Ahhh Biska!

In urban myth Tequila is flavoured by a worm in each bottle. This is, of course, untrue. Only certain types of Mezcal (similar to Tequila) bottles have worms – and even those aren’t worms, they’re moth larvae from the Agave plants that are fermented to make the drink. Not worms, and not in Tequila.

Popular belief will also tell you that mistletoe is toxic, dangerously so. So you might think it’s a myth that there’s a Croatian Brandy flavoured with mistletoe, sometimes with a sprig in each bottle.

But the myth here is about the toxicity not the brandy. Mistletoe is toxic, but not dangerously so. Indeed it is a popular herbal tea across much of Europe. And the brandy – known as Biska – definitely exists.

Until last year I’d never tried it but, just before Christmas 2019, some friends brought me back a bottle from their travels in Croatia (thank you Mark and Klay!). This is it (above and right) carefully posed with some, er, mistletoe (I do like my pictures to have context).

It’s interesting stuff, a little rough perhaps and also cloudy, definitely brandy but with a distinct flavour to it – which is not solely due to mistletoe, herbs are added too.  It reminded me, oddly, of whisky.

This got me thinking about how it is made and what range there might be in manufacturers, so I did a l little research back then, updated recently for this blog.

The first, and most unexpected, issue that came to light is that there may be two mistletoe species involved. White Mistletoe – our familiar evergreen Viscum album – and Yellow Mistletoe, Loranthus europeaus, which occurs in central southern Europe . This differs from Viscum in having yellow berries, regularly growing on oak (rare for Viscum) and – key fact alert – being deciduous.  It doesn’t keep its leaves in winter.

Two mistletoes? This could get confusing. And it does.

Most accounts of Biska stress that it is made with White Mistletoe and added herbs. Which is what I expected. The main centre of Biska production seems to be the tiny town (population just 30 according to wikipedia) of Hum which calls itself ‘the town of Biska’.  Hum has a tradition of making mistletoe brandy, inspired by a historic recipe apparently recorded for posterity by Josip Vidov, a herbalist-priest who lived there. Today the town has a Festival of Rakija (brandy) to promote production of various distilled spirits – with a bewildering variety of flavours including nettle, juniper, sage, lemon balm, spruce, lime, spices, liquorice, herbs and fruit.

If you google Biska you’ll find various brands, most saying it is made with White Mistletoe, and sometimes making interesting claims for its medicinal properties. Presentation and bottle style varies immensely – see some pictures below:

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The Yellow Mistletoe references are a little harder to spot – but one of the first, spotted last Christmas, was triggered by that bottle brought back from Croatia. The ingredients list label simply says it contains alcohol and mistletoe leaf extract – no identity is given for the mistletoe.  But, on websites listing this particular Biska (e.g. this one), it is described as

“obtained by soaking the leaves of yellow mistletoe (Loranthus europeus) in komovica [a type of brandy].

That seems fairly definitive. Yellow mistletoe!

But a fuller description, on the same website, goes on to list the ingredients as

“komovica brandy, white mistletoe”

A complete contradiction.

So which is it? It’s impossible to say without further information.

It is tempting to suggest that all Biska is made with White Mistletoe and that references to Yellow Mistletoe are errors, or even translation mistakes. After all, White Mistletoe is the evergreen one, and the accounts of making it do suggest the leaves are harvested in winter – when Yellow Mistletoe would have no leaves.

But I suspect there is some use of Yellow, at least for some versions.

Here’s a promotional picture (below), from a website promoting Biska and Hum, that shows a bottle of Biska set amongst some mistletoe sprigs. But those aren’t White Mistletoe sprigs. The leaf shape, leaf positions and branching patterns are all wrong. It is Yellow Mistletoe, Loranthus europeaus.

And here (below) is another contradictory one (from this website), the bottle being promoted against a background of some oak branches complete with Yellow Mistletoe growths across the front of the bottle (though the description, below the pictures, claims the mistletoe is gathered in winter from apple trees – which would be White Mistletoe):

I do wish they would make their minds up about which mistletoe is in which bottle.

