Mother Prisca (L) and Reverend Mother Therese Critchley
 arrived on Shaw Island in 1977 to help establish
Our Lady of the Rock, a Benedictine Monastery.

Photo courtesy of Our Lady of the Rock.

"The early Greeks used a word meaning a sort of zest for life: "aromata." Stepping into Mother Prisca's workroom at Our Lady of the Rock Monastery on Shaw Island, it was easy to understand why they made that connection between fragrance and zest. The combined smells of herbs and spices produced by Mother Prisca's labors as she mixed up some of her special all-purpose seasoning immediately brought sighs of pleasure from her visitors. The scent of dried herbs brought to mind the hot sunny growing herbs of an herb garden visited in childhood where you just had to crush a leaf here and there to keep that fragrance with you all the way home.
      Mother Prisca, one of the three resident nuns at the monastery, was a noted herbalist. She was a former member of the Connecticut unit of the Herbalist Society of America and lectured for several east coast workshops on her knowledge of herbs and spices. She described the differences between the two as 'difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends.' But spices, she added, are usually of tropical origin, and are seeds, buds, fruits, leaves, stems bark or roots of tropical plans or trees such as peppers, cloves, or cinnamon. Herbs, on the other hand, are from temperate regions and are the leaves or blossoms of plants of softer or succulent tissue.
      Mother Prisca was a wealth of information on little known facts about spices and herbs: 'Odor is one of the first sense stimuli to which infants respond. It has an acute effect on memory, and our physical, aesthetic, and moral propensities.' And, 'the first authentic records of the use of herbs and spices date from early Egypt when onions and garlic were used as medicinal food to preserve the health of laborers on construction of Cheops.' 
      Mother Prisca talked willingly about the connection between her herb and spice culture and the order of life in the monastery. The nuns sing the Divine Office day and night in Latin, setting a rhythmical schedule. 
      'Growing and harvesting the herbs follows the rhythm of life. There is a definite participation in nature.' And there is the relaxation that comes from working out of doors with the herbs and breathing their fragrance.
      Mother Prisca said that sometimes troubled guests at the monastery find peace as they absorb the soothing scent of the herbs when they help in the garden.
      In summer, about 20 herbs were grown in the garden, among them, marjoram, thyme, lovage, salad burnett, sage, summer and winter savory, basil, sweet cicely, mint, oregano, celery, dill, and rosemary.
      These were brought in at harvest time and dried in the attic or in a special food dryer that used heat from the exhaust of other appliances. Mother cautioned that the herbs should never hang in the sun to dry as the oils will evaporate. To preserve oils, herbs should be picked in the morning after the dew is off them when the oils are the most volatile. 'Watch the bees and other insects––they'll show you when the time is right to pick,' she said.
      After drying, the herbs were milled and then ground to be made into various seasonings and herb vinegars. Mother Prisca sold, besides the All-Purpose Herb Seasoning that depends on the yield from the garden for its ingredients, a Marco Polo Adventure Seasoning containing 20 spices that are hot with lots of pepper. She made curry powder, too, with the best of spices and saffron, and a hot herb mustard that gained her some fame.
      The mustard was a mixture of mustard powder, horseradish, herb vinegar, green peppercorns, garlic powder, and honey. Her nasturtium capers (from the nasturtium seed) were a hot spicy addition to salads.
      Mother Prisca's herb vinegars include tarragon, salad burnett, shallot, garlic and mint.
      She also made perfumes of jasmine, peppermint and lily of the valley, and sachets of lavender, rose geranium, lemon verbena, and rose petals. A 'pioneer' fragrance consists of shavings of cedar and juniper with cedar essence.
      All were for sale at the Shaw Store at the ferry landing.
      Just one more little spicy fact from Mother Prisca: 'The Romans would say 'my myrrh,' 'my cinnamon' as we would say 'my darling,' 'my honey.'"
Above Shaw Island horticultural history captured by well-known journalist Louise Dustrude of Friday Harbor, WA. San Juan Islands Almanac Vol. 9. Long House Printcrafters and Publishers, Friday Harbor, WA. 1982. Thanks  Louise.

2017: As this is posted, thirty-five years later, Mother Prisca is gone, but her herbal products are actively grown and processed by residents at Our Lady of the Rock monastery. Mother Therese tells that the Marco Polo Blend, the All Purpose Seasoning, the vinegars, and herb teas are for sale at the Shaw Store during their open hours in spring and summer. In tribute to Mother Prisca, she is remembered with her name now added to the label on the jars of Hot Mustard.

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