full of beekeepers. “Tomatoes require buzz pollination which honeybees haven’t worked out how to do, but bumble bees have.” In fact, every tomato that we eat in the UK has been pollinated by a bumble bee, which could mean fewer generous helpings of tomato sauce if these insects decline.

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Three British species of bumble bee have become extinct in the past 100 years and many other species are declining. Why? Changes to farming, exposure to foreign diseases and pesticides like neonicotinoids are all contributing factors, Dave explained. “About a quarter of British bumble bees suffer from an Asian honeybee disease, nosema ceranae, which is very sad.”

We were shown a table of agrochemical applications on an oilseed rape field in Sussex, which had 20 different types of chemicals thrown on a single crop. Wild bees, honeybees and other pollinators are bombarded by different pressures, toxins and loss of natural habitat. We need to learn how to look after them better.

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How fast are bumble bees declining? That’s hard to say, Dave admitted, because we have an idea of honeybee losses from the number of hives, but bumble bee nests are small holes in the ground that are difficult to find. This is where the army are called in to help! A specially trained sniffer dog, Toby, sniffed out nest holes so that researchers could set up cameras and learn interesting things about bumble bees.

One thing they learnt is that great tits are a predator of bumble bees. We watched a clip of grainy footage as a great tit sat outside a bumble bee nest waiting to pick off the workers. From the piles of bodies, Dave’s team found out that each bird had a favourite way of eating its snacks: biting the thorax and chewing on the wing muscles, or chopping off the bottom and scooping out the innards.

Badgers are also a predator of bumble bees, digging up their nests to eat, particularly during hot dry summers.

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A picture of pretty bee art to offset the doom and gloom. A lovely project by Hallfield School Year 3.

So it seems bumble bees face a lot of challenges, what can we do to help? Dave outlined an action plan:

• Make people aware about the plight of bumble bees, not just honeybees
• Working with children – kids love beasties so keep them engaged and interested about insects
• Join a citizen science scheme, there are lots in the UK finding out how bees are doing
• Promote wildlife friendly gardens using traditional cottage plants not intensively bred flowers – “You may as well have plastic plants than hideous bedding” said Dave
• Badger councils to stop mowing verges of roads and roundabouts to leave them for wild flowers, bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

Go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for lots more information about bumble bees, including how to identify them, and follow Dave Goulson on Twitter @DaveGoulson.

A short Q&A followed Dave’s talk. I asked what is his favourite bumble bee? “Shrill carder,” said Dave “It makes a shrill sound up in the air.”

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Our grocery shopping would look very different without pollinators.

Dave reminded us that three-quarters of life on earth is made up of insects and that life would be very different without them. These small creatures not only pollinate our world but fulfil many important tasks like recycling, waste disposal and are part of the food chain of larger animals.

However, Dave’s talk did have a sting in its tail, “All bees have a common ancestor around 120 million years ago – wasps that lived in the age of dinosaurs.” These wasp ancestors kept burrows in the ground filled with paralysed insects. It’s thought that they began to collect pollen, and eventually collected more and more pollen and fewer paralysed insects until they became vegetarian wasps – or bees.

The final talk on Spoonfuls of Honey by food writer Hattie Ellis was a warm hug on a cold dark autumnal evening. Though Emily, Jonesy and I had all sampled the honey beer, mead and cocktails, so we were feeling particularly warm already.

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Hattie took us on a sensual culinary journey of cooking with honey, illustrated by using small amounts of honey to make simple food wonderful. Her colourful descriptions of mango honey from Jamaica and quince honey from Kew filling a whole room with fragrance made my imagination run wild. This was a great talk for a beekeeper and an aromatherapist. “How do you evolve a language of the flavour of honey?” asked Hattie. You cook with it. A sumptuous display of delicious dishes ensued from borage or orange blossom honey spooned over buttery Madeleines to chestnut honey drizzled over chocolate ice cream.

“Honey’s best friends are things the bees like,” said Hattie, “Like apricots with thyme, and elderflowers fritters.” Her talk was driving me crazy! “Cheese and honey are a marriage made in heaven,” she continued to describe dipping walnut bread and honey in baked Camembert.

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For the carnivores there was also honey-glazed lamb and sweetened tamarind ribs. Hattie recommended using cheaper honeys to cook and saving speciality honeys to drizzle. The fructose in honey tastes sweeter than the sucrose in sugar, so less can be used if baking, say, a Drambuie-soaked fruit cake.

Take care to use a lower temperature when cooking with honey, warned Hattie, as it burns more easily.

As we salivated over a picture of a fig-and-honey tart, Hattie led us from sweet to savoury dishes like leeks scattered with toasted bread crumbs and pollen, and pollen-flavoured shortbreads. It was too much.