For more about mistletoe visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

And if you do want to grow mistletoe why not try a Mistletoe Grow-Kit?  Available from the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk


Hanging the Mistletoe, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti’s Hanging the Mistletoe
Rossetti’s initials and date

By the mid-nineteenth century hanging mistletoe at Christmas was all the rage, featuring regularly in accounts of celebrations, particularly newspapers and magazine, often with pictures.  And of course there were paintings too, some by very famous painters – a favourite of mine is Bringing in the Mistletoe, a druid-themed painting by Edward Atkinson Hornel.  But that’s not the one I’m featuring today!

Most were of a much more domestic scenario than Hornel’s picture, and one of the best of these is Hanging the Mistletoe by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted in about 1860.  This is it (above left).

This is a really powerful painting, though simple too; a tight composition of a young lady hanging mistletoe and tying it with a red ribbon.  Colours are emphasised by a dark background silhouetting the mistletoe, with berried holly in the foreground and the auburn-haired young lady herself wearing floral sleeves on a sage-green dress.  It is a classic of Rossetti’s later style (late 1850s onwards) described, on the Wikipedia entry about him as “powerful close-up images of women in flat pictorial spaces characterised by dense colour. ”

The painting is generally dated to Christmas 1860 – and indeed this is written on the picture, just below Rossetti’s initial, though some sometimes suggest it might actually have been pointed later.  The picture also has other titles – sometimes described as Girl Tying Up Mistletoe and also as The Farmer’s Daughter.

It was worked up by Rossetti from a chalk drawing – which has also survived (see left).  But this, curiously, is dated December 1868.  The explanation seems to be that this, the drawing, was given by Rossetti to his friend George Boyce, and that Rossetti added the date at the time of the gift, not when the drawing was made.

Rossetti’s portrait of Elizabeth for their marriage in 1860

The date is important because it might help identify the woman in the picture.  Most accounts suggest it is his wife Elizabeth Siddal (1829 – 1862) who married him in May 1860.  She was red-haired and would, surely, be the model for this.  Here (right) is his picture of her at the time of their marriage.  The 1860 date fits and she was already a popular model – many will be more familiar with her as the woman floating in the water in the 1851 Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, the model is Elizabeth Siddal who had to lie in a full bath of water for this sitting, which became a problem for her when it got cold.
Rossetti’s painting “Bocca Baciata” dated 1859, featuring Fanny Cornforth
Rossetti’s painting “La Ghirlandata” dated 1871, modelled by Alexa Wilding

There are occasionally other suggestions for the mistletoe lady however – some commentators thinking that it may be Fanny Cornforth (see left) whom Rossetti had been painting from at least 1859 and with whom he had an affair, especially in the years after Elizabeth’s death in 1862. Perhaps the picture is later than 1860 after all?  Though in that case why would Rossetti sign it as 1860?

It also seems possible, if opening up both date and sitter to review, that it could be yet another auburn-haired model, Alexa Wilding (see right), whom Rossetti discovered in 1865.

But it is probably Elizabeth in the mistletoe picture.

For more about mistletoe visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

And if you do want to grow mistletoe why not try a Mistletoe Grow-Kit?  Available from the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk


Mistletoe and Orchards on ITV today

Plenty of mistletoe mentions on ITV this morning – all within the 2 hour show Love Your Weekend with Alan Titchmarsh (on ITV Hub here).  Helped along a bit by Sir Cliff ‘Mistletoe and Wine‘ Richard being the main guest.

Christmas swag-making featured about 30 minutes in – with plenty of mistletoe incorporated into a very long decoration.  Some good mentions of how sticky the berries are, and their need for light when germinating, but then Mr Titchmarsh ruined the illusion that, for once, here was a TV Gardener who knew how to grow mistletoe, by stating, categorically, that berries had to be ‘rotten’ before the seeds would germinate.  Where on earth did he get that bit of nonsense from??  Berries have to be mature (which they will be in February/March, not now) but not rotten.   How would being rotten help?!  They germinate best when fresh and healthy.  Yet another TV Gardener getting it wrong (see many previous blogs over many years).  I really do despair.

