Citizens, the unmatched culinary wisdom that resides solely in the mighty TFD extends even further beyond cuisine into the Ultima Thule where food and medicine intersect! I have studied herbalism, both Western (English, Native American, Colonial) and Eastern (Chinese and Indian) and it is a good and pleasant opportunity today to share two of my great passions with you! The history (and legends) surrounding the components of this recipe are particularly fascinating!
My particular variation of this historic condiment is a blend of the ancient “4 Thieves Vinegar” with the modern “fire cider vinegar” – combined, it is both supremely healthful as well as spicy AND delicious!
Four thieves vinegar (also called Marseilles vinegar, Marseilles remedy, prophylactic vinegar, vinegar of the four thieves, camphorated acetic acid, vinaigre des quatre voleurs and acetum quator furum) is a concoction of vinegar (either from red wine, white wine, cider, or distilled white) infused with herbs, spices or garlic that was believed to protect users from the plague. The recipe for this vinegar has almost as many variations as its legend.
This specific vinegar composition is said to have been used during the medieval period when the black death was happening to prevent the catching of this dreaded disease. Other similar types of herbal vinegars have been used as medicine since the time of Hippocrates.
Early recipes for this vinegar called for a number of herbs to be added into a vinegar solution and left to steep for several days. The following vinegar recipe hung in the Museum of Paris in 1937, and is said to have been an original copy of the recipe posted on the walls of Marseilles during an episode of the plague:
Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.
Plausible reasons for not contracting the plague was that the herbal concoction contained natural flea repellents, since the flea is the carrier for the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis. Wormwood has properties similar to cedar as an insect repellent, as do aromatics such as sage, cloves, camphor, rosemary, campanula, etc. Meadowsweet, although known to contain salicyclic acid, is mainly used to mask odors like decomposing bodies.
Another recipe called for dried rosemary, dried sage flowers, dried lavender flowers, fresh rue, camphor dissolved in spirit, sliced garlic, bruised cloves, and distilled wine vinegar.
Modern day versions of four thieves vinegar include various herbs that typically include sage, lavender, thyme, and rosemary, along with garlic. Additional herbs sometimes include rue, mint, and wormwood. It has become traditional to use four herbs in the recipe—one for each thief, though earlier recipes often have a dozen herbs or more. It is still sold in Provence. In Italy a mixture called “seven thieves vinegar” is sold as a smelling salt, though its ingredients appear to be the same as in four thieves mixtures.
The usual story shared about the origin of this vinegar was that a group of thieves during a European plague outbreak were robbing the dead or the sick. When they were caught, they offered to exchange their secret recipe, which had allowed them to commit the robberies without catching the disease, in exchange for leniency. Another version says that the thieves had already been caught before the outbreak and their sentence had been to bury dead plague victims; to survive this punishment, they created the vinegar. The city in which this happened is usually said to be Marseille or Toulouse, and the time period can be given as anywhere between the 14th and 18th century depending on the storyteller.
One interesting twist says that “four thieves vinegar” is simply a corruption of the original “Forthave’s vinegar,” a popular concoction created by an enterprising fellow by the name of Richard Forthave. Another source, the book Abregé de tout la médecine practique (published in 1741), seems to attribute its creation to George Bates, though Bates’ own published recipe for antipestilential vinegar in his Pharmacopoeia Bateana does not specifically use the name ‘thieves’ or ‘four thieves.’
As for fire cider, I share this gem from marthastewart.com:
Are you a fire cider convert yet? A longtime favorite in the herbal community, this DIY tonic is finally gaining mainstream popularity. Our test kitchen editors have been fans for years, and we were curious about why it’s currently having a moment, so we went straight to the source, Rosemary Gladstar, the respected herbalist, teacher, and author who came up with fire cider (and coined its catchy name!) in the late 1970s.
The original formula calls for macerating fresh horseradish, ginger, garlic, onions, and cayenne pepper in apple-cider vinegar for three to four weeks, then finishing with honey. Gladstar says, “At the time, I really wanted vinegar tinctures to take off, so I came up with this recipe and thought the combination of flavors was fabulous — hot, sour, pungent, and sweet. Not only does it taste good, but it’s also easy to make and uses common herbs that you can get from your backyard or local grocery store.”
After that first batch, she taught her students how to make fire cider, sold it at her herb store in Sonoma county, and published the recipe in her first book, “Herbal Healing for Women.” It has since been adapted countless times (including by our own test kitchen!), sold by other herbal companies, cited in several books, and added to the winter health curriculum at many herbal schools.
Gladstar breaks down what each ingredient brings to the table:
Apple-cider vinegar is a great digestive aid.
Horseradish is the number-one herb for combating sinus congestion and headaches. It clears your sinuses better than anything; even when you’re just grating it, by the time you’re done, your sinuses are wide open.
Ginger is a warming circulatory herb that’s wonderful for digestion. It also helps fight infection and is good for nausea.
Garlic is the poor man’s penicillin. It has broad-spectrum antimicrobial and antibacterial properties and is an excellent aid for fighting infection. It also produces a heat that helps lower cholesterol.
Onions have similar properties to garlic and are also good for colds and flus.
Cayenne pepper is one of the best cardiovascular herbs. It helps your immune system mobilize and moves blood through the system.
Honey is very soothing for inflamed tissues and organs, but its primary purpose is as a harmonizer or buffer. It helps blend all the flavors in fire cider and makes it palatable not just to your taste buds, but to your whole digestive system.
Gladstar recommends that first-timers dilute the tonic with a little warm water or apple cider. Once you’re a convert, try drinking it straight — our test kitchen swears by a daily one-to-two-ounce shot. If you feel a cold or flu coming on, take smaller amounts more frequently — such as half a shot glass two or three times a day — to keep your immune system healthy. You can also swap out regular vinegar for fire cider in salad dressings.
My genius idea to fuse these two recipes together is further enhanced by the addition of not just apple cider vinegar – but to use an an infused cider vinegar with 14 herbs – this is a common cure-all in Appalachia as well as Amish regions. It adds notes of flavor and a symphony of health benefits. This is what I use in the recipe and for myself – but you can also just use plain apple cider vinegar if you so prefer. Only Bragg’s brand cider vinegar please – it has the “mother” still in it – the good bacteria that makes apple cider vinegar so potent from a health perspective.
Lastly, I call for the incredible health benefit of manuka honey from New Zealand – read all about it (and buy a bottle) here.
Enjoy this unique fusion of ancient and modern herbalism and know you are protected from both the plague and a whole host of other ailments by the awe and splendor that alone is The Food Dictator! 🙂
Battle on – The Generlaissimo