Joanne Howdle: Lemon Balm has many parts to play in food and drink
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Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial, herbaceous plant in the mint family Lamiaceae. It is native to central Asia, south-central Europe, the Mediterranean and Iran, grows up to a metre in height and has heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges which have a mild lemon scent. The flowers are white to pale pink in colour.
The scientific name of the genus “Melissa” is Greek for “honey-leaf”, which is particularly apt as the flowers of lemon balm are nectar rich and particularly appealing to bees. The first written account of lemon balm is in the work of Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c.371–287BC), a polymath whose interests included biology, botany, ethics, metaphysics and physics. Lemon balm is mentioned in one of his two surviving botanical works Historia Plantarum – Enquiry into Plants, written c.300BC which had a major influence on Renaissance-era botanical and medical science. The second part of the scientific name “officinalis”, is a Medieval Latin epithet denoting a plant used in traditional medicine. The word literally means “of or belonging to an officīna”, the room in a monastery used to store herbal medicines.
Lemon balm was a favourite of the Tudors, who scattered its leaves across the floors of their houses. Herbalist John Gerard (c.1545-1612) cultivated it in his garden in Holborn, London as he considered it especially good for attracting and feeding honeybees. It is still used for the same purpose today in commercial honey manufacture.
The botanical is also known as “cure-all” as, in the Middle Ages, its leaves were used to treat a wide range of disorders affecting the digestive tract, liver and nervous system. In the 15th century, nuns in the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, also known as the Carmelites, used it to make an alcoholic medicinal tonic popularly known as Carmelite water to treat a variety of complaints including the plague and leprosy. In the past, herbalists would prescribe a lemon balm herbal tea or tincture to a patient suffering anxiety, stress, and tension. In fact, English herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) stated a tea or tincture made from lemon balm would “expel melancholy vapours from the arteries and heart”. He also considered lemon balm useful for opening “obstructions of the brain”, and “would cause the heart to become merry”. Today, the essential oil from the leaves is an ingredient found in herbal body care products and a wide variety of traditional medicines used to treat cold sores; genital herpes; heartburn; high cholesterol and indigestion. The essential oil is also used in candles and perfume.
In cooking, lemon balm adds a subtle citrus flavour to ice cream and other desserts. The botanical also makes a lovely, herby lemon-flavoured marinade for chicken and fish and adds a citrus flavour to jams. It is also the main ingredient in lemon balm pesto. The leaves are a common addition to peppermint tea, mostly because of their complementary flavour, which is why it is also used with peppermint in the manufacture of toothpaste. In gin manufacture it adds a refreshing aromatic leafiness and subtle citrus element.
Joanne Howdle is interpretation and engagement manager at the multi-award-winning Dunnet Bay Distillers Ltd.