My childhood summer memories are tied to the rhythm of farm chores and the many things we did to provide for us and our animals. We did take short trips to spend a few lazy days by rivers, lakes, and the shore, but our hours were spent weeding, removing potato beetles and other pests from the garden, supervising our tiny farm stand, and the perpetual, yet satisfying task of picking and processing things to can, jam, pickle, and freeze.
We spent a fair amount of time tuned to the weather reports to time our harvests, especially the hay harvest. You couldn’t go to Agway or the hardware store without discussing hay. Farmers chatted about the color of the sun at sunset, the humidity levels, and when other folks were planning their harvest.
Hay season is full of risk and hard work. Timing is crucial; it is important to harvest for maximum nutrition, right before the seed heads form. If the hay gets wet during the harvest, or if it is too humid, the hay can become toxic or a fire risk. The work is hot and brutal and lasts over several days. At the end of each long day we would be sunburned, sweaty, and our faces and arms stung with thousands of little cuts from the hay. But once our heads hit the pillow, the exhaustion was delicious. I have never slept so well.
I miss the sweet grassy scent of the hay barn. We grew alfalfa and the hay was deeply scented with chlorophyll. This also made the hay a sage green. Before we had a baler, we used a rope and pulley to lift huge piles of hay up into the hay loft. We put up a rope swing in the rafters of the barn and my sisters and our neighborhood friends would spend hours jumping into the big green piles.
But with the heat and humidity there is the always the risk of spontaneous combustion or rot. The piles or bales needed to be monitored for heat and moisture. We would shove our already wounded arms deep into the bales to check the heat and moisture levels. There was only one thing worse than the cuts, the exhaustion, and the dry chaff deep in our sinuses: the thirst. After a day in the sun and the humidity and breathing in the dry chaff - the thirst is unbearable. Thermoses filled with ice water alleviated some of the thirst, but this type of thirst is muscle deep and electrolytes need to be replaced stat!
The best way to alleviate this thirst is with switchel. I don't remember when or where I first learned to make switchel. It may have been from a family friend or it may have been gleaned from a book. My favorite section of our small town library was the homesteading and "crafts from the land section", where I learned a lot about sumac tea, apple head dolls, and sheep diseases.
Switchel is a powerful brew. Nothing refreshes more and it is so easy to make. Switchel has been around since Colonial times. It is said to have originated in the Caribbean, where it was likely made with molasses. But I think we need to go back even farther, to the oxymel, a honey and vinegar preparation mentioned by Hippocrates. Or to a close cousin of the oxymel, the Persian drink, sharbat 'e sekanjabin, made with sekanjabin, a honey, vinegar, and mint syrup that is diluted with ice and water.
The switchel I make is from Vermont. It is also known as Haymakers punch. I have always thought of it as Yankee Gatorade. You don't have to hay an acre or more to enjoy switchel, it is quenching after yard work, a hike, or a workout. It has been unbearably hot here in Portland this summer, so even the smallest effort has us reaching for a glass of switchel.
The brew is really simple. I use a base of maple syrup and apple cider vinegar (real cider vinegar, preferably Eden or Bragg's). I then add plenty of ice and water. Sometimes I add slices of fresh ginger or a handful of mint.
Some folks use molasses or honey instead of maple syrup. I have also made it with maple vinegar, if you can find some, this stuff is amazing. My parents sent some from friends in upstate New York. It is also good with homemade flavored vinegars such as raspberry, tamarind, or four thieves.
This makes enough for two thirsty people preparing for an afternoon of yard work.
1/4 - 1/3 cup maple syrup, or 1/8 - 1/4 cup raw honey
1/4 cup real apple cider or maple vinegar
6 or more cups water, depending on your preference
Optional additions: a drizzle of blackstrap molasses to boost potassium, ginger slices, lemon juice, fresh or frozen berries, cucumber slices, and/or handful of mint.
Add the syrup (or honey) and vinegar to a large mason jar and stir well. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir some more. I use a big wooden spoon to stir. Drink and refresh.
Let’s add a healthy boost to switchel with medicinal herbs:
Switchel Made with an Oxymel
I think the best way to add herbs is by using an oxymel, an herbal extract made with honey and vinegar. It would be nice have a few oxymels on hand to quickly stir up a healing and refreshing glass of switchel.
Use the ratio of 1 part oxymel (see instructions below) to 10 parts water.
Add the oxymel and water to a glass or mason jar with ice. Stir well. Garnish with fresh herbs and flowers such as nasturtium, lemon balm, borage, rose petals, or mint.
Preparing an Oxymel
Making an oxymel is easy. There are a few methods, but I prefer the cold method because it preserves the enzymes and antioxidants found in raw honey. The cold method does take a few weeks to steep.
Use your favorite healing herbs and flowers. I also recommend: California poppy, grated turmeric or turmeric powder, grated ginger, nettles, thyme, borage flowers (with seeds intact), raspberry leaf, bee balm, sage, mint, chamomile, rose petals, rosehips, passionflower, red clover, milky oats, and elderberries.
Here are the instructions by ratio to prepare a jelly jar of oxymel. It can be scaled up to a pint or quart.
Jelly jar with a lid, spoon, strainer, funnel, and a bottle or jar for storing the finished oxymel
Fill the jelly jar 3/4ths full with herbs. Pour over a mixture in the ratio of 1:2 honey to apple cider vinegar. Mix well. Be sure to push down the herbs to remove any trapped air bubbles. Cover with a lid and put it in a cool place to let it steep.
Steep the brew for a couple weeks, shaking the mixture at least once a day. Strain the brew through a fine sieve and/or funnel into a clean jar. The oxymel will keep for a year, so make enough to keep you healthy and happy for a while.