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All About Sahlep

Greetings everyone and happy spring wishes to you.

If any of you have been out on a herb walk with me or have been at a talk that I’ve given any time over the last 4 years then you’ve probably heard me going on (and on and on!) about Sahlep.

What is Sahlep? Sahlep (or salep/salab/saloop) is the name of a drink made from the ground tubers of various orchids. It is often made from the early purple orchid, a beautiful wild flower that grows in several countries around the world including right here in Ireland. The name ‘sahlep’ comes from the Arabic word for orchid. Wild orchids are rare in Ireland and are protected so I obviously don’t harvest them here (nor would I recommend that anyone else does so). However I’m very excited because after years of researching sahlep and wondering what it would taste like, I’ve finally managed to source a sustainably-harvested supply of it from Lebanon and am now enjoying delicious cupfuls of it.

Early Purple Orchid - Orchis mascula

Sahlep is one of the most concentrated plant foods known to mankind. This nutritious tonic drink is popular in North Africa, The Middle East, Turkey, Greece & India where it is whisked up with milk, sugar and rosewater to make a delicious drink (a bit like a healthy alternative to a cappuccino!). It is also used to make desserts and to make Maras, the famous stretchy Turkish ice-cream (it’s the viscous sahlep that puts the stretch into this ice-cream).
It is a little known fact that sahlep used to be a common drink in the UK and Ireland too, in the days before coffee was imported. In her classic book on herbs, A Modern Herbal, Mrs Grieves notes that sahlep stalls were common in London and that a ‘basin of sahlep and a slice of bread and butter was considered to be an ideal breakfast for a chimneysweep!’ It was when I read this, that my interest in sahlep was really piqued. Imagine how much better a start to the day a cup of nutritious sahlep would be compared to our modern bad habits of several cups of coffee or tea (drinks that actually deplete us of iron and other vital nutrients, and drain our energy). So I was determined to find some and try it.

Sahlep has many therapeutic uses. It is rich in mucilage: a sticky, viscous sap that often helps to soothe inflammation. This makes sahlep an ideal drink to ease upset stomachs and it has been used for this for thousands of years. It also makes a great fortifying tonic drink for convalescents and children. Actually it is so rich in nutrients that back in the days of long sea voyages it was packed as an essential store because a man could survive on a daily ration of sahlep dissolved in water should food supplies run out.

Other beliefs about sahlep. For thousands of years sahlep orchids have been believed to be associated with love and fertility and have been included in ‘love charms’. In many countries around the world sahlep is still sold as an aphrodisiac drink. These uses were also well known in Ireland and are even mentioned in Brian Merriman’s famous epic Irish poem ‘The Midnight Court’ where he says that the early purple orchid was “…one of the love charms resorted to by the women of Ireland in desperation at the lack of romance in Irish men”! I certainly make no claims for any of this here! While it is easy to laugh at folklore it is worth considering the following: we know that sahlep tubers are one of the most nourishing plant substances known to man and that some modern research shows that sometimes fertility problems can be linked to poor nutrition so perhaps there may be something in these beliefs after all. [Note: if you are experiencing problems conceiving then it is essential that you have these investigated to rule out other factors such as polycystic ovary disease or low sperm count.] There are several herbs that are considered to be aphrodisiacs and what I’ve noticed about many of them is that they are very nourishing and when consumed regularly they do increase the energy. How you choose to put that energy to use is up to you!

A lesson in conservation: As I mentioned earlier, orchids have become scarce in Ireland and are protected here. The export of sahlep is banned from Turkey where it is endangered in the wild (there are serious conservation issues regarding harvesting wild herbs in Turkey: even wild thyme is endangered, although it’s a plant that can be very easily cultivated). Yet a few centuries ago orchids were so plentiful that the UK produced its own sahlep (from orchids in Oxfordshire) and the drink was so common a beverage that it was consumed daily by the humble chimneysweep. How our environment has changed and our wild spaces have shrunk in this short time! So if you have any land, do please save a little space untouched for the wild herbs and flowers. They have the most amazing stories and we need them.

A delicious cup of sahlep

Vivienne’s Extra Delicious Sahlep Recipe:
¼ tsp sahlep pure powder
2 tea cups of milk (cow’s/soya/almond etc.)
Vanilla extract
Rose water (the genuine pure stuff, not the vile synthetic substitutes) or orange flower water
Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom
Honey or sugar, add 1 tsp to each cup of sahlep

Equipment: pan, whisk, tsp, cup, hob.

Add the milk to a pan and gently warm it up. Add in your choice of spices. Add to taste a dash of vanilla extract, rose water or orange flower water. Add the sahlep powder while continually whisking the mixture. It will start to thicken very quickly (if you don’t start to whisk it right away then the sahlep will go into little hard lumps). Pour it into cups. Stir in honey or sugar. Dust the top with cinnamon. The drink is sweet, delicious, remarkably filling and very, very good for you. Enjoy!