The Taste of May

In the past, I dedicated a lot of blog space to various dishes associated with the month of May in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Today, I will talk a little about the flavour associated with that month in modern Germany more than any other: Woodruff, and especially the sweet and alcoholic Maibowle. This entry is an updated version of as essay I wrote for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2017, and you can find the original here.

Woodruff, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Known by its German colloquial name as Waldmeister (master of the forest), this plant with its distinctive white flowers and crowns of leaves around the stem grows in deciduous forests throughout Germany and is foraged in spring and early summer for its leaves and stems which are used to flavour drinks and sweets. This is best done by allowing them to wilt slightly after they are picked and then pouring boiling water over them to extract the aroma. Steeping them for extended periods is not recommended because of their high coumarin content, but happens frequently. The result is an occasional headache.

Neither easy availability nor pleasant taste can explain how this distinctive flavour became so popular. Actual woodruff has not been used in industrially produced foods marketed to children for health reasons since 1974, yet artificially flavoured imitations continue to sell well. The leaves of commercially grown woodruff show up on German street markets in late April every year so buyers can make their traditional Maibowle untroubled by such concerns. Germans love their Waldmeister.

Wandalbertus Prumiensis, courtesy of wikimedia commons

The origin of this love affair is probably connected with the Maibowle or Maiwein traditionally served for May Day celebrations. Today, EU law defines Maiwein as wine flavoured primarily with woodruff while Maitrank also has fruit and sugar added. It is unclear how far back this tradition goes, but many food historians are probably too optimistic in their estimate of deep time. A frequently cited starting point is the poem de mensium nominibus written by the Benedictine monk Wandalbertus Prumiensis around 845. Describing events and activities associated with each month in classical Latin verse, it states for May:

Hoc herbis durum prodest mollire lieum

Now it is good to soften harsh wine with herbs

Unfortunately, the connection seems more tenuous the closer we get to the original text. Nineteenth century sources offer more solid ground: the Grimmsches Wörterbuch states that woodruff-flavoured wine is known by the name Maitrank in the 1830s. A Swiss dictionary quotes a description of Meyentrank dated to 1708 involving fumitory, sage, wormwood, melissa, hyssop, and borage, but no woodruff. That association seems to date no earlier than the 1800s. By 1854, it is firm enough that the best-selling Romantic poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen by Joseph Victor von Scheffel envisions a medieval outdoor celebration involving Maiwein improvised by a fishing party of noblemen. The lord calls for wine, lemons and sugar:

…Yet the ladies,
Gathered many scented plants,
Broke the ground-ivy and strawberries,
Broke the white-flowering,
May-wine flavouring woodruff.

This is, of course, entirely anachronistic for medieval Germany, but it comes very close to what modern Germans know by the name of Maibowle. By 1901, the influential cookbook of Henriette Davidis (39th edition) provides instructions for making Maiwein:

Select young and fresh woodruff (in April and May) before it flowers, removing the lower leaves and lower parts of the stalk. If you have not gathered it yourself, quickly rinse it before use, then, if there is a generous quantity of the herb, place it in a porcelain sieve and strew it with sugar. Now pour as many bottles of Rhenish or Moselle wine as you wish to have of May wine through the sieve into a punch bowl as this is enough to give the wine the flavour of the woodruff’s delightful scent. The drink must now be sweetened with sugar to taste.

The recipe continues by pointing out that woodruff may be steeped briefly if not enough of it is available, but must be removed quickly and thoroughly. It ends by suggesting that May wine may be served as a sorbet, frozen and mixed with beaten egg whites, on hot days. In 1958, the Kochbuch der Büchergilde by the sadly underestimated Grete Willinsky suggests the following procedure:


2 bunches of woodruff, not yet flowering (plucked the previous day and cleaned thoroughly of beech leaves and earth, but not washed), 2-3 bottles of Moselle wine, 150-200g sugar cubes, 1 bottle of sparkling wine

Pour one bottle of Moselle wine into the punch bowl, add the sugar and stir until it has fully dissolved in the wine. Then tie the thoroughly cleaned, but not washed bunches of woodruff together with a string and suspend them in the wine with the leaves downward. Cover it – do not let it steep longer than 20-30 minutes! Now remove the woodruff, add one or – depending on the number of guests – two bottles of Moselle wine and – immediately before serving in glasses – one bottle of sparkling wine. The latter may also be left out. May wine without sparkling wine makes a delicious nightcap.

Few recipes are more elaborate than this, though it is traditional to add fruit, especially oranges or strawberries, to the punch bowl. Maibowle is served for Tanz in den Mai, a late-night party on the eve of May Day that usually features outdoor music, dancing and flirting.

There is more depth to it than this, though – there almost invariably is, with folklore. Herbal wines are often found in cooking and medical recipe sources, straddling the boundary between the culinary, medicinal, and magical sphere. As far as I can tell, they did not use woodruff, but the herbs combined in them were varied and interesting. Whether the aim was simply to improve the wine, give it some seasonal flavour, or impart health-giving or other properties is often hard to say. Certainly, herbal remedies and recipes were widely known. These were not secrets, though some imagine them to be today.

That is not least because the night before May Day is replete with associations of magic and witchery. It is Walpurgisnacht, the night when witches from all over the country gathered at the top of the Blocksberg (actually the Brocken in the Harz mountains of central Germany) to celebrate and boast of their achievements. Long a piece of local folklore, this was popularised by Goethe in his celebrated play Faust and has since become woven firmly into the fabric of the German imagination. Today, touristified versions of the event proliferate while self-proclaimed witches solemnly, though loudly and joyfully, mark the holiday with fires, dances, and herbal drinks whose formulae can be as interesting and powerful as any traditional brew.

Modern celebration of Walpurgisnacht in Heidelberg, courtesy of wikimedia commons

The people enjoying a heady, sweet green drink tonight may well be unaware of the depth of history this chameleon of a holiday. Nonetheless, whatever we do to mark the occasion, from flower-bedecked birch saplings to red banners, we enjoy the warmth of spring and the return of greenery all over northern Europe.

Heia Walpurgisnacht.

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