Scientific Name: Orchis Mascula
Orchids once grew wild and prolifically in Britain and other parts of Europe. Unfortunately wild orchids are now rare and protected, so you can’t dig up the tubers as you once could. The tubers contain a starch–like substance called salep which is mucilaginous and was known to Dioscorides in the 1st century AD. The tubers were dried and powdered or stored and used to heal wounds, as well as to heal “The King’s Evil” which was the name given to scrofula, the primary stage of tuberculosis, which causes swelling of the lymphatic glands. It was believed that the touch of the king could cure the disease. Culpeper believed that orchids came under the “dominion of Venus” and they were considered an aphrodisiac in Europe, possibly because of the shape of the tubers. The word sahlep in Arabic is said to mean “fox testicles.” It is Culpeper who states that “they heal the King’s Evil.” Earlier Gerard calls them the “Female Satyrion” and it was believed that satyrs were incited, by the orchid roots, which began to grow when a satyr, Orchis, who was the son of a satyr and a nymph, insulted (possibly raped) a priestess of Bacchus or Dionysus. His father prayed that he would not be killed for his crime and so Orchis was metamorphosed into an orchid.
Witches used the tubers in spells with the fresh tubers bringing true love and the withered ones used to stop adulterous passions.
In the Renaissance the tubers were kept in ships’ stores to provide sustenance when other rations dwindled. One ounce of the powdered tubers in 4 pints of boiling water was considered enough for one man per day in times of shortage.
Mucilage of salep (powdered tuber) is one of the official preparations in the German Pharmacopoeia. It is used as a cure for diarrhoea and bilious fevers.
In Turkey salep is a warming winter drink flavoured with saffron, which tastes delicious, and powdered tuber is used to make the kind of ice cream that stretches and has to be cut with a knife. This also contains mastic gum. I once observed ice cream vendors stretching their ice cream across a wide road in Kusadasi, Turkey. The ice cream tastes very good, as does the salep drink you can buy there.
You can also eat orchid flowers, as you can those from the kachnar tree and the hibiscus. They can be used as a garnish, or to flavour desserts such as ice cream. Vanilla, of course comes from an orchid. If you can get an orchid root, you should try this drink. However you can’t import orchid roots from Turkey, but you can get powdered salep in some gourmet shops, although you may not be getting the real thing.
1 tsp salep powder
1 cup milk
1½ tsps sugar
a pinch of saffron
sprinkle of cinnamon powder
(optional dash of rose water, orange blossom water, chopped walnuts or pistachios)
The salep powder, sugar and saffron in a cup of milk, pour into a glass or cup and sprinkle with cinnamon powder.
If you wish you can top add a dash of each or either of the flower water and stir then top with the walnuts or fresh pistachios (not the salted ones).
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