Nat Lucas toasts the month with a drink (and a sprig) of which Dickens would approve
Closer inspection of the plant setting the garden awash with blue flowers proves initially disappointing. It is not borage but its equally hairy ‘hounds tongue’ relative, green alkanet. In the spirit of adventure, the substitute is tested to see if it possesses any of the properties commonly associated with its better known cousin – as a curer of both hypochondria and melancholia and as a source of courage.
The gardener and diarist John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, who lived just a few minutes up the River Ravensbourne from where I sit, wrote of borage ‘the sprigs… are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.’ Being neither, but suffering from a spring cold, I try using some of the green alkanet leaves in an inhalation. The smell of rivers seeps into my encumbered nasal passages. On emerging from beneath the towel I find that the remedy has worked. Whether it was simply the effect of the steam or the alkanet is debatable.
Historically borage has also been thought to dispel melancholy. Although I have no such malady I try some of the alkanet leaves as a tea infusion. There is none of the delicate cucumber flavour that would be expected of borage. Instead, I find the green alkanet to possess a soft taste more akin to under ripe galia melon. I sip the tea and gaze out of the window trying to remember lines of poetry. Nothing changes and I cannot recite anything appropriate beyond the first line. Perhaps I have shored up my defences against any future malaise.
Aside from its uses in gin, borage has commonly provided flavour and garnish to a ‘stirrup’ – a type of drink traditionally served to a hunting party prior to departure. Roman soldiers drank wine with borage to give them courage before battle. Being in possession of two cats instead of the prerequisite pack of hounds and disinclined to wear a toga, I decide to offer claret cup to my father in law.
Claret cup is essentially a punch and its precise ingredients may vary depending upon the maker. It has literary associations – Jane Austen uses it as a social enabler in Pride and Prejudice and it was famously a favourite drink of Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ recipe was as follows:
Put into a large jug four or six lumps of sugar; give the preference to six. The thin rind of a lemon, leave to stand for ten minutes and stir. Add a wine glass of brandy, then a bottle of claret, then half a bottle of soda water. Then stir well and grate in nutmeg. Then add ice. If borage be used for this cup, half a handful will be found quite sufficient. Stir well before serving.
I follow this recipe using the green alkanet flowers, ‘bright blue with white honey guides,’ as a garnish instead of the borage. Increasing the amount of brandy by another half a glass adds breadth to the flavour and moves it away from sangria territory. Serving in a tumbler instead of a stirrup cup allows the colour of the flowers to be appreciated. Refined sipping is recommended to navigate around the flowers, which the father in law declares ‘taste of fish’.