Last summer I found, in a local nursery, a spindly lemon verbena seedling. As I touched the raspy leaves, it released its sweet lemony scent and (are you listening, Marcel Proust?) I was transported to a summer afternoon in Catalonia, perfumed by the five-foot tall lemon verbena bush that stood next to the clothesline.
There were only three seedlings left in the store, and I brought them home, gave them each a big clay pot, watered them, and put them out in the sun. I could practically hear them sighing ahhhh as they spread their tiny roots in the soil. Soon I had three impressive plants, almost two feet tall.
I read online about drying the leaves and steeping them to make a calming tea, but I’m not much of a tea drinker, and I had enough herb to soothe the nerves of the entire population of New England. Then I found a recipe for lemon verbena-infused vodka. I loved this recipe for its simplicity and lack of precision, which leaves plenty of room for art, magic, and personal expression: you stuff a bunch of verbena leaves into a wide-mouth jar, add vodka to the rim, and let it steep in the sun for a week or three, giving it a shake now and then.
I filled a half-gallon jar with leaves and vodka, let it sit for about six weeks, then cautiously opened it and took a sip. Since I wasn’t used to vodka, it made my head swim a bit, but the citrusy flavor of the verbena felt friendly and buttery on my tongue. I strained out the leaves and poured the clear, golden liquid into a pretty bottle. I tried it on a friend who promised to tell me if it was undrinkable. Emboldened by her approval, I served it to several others, who all said it was lovely. Since they helped themselves to seconds, I assume they meant it.
At midsummer the verbena was still going strong, putting out vigorous side branches at the site of the original cuts. There was nothing for it but to make more infusion, so I kept buying vodka (fortunately the cheap kind works fine) and filling jars. Did I even know enough people, I wondered, to consume what I made?
But I couldn’t stop myself. It seemed criminal to let those magical leaves go to waste. Why was I so driven? And then, in the middle of the night a single word bubbled up from my subconscious, a word I hadn’t heard since I was a child: ratafia. My mother’s mother was famous in the family for her ratafia, a drink that I was never allowed to taste.
If Proust relied on a pastry dipped in linden tea to recapture his childhood, I find Google a great help in recapturing mine. I learned that Catalan ratafia is a millenary recipe made by infusing a vodka-like alcohol with unshelled green walnuts, various herbs and spices…and lemon verbena. It is said that the best ratafia is made with herbs picked on Saint John’s Eve, the summer solstice, when they are at their most potent. The resulting drink, aged for three months, can be as much as 30% alcohol by volume, which explains why I was never allowed near it.
Clearly a bit of my grandmother’s DNA, slumbering deep in my cells, had been awakened by that first whiff of lemon verbena in a Vermont nursery, eventually resulting in the half dozen jars of verbena-infused vodka macerating on my kitchen counter.
My pots of lemon verbena are now sheltering in the front porch, being acclimated for the upcoming move to the garage, where I hope their roots will survive the winter. But this year the killing frost is late in coming, and the verbena plants keep putting out new leaves. It would be a shame to waste them….
I’m beginning to think that my grandmother, a formidable and thrifty woman who kept her family alive and fed through the Spanish Civil War, and managed her husband’s land and tenant farmers with a fair but firm hand, continues to express herself through the medium of my DNA, an ocean away from Catalonia, on the shores of Lake Champlain.
(Next summer, if I can find green walnuts, I’ll make a real ratafia on Saint John’s Eve.)