Today I reek of Philosopher’s Stone. It’s in my hair, it’s in my clothes, it’s under my fingernails, even the cat has a vague waft of it about her. It’s a sort of earthy, peaty, medicinal smell, with a hint of burnt plastic, not entirely unpleasant, but not the sort of scent you’d choose to spend any time with beyond a brief handshake.
Today was long, so very, very long. The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate gave no indication of how much time it would take to make a Philosopher’s Stone, but I’m pretty sure their version wasn’t as long as mine.
I started to assemble the Part Two equipment around midday, then the first part was easy. All I had to do was strain the lemon balm and collect the vodka in a new jam jar. I’d not been able to get a hold of any cheesecloth so I used a straining bag instead, but the holes were a little bit too big and specks of lemon balm kept falling through. Luckily, it being past the yardarm the alcohol fumes weren’t so punchy as they were at dawn yesterday. The vodka was supposed to be a dark green but looked more muddy pond than lily pad which was a little worrying. I squeezed the lemon balm in the straining bag to catch the last few drops then sealed the jar, put it in the cupboard, and turned the oven on.
Next up was burning off the residual alcohol, so armed with the instructions, the slightly sodden lemon balm decanted into a glass casserole dish, some matches, a wooden spoon, my phone, my camera, and at the very last minute, my house keys, I went outside and prepared for ‘the herbal matter [to] burn like a Christmas pudding with a great deal of smoke’.
I was a tad underwhelmed. The same happened with the second match, the third, and the unburnt-bit-of-the-match pyramid I made. So I schlepped everything back in doors and went round the corner to get some firelighters. Luckily, I found some that were made of wood, wool and wax, which I felt were suitably alchemy inclined, and returned to set everything up again, plus some tongs (safety first). By this time I was bitterly cold, and my nose and eyes were both streaming.
Well, at least the firelighters lit.
And here’s me talking to myself on an off for about a minute while stirring the casserole dish (might take a couple of seconds to load. The ‘one’s I talk about are more firelighters).
After 45 minutes, I convinced myself there was no vodka left to be burnt, plus I was lightheaded from the cutting breeze, I needed to pee, and my thighs ached from popping up and down like a jack-in-a-box. So I bundled everything back into the kitchen for stage three, which entailed putting the lid on the casserole and setting it in the (now very hot) oven. However, there was so much firelighter still mixed in with the lemon balm that I double sieved, given that the lemon balm had been relatively powdery to begin with. Not a lot survived. But what did, got shoved in the oven. By this time the smell of the burnt lemon balm, now confined to the kitchen, was overpowering and quite turned my stomach.
I was supposed to be watching for the lemon balm to turn to a white or grey ash, so ten minutes later I opened the oven door (note to self: research folklore oven-cleaners) and found that nothing had changed. Except there was an awful lot of steam billowing out of the oven. Quite possibly there had been more vodka left than I thought. With the windows now flung open, as the kitchen looked in the middle of a sea fret, I returned again after half an hour. Nothing had changed. After an hour the lemon balm had gone a very dark brown. After two hours, I was able to shut the windows and the lemon balm had disintegrated into charcoal dust. After two and a half hours with ten minutes under the grill for good measure, I gave up and took the casserole out of the oven.
I skipped the final pestle and mortar grinding session as I didn’t think what was left of the lemon balm could get any more powdery, and went straight to the mixing the vodka back in stage. I was supposed to be creating a whitish grey ‘waxy substance’ by adding the booze in drop by drop. And for a while I thought it might miraculously come together to form some sort of dough, or get claggy like cornflour. I stopped when the dust started to look juicy and admitted defeat. It was never going to behave how it was supposed to behave.
So today I have been the Queen of the Anti-climax. And to be honest, the chances of me actually taking a small amount of this concoction in a glass of water to expand my universe, is virtually nil, especially after all those firelighters. Still, despite the smell, and the windburn, there was something quite anticipatory about making a Philosopher’s Stone (props to JK Rowling for bringing alchemy to a new generation), although ultimately, as my 3rd Year chemistry teacher, Mrs Corley could have predicted, Nicolas Flamel has nothing to worry about from this particular challenger.
I did, obviously, in the name of Folklore Science, taste a bit of the leftover vodka. Which I may or may not taste again. Anyways, I’ve popped the jam jar back in the cupboard, just in case.
Carr-Gomm, P. and Heygate, R. (2014) The Book of English Magic, London, Hodder
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