'What did the Romans ever do for us' is a phrase synonymous with the UK. Many ancient tribes, cultures and societies have landed on these shores and settled here. Some came with peaceful intentions and others not so (the Romans). Contrary to what is/was reported, there are many members of these various tribes still scattered around the UK. Not only did they leave their genetic imprints behind but also many a plant. I'm not going to delve into the 'horrors of histories past' but I am going to delve into one of the plants of histories past.
Stems: The stems when steamed for 6-7 minutes are sensational (cooking reduces the powerful flavour and aroma), smother in butter & add a little fresh ground black pepper, great on their own or added to the top of Crab on Toast (right).
Seeds: Use as an aromatic alternative to black pepper. Adding crushed seeds when preparing jams or adding to the juice helps restore any flavour lost during cooking.
|Alexander Shoots & Seeds|
Smyrnium olusatrum or as it is more commonly known, Alexanders, is a member of the Apiaceae or Carrot family. Native to the Meditteranean region, it was apparently introduced by the Romans (ta da!) and used widely & extensively as a fodder crop, pot herb and vegetable (all parts are edible and tasty), until it fell out of favour and was superseded by celery. Given the Romans occupied much of the UK, both inland and coastal areas, it's strange that it is rarely found inland, head to the coast however and you'll often find it growing in great profusion. You will find it growing atop cliffs, along coastal paths & close to ancient, historical sites; churches, castles. Also, head a couple of miles inland from the sea itself. Most wild food books will also refer to this as a 'coastal dwelling plant' - which is what led to my confusion a couple of years back. I had recently moved house, was spending a fair amount of time outdoors, exploring the locale for potential wild food sources. One particular route I discovered became one of my favourites, not only did it provide me with an abundance of wild edibles, it was also a green corridor to a popular, local urban area. Anyway, one afternoon my attention was drawn to some fresh, bright green growth and after a quick glance (naughty naughty), a crush and smell of a leaf, I concluded it was Hemlock Water Dropwort (highly toxic) but my senses were tingling, something didn't make sense, the aroma was as powerful, yet more pleasant on the nose, there was no water present - Hemlock WD likes to have its feet in water - it was nestled on the fringes of a beech/birch woodland and although the leaves had a vague resemblance to HWD, they differentiated. Earlier I'd posted an image on twitter, had added some blurb 'odd place to find HWD'. A reply came back with the word 'alexander' in it. Aha! After after comparing it did indeed turn out to be Alexanders - I had never found Alexanders before and hadn't expected to find it growing in the middle of inner-city Leeds, 80 miles from the coast. An important lesson learned.
Since then, I've stumbled upon a few coastal patches with my favourite being on the East Yorkshire Coast, I have visited said patch on a number of occasions since mid-December 2015 and I've harvested seeds, fresh shoots/stems, flower pods and foliage and made a variety of products and eaten a fair amount fresh too.
|Alexander showing the root|
Please don't use this guide as a definitive to actually identifying Alexanders. The following are features to look out for, always consult up to date field guides and/or join a wild food foray with a respected & knowledgeable guide. I'm hosting two East Yorkshire coastal forays in March 2016 & we will meet Alexanders: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/foraging.html
Root: dark brown outer, white flesh inside, shape is as ones pictured (right), often much fatter. Permission to uproot can be obtained via the land owner.. Collecting seeds and planting at home a good alternative?
Leaves: shiny, glossy appearance, finely toothed, shallow lobed & twice pinnate
|Alexanders in flower|
Stem: up to 1m tall, green, paler toward stem base
Sheath: broad pinky/purple colour, found at base of flower buds and stems
Flowers: yellow, in umbels
Seeds: green when young & fresh eventually turning black, aromatic when crushed
Aroma: A very powerful and aromatic plant, sweet, almost perfumed and reminiscent of parsley/celery, 'soap' like. NB.aroma, & taste, are very subjective to the individual
Alexanders stems/foliage can be harvested any time from early December in a mild winter, right through until late spring (they will be at their best these times). Seeds can be harvested from late summer through to winter (maybe even spring of the following year).
All parts of Alexanders are edible & delicious, I love it! Recipes at bottom of this section!
Leaves: Raw they are almost over-powering, with a strong lingering after-taste, therefore I use sparingly, scattering a few shredded leaves into salads or as garnish to other dishes and in wild foraged cocktails.
|Crab & Alexanders|
Stems can also be candied to make a lovely sweet treat!
The stems and foliage make a great soup. Try mixing the stems with young forced rhubarb and seville oranges to make a jam and pop some of that onto soft goats cheese - serious yum factor!
|Dish w/ sauted flower buds|
Flower Buds: The unopened flower pods are fantastic, blanch or steam for 6-8 minutes, cut in half and then gently saute in plenty butter (image right).
Roots: The roots are also sensational, peel, cube, par-boil and roast with honey or boil and mash either on their own or mix with other vegetables/potatoes.
Juice: Juice is great added raw to cocktails/smoothies, especially Alexanders Cocktail and also added to make Alexanders Liqueur. Juice is very volatile when heated, rapidly losing it's flavour
Alexanders Liqueur & Alexanders Cocktail: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/alcoholic.html
Candied Alexanders: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/recipes-desserts-and-sweet-things.html
Alexanders Soup: http://monicawilde.com/alexanders-soup/
Alexanders, Rhubarb & Seville Orange Jam: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/recipes-desserts-and-sweet-things.html