Traditionally the persons who took care of everyone’s colds and flus were mothers and grandmothers. All women shared the knowledge of certain techniques that could help during illness and a number of herbs they could use.
It seems that most remedies were made on the spot from fresh or dried herbs kept in the house. There wasn’t a medicine cabinet but dried herbs were kept in the kitchen and they were used for both, food and medicine.
Garlic was the main mean of prevention. Women incorporated loads of garlic in every day food to keep illness away from their loved ones. One of my future posts will be dedicated to garlic since “agliada” (the word is coming from the Italian word “aglio” which means garlic) is one of the most important dishes on the island of Cephalonia, from which I come from.
On the first sign of illness, an infused oil for massaging the body was the first thing to be made. All the people I have talked with remember that usually their grandmother would put a briki (a small metal pot used to make coffee) on fire and would infuse chamomile flowers or the fruits of eucalyptus in olive oil. Most people remember the fruits of eucalyptus to be called “koumbia” which means buttons.
Everyone knew when someone was ill because the eucalyptus infused oil had a strong beautiful smell that would travel across the whole neighborhood.
Photo: The fruits of Eucalyptus were called “buttons” in rural Corfu. The reason is quite obvious. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou
Women massaged this oil all over the patient’s body, just before going to bed. It seems love was an important ingredient in this treatment that most people deeply enjoyed in spite illness.
Maria Faita remembers that her grandmother massaged with eucalyptus oil the neck, the shoulders, the back, the hands, the legs and every joint of her body. The eucalyptus essential oils helped the patient breathe and sleep calmly during the night. The next morning the cold was usually gone.
The warm herbs strained from the oil were wrapped in a piece of old bed linen and were kept around the neck. Slightly warm ash from the hearth was also used like this. Socks made at home from sheep wool were filled with warm ash and kept around the neck, on the chest or any part of the body that was in pain.
Herbal plasters with flax seed or mustard seed were also applied on the chest or the back to ease a cough and help expectorate phlegm. Maria told me that she was strictly taught not to apply plasters on both, the chest and the back, because this trapped the phlegm into the lungs and could easily lead to bronchitis or pneumonia.
Warm rubbing alcohol could also be used to rub the chest or the back. This is a practice that is still alive today in most villages. The bottle containing the alcohol was placed in a pan with warm water until the wanted temperature was obtained.
Syrups were made to help with cough and congestion. Maria remembers her grandmother making syrup for the colds. She placed in the briki equal quantities of chopped dried jujube, dried raisins and dried figs. She added a cinnamon stick and covered everything with the double amount of water. She boiled in medium fire until the liquid was reduced into half. She strained and added honey. For the adults, she also added brandy. The syrup was taken by the spoon several times during the day and especially in the evening and after waking up in the morning when symptoms aggravated.
Joy Konstantis shared with me another syrup recipe that she learned from her Corfiot mother in law at the village of Vistonas.
She had a leaf of rustyback, a leaf of navelwort, some sage, rosemary and mint in a large (4 Greek coffee cups) briki. The briki was filled with water and a spoonful of sugar was added. Everything was boiled till well reduced. The syrup had a clear ruby red color when ready. She left to cool and gave half a small ouzo glass to each child before bed.
Rustyback (Asplenium ceterach) is a fern species growing on stone walls and rocky soils. It is traditionally used to treat cough. It is also a diuretic used for urinary tract infections. It is widely known for breaking stones in the kidneys and helping to pass them out of the body. It is a bitter herb with an affinity for the lungs, the spleen and the kidneys. This herb is known as Skorpidi in Corfu.
Rustyback on stone wall. Photo credit: Eleni Christoforatou
Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) has taken its name from the navel like leaves. It grows on walls, crevices or tree cavities. It is also used as a poultice for burns, injuries and other skin problems. It probably owns its soothing qualities to its juicy stems. This herb is called Petrokafki in Corfu.
Navelwort. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou
Several aromatic antimicrobial herbs were taken liberally as tea during the cold. Sage and origanum were the most popular. Mallow was made into tea to relief a sore throat and a dry cough.
European centaury ( Centaurium erythraea ) , also known as Feverwort was also used as tea to treat high persistent fever. It is a very bitter plant in the Gentianaceae family that was used instead of quinine in the treatment of malaria. Malaria was quite common in old rural Corfu due to the many wetlands all over the island. It is an excellent herb to be included in bitter digestive formulas. The tea made from the flowers was also used as a wash to strengthen the hair.
Feverwort. Photo Credit: Eleni Martzoukou
The most common treatment for high fever were the compresses dipped in a pot with vinegar diluted in water and applied on the forehead and the wrists.
Warm oil was dropped in the ears for ear infections. The oil was usually taken from the vigil lamp where it was always kept warm from the little fire burning inside.
Drops of mother milk were also used to cure ear infections and subside the ear pain. Breastfeeding mothers were always willing to provide this valuable treatment whenever there was a need for it.
Warm donkey milk calmed down a persistent cough, especially whooping cough.
Diarrhea as a symptom of stomach flu was addressed with blackberry leaf tea or tea made from the peels and white internal membranes of pomegranates.
Cupping with or without scarification was very popular and almost all women and many men were trained by the family elders on how to do it.
These were all simple cures with things that were easily available but highly effective, as people say.
Last but not least, at the very first sign of illness people used to drink what is known all over Greece as rakomelo. Rakomelo works miracles in colds and it is a warming drink to have during winter time.
Eugenia Vitouladiti remembers her grandmother making the rakomelo for treating a sore throat. She warmed in a briki half a greek coffee cup (let’s say, a quarter of a cooking cup) raki with a teaspoon of honey. She removed from fire when it started foaming and added 4 drops of lemon juice and a sprinkle of thyme.
To make a bottle of rakomelo to have beforehand for treat or treatment, we can carefully warm 1 litter raki or tsipouro with 6 spoonfulls of good quality local honey ( 2 spoonfulls of honey for every cup of raki ) . Thyme honey is usually used in Greece. Caution must be taken when we have alcohol on fire because it can light up. Two cinnamon sticks and 1 spoonful of clovers can be added, if we like. Stir with a spoon till the honey is fully incorporated into the alcohol and the alcohol starts boiling. Remove from fire and add one spoonful of an aromatic antimicrobial herb. Thyme or dittany are great options. Let it infuse covered for half an hour. Strain and bottle. Serve in room temperature or warm.