In mid-flow….

All the more frustrating because I had helped make this programme – their Tree of the Week was Apple, using footage taken in an orchard session with me back in October, with Lesley Joseph’s voiceover referencing the link between apple trees and mistletoe (49 minutes in if you watch it) and then a session with me talking about mistletoe, in that same Gloucestershire orchard, at 76 minutes* in. Nice little bit of film, didn’t realise my hair was getting so grey though!

And, towards the end (about 105 minutes in) another nod to apple trees and Gloucestershire orchards when Alan and Sir Cliff sample some liqueurs, including an Eau de Vie made from apples grown in a heritage varieties orchard in Gloucestershire.

Apples trees, orchards and mistletoe – what’s not to like?  Just incorrect (as usual) TV Gardener advice!

(*timings are all from the 2 hour programme as broadcast.  If you’re watching on ITV Hub it’s 30 minutes shorter (fewer ads) so my bit is at about 59 minutes in.  If watching ad-free on ITV Plus it will, I assume, be even earlier.)

And, Alan, if you’re reading this, if you do want to grow mistletoe why not learn how using a Mistletoe Grow-Kit?  Available from the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

And for more general mistletoe Information visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

The Mistletoe Boats

Reproduced full size below the text…

Going through old trading accounts of mistletoe ( as I am today, compiling some figures for a research paper) I’m often surprised at the attention given to mistletoe imports, once acknowledged to be the main source of Christmas mistletoe in Britain.  Yes we do grow our own, and do still cut and sell our own, but there was once and probably still is a flourishing trade in imports, mainly from France.

Newspaper coverage of these used to dominate mistletoe stories at Christmas, with comparatively little attention paid to the home-grown stuff.  It’s not clear why this is – whether the imports really did outweigh the home-grown stock so much or whether a boat-load of mistletoe was simply a better story.  So it may have been selective reporting.

Whatever the reason these stories have died down in recent years, with most media attention paid to home-grown mistletoe, especially that sold at the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auctions.  This is also selective reporting as there is much sold by other means and a lot still imported.

But getting a complete picture is virtually impossible – not least as there are no trade restrictions and so no need to document imports from France.  This may well, of course, change soon as the UK moves out of the EU transitory arrangements in 3 weeks time!  Almost certainly not for the better.

It’s worth noting that trade tariffs for mistletoe imports are not unprecedented – indeed in the 1930s and 40s there were import licences on most cut flowers including mistletoe.  These were often relaxed seasonally for mistletoe – but sometimes only a week or so before Christmas thereby raising prices up to that point.  Who knows what 2021 will bring??

Much of the newspaper coverage of imports concentrates on simple figures – wowing the reader with tonnages, numbers of mistletoe-filled crates, etc.  But there are occasional longer reports, and some quite hair-raising stories of decks piled high with mistletoe crates.

This cutting is from 17th December 1936, and is written by (or as if by) ‘Mademoiselle Marie’ a French lady travelling by ferry across to England.  It’s a neat account, right down to the detached white berries rolling around the quays and decks, a vision familiar to anyone who has prepared mistletoe in bulk.  [whilst they’re rolling they’re fine, it’s when you tread on them that the fun begins as they stick to your shoes, and later on to the carpet].

Have a read (reproduced full size below); it sums up the whole business in France, when mistletoe was cut deliberately to control it and sold to le britannique crédule for profit.  The only thing I’d query is the mention of the children dressed as guisers in Edinburgh.  Mademoiselle Marie says she’s told ‘guiser’ is derived from Gui, the French for mistletoe.  This seems not only unlikely but at odds with the normal explanation of the term, often used at Halloween these days, as simply a shortened version of disguisers –  i.e children dressing up in costume.

Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

And for UK mistletoe books, cards or kits to grow your own mistletoe visit the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk