Alexanders the great kitchen find

By Helen Slade

Friday, February 8, 2013

 

Alexanders the great kitchen find

Alexanders was introduced by the Romans. Picture by Tim Slade.

NATURE NOTES People often struggle to identify the many members of the umbellifer family (cow parsley, hogweeds, etc) but one of the easiest to spot confidently is the principal yellow-flowered one, commonly called Alexanders.

On the Island, we are fortunate to provide the ideal habitat for this plant, which is widespread, particularly along the coastal strip and on the chalk further inland.

Although not in flower just yet, it is one of the first large plants to bloom and is very noticeable because of its glossy green leaves and a rather pervading smell.

The perfume is reminiscent of angelica, to which it is, of course, closely related, and can be overpowering, as Alexanders tends to flourish in large patches.

The plant is not a native to these shores but is thought to have been introduced by the Romans, as it was used extensively as a culinary herb.

It is also found in association with old monastic foundations, demonstrating its continuing use in mediaeval cooking.

It is a very useful plant for these purposes, almost every part of it being used in the past for something in the kitchen.

It was grown in kitchen gardens until the early part of the 18th century, when it was superseded by celery.

The glossy green leaves are among the first foliage to appear in the year and can be used in salads and to make a sauce similar to parsley sauce.

Indeed, the name Alexanders is said to derive from one of its common names: the 'parsley of Alexandria’.

The flowers, while still in bud, resemble small cauliflowers and can be pickled like cauliflower florets and added to salads for piquant flavour. The plant flowers between April and June in a normal year but, on the Island, this can be at least a month earlier.

The roots have been used in the past for soup and I imagine would produce a celery-flavoured broth.

However, the most succulent and tasty part of the plant is the fresh stems, best gathered before the flowers appear, and thus it is a

good time to be looking for them now.

Richard Mabey, in his well-known book Food for Free, recommends cutting the stems as low down as possible and discarding the greener part, leaving a pinkish stem, not unlike rhubarb.

Cut it into about six-inch lengths. These should then be boiled for six to ten minutes and then served or eaten like asparagus, with salt, pepper and melted butter.

The rather potent smell disappears with cooking but the flavour remains pleasantly aromatic.

Some people recommend peeling the stems before cooking.

I have tried these rather unsuccessfully but I intend to refresh my memory by having another go again this year.

The stalks are well advanced at present but have been halted in their stride by the recent cold weather, so there are plenty to find.

The plant was also used medicinally as a tonic, although I can find no recipes for this.

However, the black seeds have been used as a pepper substitute, described as having a myrrh-like aroma.

All in all, it is a very versatile plant and its sweet cloying scent attracts bees, too.

As an early flowerer, this must be of great benefit to Island bees, following on from the winter-flowering ivy, which is also a good food plant for flying insects and with which it can be seen growing in my photograph.

If you decide to try the stems, let me know what you think of them.

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