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Hattie finished with a rather sexy description of how to savour the taste of honey slowly on the tongue – it would make a bee blush.

You can read more about Spoonfuls of Honey on Hattie’s website.

The night ended with announcements for best honeys and Beekeeper of the Year. We didn’t win the honey prize, so instead floated between stalls like aimless drones before flying home. I can’t wait till next year’s London Honey Show!

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A chemistry class in perfume-making at Homemade London

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There was a strange light as I walked around the corner from Marble Arch to Seymour Place. I was on my way to an Introduction to perfume-making workshop at Homemade London, and shafts of sunlight were streaking through darkened clouds that threatened to burst at any moment.

Like a rainbow in the storm, Homemade London is a sanctuary in the busy heart of London where you can stop, be still and get creative. I had visited a few years ago for a beauty workshop: The secrets of beauty masks at Homemade London and after three wedding weekends in a row, I had decided to treat myself to a perfume-making class before getting back to the bees.

Nicola, our teacher, likes to keep the evening workshops small and cosy – there were only four of us. This promised to be an intimate and intense journey through scent, with drinks and nibbles. ‘Sugar revives the sense of smell,’ said Nicola wryly, as she served rose lemonade and offered mini cupcakes.

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During the two-and-a-half hour workshop we would learn what goes into making a perfume and takeaway our own signature scent. Working with a range of organic, or wild, ethically sourced essential oils, rather than synthetic scents, we would tune into our likes and dislikes to find out what suited our skin and personality.

As a relapsed aromatherapist, smelling and identifying the essential oils felt like being reacquainted with old friends. Mandarin, petitgrain, ylang ylang, clary sage and frankincense – my aromatherapy had been put on the shelf for the past couple of years, because of those demanding little bees, but this was the perfect way to revive my interest in scent.

Although, all that smelling did require a mini cupcake or two.

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The art of blending for perfumery was quite different to blending for aromatherapy, I was to discover. Nicola passed around paper testing strips so we could give each scent a mark out of 10 on how much we liked or disliked the smell. I had to forcibly remove my likes and dislikes from aromatherapy bias of what I knew were the therapeutic actions of an essential oil, and focus only on how the fragrance made me feel and would work on my skin.

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‘You’re probably familiar with top, middle and base notes,’ said Nicola, ‘But I’m going to introduce you.’ She gave a delightful description of the notes of perfume as the pub goers across the road stole curious glances in our direction:

Top notes are light and sparkly, they are what you notice first in a blend, although they bubble off the top quickly. They are usually citrusy, though some are woody and spicy.

Middle notes, or heart notes, are the heart of the blend and bring everything together. They are floral, green and woody or warm and spicy.

Base notes are what lingers. They are the remains of a perfume when you can still smell it on your scarf a few days later. They are often dark, woody and foresty.

There was such a range of essential oils to smell and choose that after a while my nose couldn’t tell the difference between citrus, floral, wood and spice. Nicola had a great tip for ‘clearing the palette’ and told us to inhale the coffee grounds placed on the table. This cleared my nose ready to start smelling again.

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‘If you like a smell then it will probably work well on your skin,’ though Nicola admitted this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Perfumes are fickle creatures and randomly choose people they like or don’t like. Chanel No.5 smells fantastic on my mother, but stinks on me. But Nicola’s rule seemed a good place to start, so I wrote down my marks for the smells I liked best in the notebooks provided.

My choice of perfume friends were grapefruit, bergamot, neroli, jasmine, rose, benzoin, cedarwood and vetiver.

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To create a bespoke perfume from our selection of scents we needed to mix the top, middle and base notes to smell how well they worked together and in which quantities. This was a careful and precise process of ‘layering’. We wrote our choice of oils in a table and with Nicola’s guidance added one or two drops at a time to our blends. Nicola gave our measures based on how highly we had scored each oil and used our individual likes and dislikes to make those the focus of each fragrance. As I hadn’t liked the smell of vetiver very much, but still found it interesting, Nicola provided cocktail sticks to add the oil at a quarter of a drop.

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My blend was taking shape as I tested the perfume on places that I would wear it, my inner wrist and elbow (not behind the ears which is an old wives’ tale, said Nicola). However, it smelt (to me) dangerously close to an aromatherapy blend and what I wanted was a dark, smoky and green forest-like perfume. Nicola helped rescue my recipe by adding some black pepper, geranium and vanilla, and adjusting the measures of the other oils in my final two ‘layers’. The fragrance was left to ‘marinade’ on my wrist until we were both satisfied that the perfume smelt more ‘interesting’ and less ‘therapeutic’.

I finally had my first signature scent and I was impressed by how much more complicated it was to blend for perfumery than aromatherapy. But I wasn’t put off, in fact, it made me want to explore it further.

