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Juniper - A Day In The Mountains, Months In The Making...

Foraging doesn't get much more hardcore than
climbing halfway up the side of a mountain in early winter in order to obtain your desired pickings and my recent trip to the Lake District saw me doing just that. My quarry, wild Juniper!

My first encounter with wild Juniper was back in 2010, on the very same mountainside I recently visited in the Lake District.
A low level mountain walk, coupled with introducing a friend to the delights of the Cumbrian Fells, resulted in the discovery of a small forest of Juniper trees, a pleasing encounter. I recall picking a small handful of those purple, black, aromatic berries, receiving many a spiked needle in my fingers while doing so, and eventually savouring their culinary attributes, mainly in the form of wild game dishes, hearty stews and the odd pickling experiment. Prior to that visit in 2010, my first encounter with Juniper was via a sketch in Monty Pythons' 'The Life of Brian', those of you who have seen the film will remember the sketch; if you've never seen the sketch, I highly recommend you watch that film and prepare yourselves for laughs aplenty.

Juniper and it's uses

Juniper is a member of the Cypress family, has been present in the UK since the last ice-age and is one of 3 native evergreen species present in the UK; Scots Pine & Yew being the other two species. Juniper, as with Scots Pine & Yew has needles, though more numerous and much sharper (they become even sharper once they start to dry, believe me!) and this can cause issues when collecting but as they say, 'no pain no gain' and on observing the structure you will notice that the needles grow in whorls of three around the branches. The berries, which are not true berries but cones with fleshy, merged scales, always grow on female trees, either individually or in dense clusters and you will find both the unripe green berries and ripe purple berries growing together close to the branches. It grows in two distinct forms, tall and erect or low and prostrate. It has the widest global distribution range of any conifer tree, tolerating a range of altitudes and soil types and apparently forms one of the highest tree lines in the world; somewhere in the Himalayas. Despite these global accolades, it's widely recognised that Juniper numbers have drastically declined in the UK - more on this further on in the article.
Juniper have a very distinctive aroma and as I sit here crushing berries, inhaling their scents, attempting to determine individual characteristics, I can detect essences of pine, grapefruit/orange/lemon citrus with deep, warming and woody resinous notes. Basically they smell of juniper. I also like the clear resin they exude when fresh; it is mildly sticky and the aroma from that lingers long on the finger tips. The flesh tastes sweet and slightly molasses-y, akin to sultana flesh, with a light, bitter back note which becomes more apparent as the oils coat my mouth. These characteristics give some indication as to the types of dishes and drinks in which juniper can be utilised. Juniper are excellent with wild red meats (though not exclusively so), hearty stews, infused in booze and oil or even added to salt to flavour it etc. The branches and needles are also excellent for smoking to add flavour to meats, fish and butter. Best thing to do is get some and start playing with your food.

Gin
  
I've used some of the berries I harvested to start a Gin. I've added ripe/unripe berries & some twigs including the needles to neutral grain spirit, in this case, vodka (I've also added dried  Meadowsweet flowers & Sweet Cicely to this mix). So far, it's smelling great and the liquid has a become imbued with a lovely golden hue. I'll be adding more foraged botanicals including roots, seeds, foliage and dried flowers as time and the seasons permit.

A bit of gin history for you: Juniper is one of the key botanicals employed in the making of Gin. Gin, that popular alcoholic spirit began life as a medicine (many drinks did) and popular it was; it was cheap, widely available, unlicensed, effective in the treatment of stomach complaints, gout and gallstones and quite possibly a great way of escaping the circumstances of their lifestyle. Let's face it, London, as with many cities in the 17th/18th centuries was a stressful, festering, shit-hole - who wouldn't have turned to the bottle! The excessive quantities in which gin was being consumed eventually and historically earned gin the epithet of 'mothers ruin'; not so much to do with mothers getting blotto to cope with life or maintain their addiction to it but because Juniper has abortive qualities, mothers to be, take note! Excessive consumption can apparently cause sterility in men - no need for the snip then chaps... * I don't doubt the intelligence or sense of those reading this but for those maybe less adept in that department  'Please don't drink lots of gin if you want to stop having children, that's just stupid and I was only joking'.


Wild Duck Salad w/ Egg, Lacto-Fermented Wild Garlic, Peas, Potatoes, Juniper Butter, Sweet Elderberry Vinegar & Parmesan

4 Wild Duck Breasts
2 Free Range Organic Eggs
Watercress & Rocket Leaves
4 Salad Potatoes
Small handful of Frozen Garden Peas or Petit Pois
8 Small Cherry and/or Plum Tomatoes
Lacto-Fermented Wild Garlic
15g Juniper Butter (method at foot of this recipe)
Sweet Elderberry Vinegar
Parmesan
Juniper Salt
Pepper
Olive & Rapeseed Oil
The above quantities fed two very hungry people but you could split it down to serve 4 as a starter. Depending on size of ingredients, adapt cooking times to suit, my timings are approx but I know my oven and kitchen well.

Preheat oven to 200 C. Rub duck breasts w/ some rapeseed oil, season w/ juniper salt & black pepper, put to one side. Wash, peel, cube potatoes, place in a bowl of lightly salted water, put to one side. Put tomatoes on a metal baking tray, drizzle w/ olive oil, add a touch of salt & pepper, put to one side. Bring a pan of water to boiling point, pop the eggs in, cook for 5 mins (if large eggs give them 30 seconds extra), remove from heat, refresh in cold water, peel and put to one side to cool slightly - you want a slightly tacky/runny yolk.
Bring a pan of slightly salted water to the boil, put the cubed potatoes in and then simmer for approx 10 mins, then drain and leave to steam dry. Put the tomatoes in the oven and roast for approx 10 mins, until soft and bubbling (you can blowtorch the skins prior to serving if you wish). Place duck breasts skin side down in a pan and cook over a medium/high heat for 3 mins (4 mins top) until crisp and caramelised, turn heat down to medium, flip the breasts over, add the juniper butter and cook for 3 mins (4 mins top), baste with the butter and juices in the pan, remove from the heat and pan and leave them to rest for 5-6 mins (I recommend blow-torching the skin side prior to serving to remove any stray feather elements). Put peas in pan, pour on boiling water and leave to stand to defrost and warm through 5-6 mins.

Once all ingredients are cooked you can start plating up. I start by arranging salad leaves, add a small drizzle of sweet elderberry vinegar, then the drained peas, egg, lacto-fermented garlic, tomatoes, sliced duck breast and then the potatoes which I've quickly fried in the duck pan juices to coat and warm them (add a twist of fresh black pepper and some smoked salt to season them), add another drizzle of sweet elderberry vinegar, grate some parmesan on top using a micro-plane and then tuck in.

How to make Brown Juniper Butter: Put 85g butter in a saucepan w/ 10 juniper berries, heat until
it starts to froth, now whisk and watch the colour change from golden yellow to a light brown colour, take note of the aroma too, it will smell slightly sweet, nutty and caramelised, remove from heat but continue whisking. Once cooled slightly pour into a container and pop in fridge to cool and set. I adapted this recipe from one by Niklas Ekstedt. Niklas suggests using 2 juniper berries, I just added 8 more.

Gin, Juniper & Lemon Sorbet

This is lovely, a great palette cleanser with a warm boozy, citrusy and aromatic juniper kick - adults only!

400ml Bitter Lemon             
110g Golden Granulated Sugar
100ml Botanist Gin
125ml Lemon Juice (freshly squeezed)
30 Juniper Berries
1 Egg White (whisked to frothy)
Put bitter lemon, sugar and juniper berries in a pan and bring to boiling point, reduce heat, simmer 5 mins, remove from heat, pour into a glass jug and leave to cool. Once sufficiently cool, strain through a muslin cloth lined sieve into container for freezing. Add the gin and lemon juice, mix well. Whisk the egg white to frothy, add to the rest of the mixture, whisk together well and then pop into freezer. Check the sorbet after 3 hours, scrape the frozen slush from the container sides and blitz together using an electric stick blender, put back in freezer. Check again after 3 hours and repeat previous process. Continue repeating this process until mixture is smooth. Depending on your freezer you may need to do this 4 times but it's worth the wait and effort in order to produce a smooth and well mixed sorbet. Serve between courses at a meal to refresh and cleanse palette. Add to cocktails to flavour them up. Or just eat as and when you feel like it. For more recipes and info on Botanist Gin, foraged cocktail recipes, ideas, inspiration and foraging info/articles visit: https://www.thebotanist.com/

Why are Juniper in decline in the UK?

As I mentioned earlier, Juniper numbers in the UK are in decline, why? This is mainly due to habitat loss, agricultural practices and over-grazing (when will we learn!). Junipers' somewhat complicated reproductive cycle - 3 years for berry maturation - coupled with unchecked and unregulated overgrazing of it's slow growing and delicate shoots by domesticated and wild creatures including sheep, deer and rabbits compound the 'in decline' issues facing it. I have issues (as does biodiversity) regarding the numbers of sheep farmed in the UK, the subsequent damage they cause, the vast swathes of land required to occupy them and in return they provide us with very little in the way of food; have you noticed how much of the lamb sold in the UK is from New Zealand, as far flung a destination as you can get from UK shores! Sheep are indiscriminate, damaging and prolific regarding their grazing habits, they will consume anything and everything in their 'vegan-machine' paths; they are industrial mowers on a phenomenal scale. I admit, that natural grazing of 'wild' lands plays an important and beneficial role within nature; surely, grazing creatures were put upon the earth for such purposes. I'm not saying we should stop farming sheep but we need to drastically reduce their numbers and the amount of land given over to farming them. If we increase the worlds wild spaces, wild species will increase. Meat eaters could then replace domesticated meats in their diets with wild meats. When you scratch the surface and really think about this, it makes sense.

If we are to truly assist Juniper and various other 'at risk' wild plant species in gaining and maintaining a stronger presence and foothold in 'their' one time natural habitats then surely, we need to be paying more attention to promoting and adopting positive changes to our current mindset, farming practices, importing and exporting policies and establish a more socially connective understanding, approach and interaction with nature.

Anyway, I'm not here to air a gripe with sheep farmers, or wage a war on sheep, so, socio-environmental-politics aside, are Juniper worth the effort of foraging for? Given their gastronomic versatility, yes, Juniper are well worth the effort, though hiking 300-500 metres up the side of a steep mountain isn't to every ones taste nor their stamina levels, but as earlier mentioned, they do inhabit a variety of altitudes and landscapes. Alternatively, you can opt to walk the 500 metres to your local shop and pick some up there, though most are imported and therefore possess a fairly hefty carbon footprint, yet another environmentally political subject, when will this madness cease...?

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