Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is a plant originally brought to the UK by the Romans as a pot herb. If not for the vagaries of fashion we would still be using it today, but it was replaced in the daily kitchen by celery, much as fat hen was replaced by its cousin spinach. Alexanders escaped the confines of the Roman gardens and now grows vigourously along coastal areas of the UK and Ireland – except in the north and in Scotland – as well as inland along river edges and gorges.
In winter, sometimes as early as October, when most other plants are hibernating and waiting for spring, alexanders will put out new growth. The leaves are dark green and glossy, toothed, and grouped in threes. The stems are solid when young, becoming hollow when older, and hairless. It flowers from April, with green-yellow umbells of blossom. The seeds are dark green and then black. The plant has quite a strong aroma, something like celery or angelica, which is a great help in identification. The flavour itself is hard to pin down. Celery, angelica, juniper, parsley, all spring to mind; though what alexanders really tastes like is alexanders, of course.
Alexanders is a member of the carrot family, and as such great care must be taken as it shares characteristics with highly toxic cousins such as hemlock water-dropwort. It is always vital to be sure of identity before using any wild ingredient.
The leaves can be eaten raw, though the flavour is strong – a few added to a salad will make their presence known. The leaves and stalks can be infused into alcohol, and are a good ingredient for a wild ‘gin’ or for a vermouth. The flower buds can be pickled, and the open flowers make for an interesting tempura. The aromatic stems, picked young and low down, are the best part – a unique and tasty vegetable that goes well in soups, stews, all manner of things. The best way to use them, in my opinion, is as a side dish, which goes especially well with roast chicken.
1/2 a handful of alexanders stems per person
Trim the alexanders of any leaves, and wash thoroughly. Cut into around 3-inch lengths, peeling away any tough outer fibres as you go. Steam the trimmed stems for around 10 minutes, until just tender but not overly soft. Alternatively simmer for 5 – 10 minutes in water. When ready, place in a serving bowl, add a good knob of butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Serve straight away.
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