Nicola provided labels and gift-wrapped our perfumes in tissue paper. As it had been raining today and I now had a fresh green smelling perfume with a slight smokiness, I called it ‘AfterRain’.

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If you’re curious about what my perfume smells like, here’s the recipe so you can try it yourself:

Top notes

  • Bergamot 3 drops
  • Grapefruit 2 drops
  • Black pepper 1 drop

Middle notes

  • Neroli 11 drops
  • Jasmine 3 drops
  • Rose 3 drops
  • Geranium 1 drop

Base notes

  • Cedarwood 4 drops
  • Benzoin 2 drops
  • Vetiver 3 quarter drops
  • Vanilla 1 drop

The essential oils were blended in a base of coconut oil, around 20-30 ml.

I would highly recommend Homemade London’s Introduction to perfume-making and any of the other workshops that they run for much-needed time out and a burst of creativity for weary Londoners!

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Lavender for bee-pleasers and scented sugars

A friend recently promised to plant ‘bee-pleasers like lavender and cotoneaster’ to give her garden a pleasant summer hum. This made me think of summer afternoons spent in the garden enjoying the drifts of scent and the sounds of nature, while drinking a tall glass of lemonade. The past few weeks with my family and work have been really busy and there hasn’t been time to enjoy simple pleasures or even blog! So I gave myself Sunday afternoon to slow down and try a recipe for homemade pink lavender lemonade and lavender-scented sugar.

Lavender is one of my favourite herbs and essential oils. It is so valuable for humans and for bees. Ted Hooper describes lavender as flowers for food in his Guide to Bees and Honey: ‘Grown for its well known scent in most gardens, these plants provide excellent forage for the bee. There are considerable acreages grown in Europe and migration of bee colonies to lavender fields is an annual event. The honey is medium to dark amber in colour and strongly flavoured.’

Pink lavender lemonade

This recipe for lavender lemonade couldn’t be simpler to make and more delicious to drink.

Lavender has a very distinctive flavour in recipes so adjust to suit your taste. I have added rose petals for fragrance and hibiscus for its rich pink colour.

You will need:

  • 4 cups of boiling water
  • 4 cups of cold water
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 2 cups of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cups of dried lavender flowers
  • 1/4 cup of dried rose petals and hibiscus flowers
  1. Pour the boiling water over the lavender, rose petals and hibiscus flowers, then cover and leave for 10 minutes. The rose and hibiscus make the lemonade pink.
  2. Squeeze the lemons into a bowl while waiting for the flowers to infuse the water with scent and flavour.
  3. Sieve the flower water into a saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice, stir thoroughly until all the sugar had dissolved. Then add the cold water and stir.
  4. Pour into a jug ready to serve and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer to cool.

Here is a step by step in pictures…

Pour the boiling water over the lavender, rose petals and hibiscus flowers, then cover and leave for 10 minutes.

Cut and squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl.

Sieve the flower water into a saucepan.

Add the sugar and lemon juice, stir thoroughly until all the sugar has dissolved.

Then add cold water and stir.

Pour into a jug ready to serve. Just add strawberries.

Lavender sugar

Lavender sugar makes everything taste beautiful and it is so easy to make. Simply mix together 2 cups of castor sugar and 1 cup of dried lavender flowers. Store inside an airtight jar ready to use. In time, the sugar soaks up the scent and taste of lavender, and is lovely to use in baking recipes or sprinkled over fruit and desserts.

We enjoyed the lavender lemonade and sugar with strawberries. It felt a little like a celebration given the recent good news about mine and Emily’s bees. There has been some troubles in bee-land lately, although all’s well that ends well which I’ll save for my next post.

Lavender sugar takes seconds to make and can be saved for more lovely recipes.

I am looking forward to using the lavender sugar to bake scented cupcakes and biscuits!

Living with lavender

bumble and honeybee on lavender

Your lavender friend is kind and understanding. She instinctively knows how you feel and she is ready to give a friendly smile and a comforting hug when you need one. 

I became a professional aromatherapist in 2005 after completing my diploma in Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Science with Neal’s Yard Remedies Ltd in Covent Garden, London. I studied hard to learn about the essential oils, carrier oils, anatomy and physiology, massage, beauty treatments, therapeutic relationships, and the history of natural medicine. My studies included profiling over 70 essential oils, such as their chemistry and actions.

My tutor Joyce West was a wonderful aromatherapist who taught us to “live with the essential oils”. Every week we chose an essential oil to wear as a fragrance, to use in skin care and massage, for bathing and other uses around the home. “Live with an essential oil,” said Joyce, “From morning till night, immerse yourself in its aroma and personality.”

This was my first post on my first blog about living with essential oils, which I have now revived here.

