GLORIOUS HISTORIES: Tales from the Traditional Kitchen Garden – Hops

This is another extract from GLORIOUS HISTORIES.


Humulus lupulus LINNAEUS
Origin: native; widespread elsewhere.

Native to Britain, as well as southern Europe and western Asia, it has probably been used here as a vegetable and medicinal plant since earliest times. Pliny the Elder says that the ancients made no use of the flowers except as decoration (for which they are still very effective if you have room for a plant or two), though by his own times (the first century AD), the young shoots were eaten as a spring vegetable (77). This use, though surprising today, persisted in Britain well into the nineteenth century and at least in Venice, and in spring, bundles of young shoots can still be bought.  Cobbett wrote (19) that hop shoots are ‘as delightful a vegetable as ever was put on a table, not yielding, during about the three weeks that it is in season, to the asparagus itself’. The shoots, harvested in April, are cut when about four to five inches long and bunched like asparagus. They are then boiled gently for about thirty minutes and served with butter (19). Martha Bradley, a lady with great culinary taste, thought that they were excellent, and even Cobbett himself was not easily pleased. It is difficult to know why the plant has dropped out of use here, though when the vines mature, they do take up a lot of space; the growth rate is prodigious – up to 25 centimetres a day (93).
Medicinally, hops have been thought good for ‘stoppings of the liver’, ‘corruption of the blood’, scabs and scurvies (26), prostate troubles, nervous indigestion (97) and of course insomnia, as well as ‘correcting the viscidity of the lymph’ and ‘cleaning the kidneys’ (66). For the sleepless, hop pillows, still advertised in the Press, have been used at least since the sixteenth century and may actually work, for the resins on the cones are mildly sedative (91).
The same resins also inhibit the multiplication of bacteria, and it is this property that was the original reason for adding them to ale. However, the hops gave the drink their own special flavour and so turned the ‘ale’ to ‘beer’. This transformation seems to have happened in Britain early in the sixteenth century, following either Henry VIII’s expedition to Tournai (77) or the arrival here of Flemish immigrants – surely the most likely (93). Beer had established itself much earlier in other parts of Europe, though it is not clear from all early references to hop cultivation what the reason for the cultivation was; the earliest is in the Finnish saga of Kalevala, and there are other European references from the ninth century (93). Certainly, cultivation was widespread by the thirteenth century, suggesting a major market for the product. By 1574 hop production was sufficiently important to support the appearance of Reginald Scot’s ‘A perfite platforrne of a hoppe garden’, by which time there were no legal barriers to using hops for beer (it had once been believed dangerous).
Apart from their use in beer, as an asparagus substitute and as a cure for a vast number of ailments, hops served other functions. They were used as a source of a yellow dye for wool, and the stems were ‘retted’ like flax and made into a coarse cloth, used for sacking (66). Unretted stems were also used in basket work, and an oil is still extracted from the cones, to be used in perfumery (97). Though better varieties are propagated by cuttings or division of the ‘stool’, the plant is easily obtained from seed. The young plants grow rapidly, but several seasons are necessary before a reasonable crop of young shoots can be obtained.  Heavy cropping of these also helps to reduce the vigour of the whole plant, necessary if the kitchen garden is to grow anything else.

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About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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