Orthodox Easter and Zdravets

Posted on May 3, 2013 in Archives

May 3, 2013. Zdravets (left) or “health plant” is probably the most popular garden plant in Bulgaria. Thought to possess magical qualities, it is imbued with cultural significance and, as a gift, is an offering of good will and a harbinger of good luck. The plant is a true geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum,  known in English as “bigfoot geranium,” “Bulgarian geranium,” “rock cranesbill,” or “scented cranesbill.” Ironically, most of what we call “geraniums” in English are actually in the Pelargonium genus. I’ve always found common names to be confusing and misleading — though I admit that I’m no scholar of Latin or botany. I do wish that food and gardening writers would use the proper binomial nomenclature, though. True geraniums like the Bulgarian zdravets are also known as cranesbills or hardy geraniums and grow in all but the wettest environments around the globe. Pelargoniums, on the other hand, though widely cultivated, come mostly from South Africa. There are dozens of culitvars of scented-leaf Pelargoniums, with fragrances that conjure almond, apple, coconut, lemon, nutmeg, Old Spice, peppermint, roses, and strawberry. When I lived in Charleston, Joann Yaeger, easily the best cook I’ve ever known, used to use the leaves to impart an exotic scent and flavor to her cookies and other ethereal pastries.

The zdravets on my balcony began blooming last week, just in time for Orthodox Easter here in the Balkans.

Interestingly, the zdravets has highly scented leaves as well, though I’ve never heard of anyone here capturing the fragrance in the kitchen, in spite of a thriving zdravets essential oil business. Its producers claim all-but-miraculous benefits of the oil; it is said to rival manure as a fertilizer.

I wrote Joann, who is no longer in the food business, and asked if she might enlighten me on how she used the leaves. At one point many years ago, I was working on a book of southern sweets, and Joann’s recipes were to be featured front and center. But Harper’s, the publisher, was having financial problems and paid me NOT to write the book. So I bought the building where my store was located and sold it two years later at a huge profit. I never finished the book and those computer files are, I’m afraid, long gone.

My email to her: “Did you put them down in a jar of sugar to flavor it? Did you make a syrup? A tisane? Or did you steep the leaves in milk and use that?”

With a problematic computer and two full-time jobs, she answered me — twice, the first email having vanished into the ether. Here’s her response:

Leaves mold…. wash..dry and then use like vanilla in sugar… scented cake flour, too, for genoise… but unfortunately flavor then very faint.
seem to lose flavor in high heat… get very bitter and impart a very plant-like, unpleasant flavor baked in cakes… screwed up a lot of test runs…
In simple syrup..wash put in syrup already finished, liqueur in  as well.. put leaves in while syrup very warm. Placed in honey the same; use honey immediately…. cannot remember why, but think the honey was a good substrate for the yeast….

Tried baking with leaves, drying and using like herb..

Very bitter if used like basil. Would soak in water…. then chop the new leaves ONLY and put in salad with a sweet element like fresh peaches, sweet garden cucumbers or a sweet cheese…
As well, a nice trick I did so that if I used the leaves in a dish and mainlined that on the menu..if the dish was served hot –as in a slice of warm pound cake with hot syrup with the leaves.. I would rub a broken leaf of the hot , warmed plate  before it went out with the waiter to have the esters (?) of the leaf on the plate before plating/serving —-would get beautiful aroma…. one would want to roll on the plate like it was a human form of “catnip.” (People-nip? Nah, sounds like a facelift)

PS… I did try to candy little leaves like candied pansies and vio
lets…. cannot remember the outcome…

As I said, Joann is quite simply the best cook I’ve ever known — and I’ve known famous chefs from all over the world. I remember once when Serge Claire, who himself trained under Fernand Point, tasted one of those cookies of Joann’s, he exclaimed, “Who cooked this? Exquisite!”

Here are some traditional, hand-painted Balkan Easter Eggs. Talk about exquisite!

Orthodox Easter falls on May 5 this year. Mikel is returning from the States tomorrow and our dear friends Mary Edna Fraser and John Sperry are arriving on Sunday. Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be cooking Mexican!