An introduction to lavender
Lavender is one of the most commonly used essential oils in aromatherapy. The herb has been popular since ancient times, it is a valued and versatile healer that restores balance to the body and mind. The 17th-century English herbalist, physician and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616–54) described lavender as “being an inhabitant almost in every garden, it is so well known that it needs no description”. He assigned planetary rulership of lavender to the quick-witted messenger of the Roman gods, Mercury, because the herb helped to soothe headaches and aided sleep, yet stimulated the mind. It is lavender’s ability to both revive and calm, to balance most physical and emotional states, which makes it so widely used in aromatherapy.

There are different types of lavender. The essential oil that I lived with, and which is described here, is known as true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). It has a distinctive yet subtle aroma, being sweetly floral and herbaceous. Its lance-shaped leaves with spears of purple flowers are familiar in most gardens. Press the flower head or leaf between your fingers, rub gently and lift your hand to smell the beautiful fragrance.

Lavender is widely known as the oil which started modern aromatherapy. The story of the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881–1950) who discovered the oil’s healing properties in a laboratory accident is mentioned in almost every book about aromatherapy. Gattefossé burned his hand and accidentally immersed it in lavender oil, but then found that the oil eased his pain and helped the skin to heal faster without leaving a scar. It is a popular account of the revival of aromatherapy, although I’m not personally saying that burns and scalds are treated other than medically advised.

Still, I always keep a bottle of lavender oil in my cupboard. It is a kitchen staple because of its usefulness in treating so many ailments: spots, acne, eczema, minor skin infections, insect bites, inflammation, aching muscles, and so on. I find that it is a gentle-acting oil, but effective, and so suitable for most people to use.

My lavender diary
Gentle cleansing oil
I used lavender essential oil to care for my skin this week. A blend of 15 drops lavender oil and 15 drops geranium oil to 30ml olive oil in a dark glass bottle to use as a skin cleanser. The blend gently and effectively removed all traces of make up from my face, although, of course, I didn’t use the oil to remove eye make-up.

To use an oil-based cleanser like this, pour a teaspoonful amount onto the palm of your hand and massage on your face for a few minutes. Wipe off using a hot damp cotton cloth, and repeat. The first cleanse lifts off the grime of the day, while the second cleanse removes deep-down dirt and debris clogging up pores.

Adding lavender oil to my evening skin-care ritual helps to relax my mind and brings harmony to my thoughts at the end of a hectic day.

Relaxing and revitalising bath
After a long hard week, I used lavender oil for a comforting bath. While the bath water ran, I blended 10 drops of lavender oil with 10ml full-fat milk; skimmed milk is no good as the essential oil needs to bind with the fat to blend. When my bath was run, I poured in the whole blend and sloshed around thoroughly. I felt like Cleopatra bathing in my creamy lavender bath as the fragrance restored inner peace.

Sweet dreams
Finally, for a good night’s sleep and to awake feeling refreshed, I poured three to four drops of lavender oil on the corner of my pillow to drift naturally into sleep.

Lavender in folklore
I love to read about the myths and legends of plants and flowers, exploring the wisdom traditions in which they were once used. In Ancient Greece, lavender was a herb of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, and in pagan traditions it belonged to the Willow Moon which shone between 15 April to 12 May.

I remember a herbalist telling me how lavender wine was once drunk to help cure flatulence or colic. The herb was also thought to prevent fainting spells when mixed with fennel, cinnamon, horehound and asparagus root.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Antonie Ursula Dees, who introduced me to aromatherapy and a world of fragrances.

Profile of lavender essential oil:
Latin name: Lavandula angustifolia
Plant family: Labiatae or Lamiaceae
Plant type: herb
Perfume note: middle
Botany and origins: evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean, now cultivated worldwide
Extraction: steam distillation
Chemical properties/active components: 45% esters (linalyl acetate, lavandulyl acetate), which are wound healing and anti-inflammatory; rich in alcohols (linalool), which are stimulating, powerful and gentle
Blends with: almost all essential oils
Key actions: antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, cytophylactic (stimulates skin renewal and wound healing, helps prevent scarring), decongestant (mild), sedative or stimulating
Common conditions: anxiety, agitation, depression, frustration, irritability, nervous tension, shock, stress; insomnia, headaches; high blood pressure, muscular aches and pains, rheumatism and arthritis, strains and sprains; colds and ‘flu; cystitis; acne, burns, eczema, inflammation, insect bites, skin infections, spots, sunburn, wounds
Contraindications: lavender is reportedly non-toxic and non-sensitising, but it is advised to avoid during the first three months of pregnancy
Further reading: This profile is based on my diploma studies, knowledge and experience of using this essential oil. Other aromatherapy texts will list a wider range of properties and uses. Some of the most comprehensive essential oil profiles that I have read are published in Salvatore Battaglia’s The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Second Edition, Perfect Potion, 2003, Australia. ISBN:  0-6464-2896-9.