Using herbs beyond the kitchen has always interested me – many of my show gardens have featured them woven through perennials, and I can’t imagine a garden without a herb patch.
They are amongst the oldest cultivated plants and can be traced back to the days of medieval monasteries when they were grown for both culinary and medicinal use.
Since beginning to divide my time between France and the Cotswolds, I have become more aware of their use as a cure for everything from heartburn to insomnia. In particular, I’ve discovered more about the ancient French herbal Carmelite water.
Used to relieve anxiety, headaches, stress and nerves, it also doubles as a skin freshener, or toilet water, and is thought by some to be the forerunner to eau de cologne.
Despite its name, this herb-based remedy is usually alcoholic, although it can be made with water for a non-alcoholic version.
The history of Carmelite Water
Its story begins with the Carmelite order, started by former Crusaders in 12 century Israel who renounced warfare and turned to prayer. They were driven from Israel by Muslim invaders and came to Europe, including France.
From there the history is unclear. Some say the tonic was first made in 1379 for King Charles V of France by Carmelite sisters. Others believe it began in 1611 in Paris.
Either way, the secret recipe was eventually given to the Boyer family in the early 19th century and renamed the Eau de Mélisse des Carmes Boyer.
The family has passed down the recipe through the generations and their firm still produces the tonic – all by hand. It is believed to be the oldest product sold in pharmacies in France.
What’s in Carmelite Water?
Over the centuries, there have been many versions of Carmelite water, but all are based on lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis – hence Carmelite water also being called Eau de Mélisse.
A member of the same family as mint, lemon balm has a strong citrusy flavour and has long been associated with relieving stress and boosting memory.
Other herbs and spices that are often found in recipes for Carmelite water include angelica root, lemon peel, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Lemon balm is the one constant and, interestingly, is also found in two more well-known monastic drinks: Benedictine and Chartreuse.
The exact recipe for Eau de Mélisse des Carmes Boyer is still closely guarded but is said to include 14 herbs and nine spices.
How to make Carmelite Water
Carmelite water can be made with a clear spirit, such as gin or vodka, brandy, white wine or hot water. In each case, use a glass jar with a lid and stir the ingredients well.
How long they are steeped for depends on the base liquid. Leave it for five minutes for water, eight hours for wine, and between a week and a fortnight for gin or vodka.
When the steeping is finished, strain the liquid, discard the pieces of herb and put into clean bottles. It will keep for up to two days if made with water and is best used within five days if wine-based. Tonics made with gin, vodka or brandy will keep for a year.
Carmelite water is usually drunk in small amounts – often as little as a teaspoon in a glass of hot water.
An easy recipe is:
3 tablespoons of chopped lemon balm
1 lemon, sliced
1 tablespoon of dried angelica root
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
125ml of vodka, brandy or gin.
Put all the ingredients into a glass jar and seal with a lid. Shake or stir daily until ready to be strained. Once bottled, keep airtight and in a cool place.