What have the Romans ever done for us?

17th January 2013

Another cold and frosty day today, temperatures were down to minus 7 by 9pm last night and a forecast of more snow tomorrow, possibly up to 20cm.

Hoar Frost on Hogweed Stems

Everything was covered in either snow or hoar frost today, but I still managed to find the odd surprise. Looking a bit flattened by the snow and wilted by the frost came across a patch of Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum which are unusual in this part of the world.

This is yet another member of the Apiaceae family but not one that is actually native to the UK. It was introduced by the Romans and has managed to establish its self quite happily, but typically in the south and west and often in coastal areas which Befordshire certainly isn’t, so it is a pleasant surprise to find it locally, especially as it is such a good edible plant. It was widely used right up unto the 17th century when for some reason it fell out of favour.

To find it at this time of year is not unusual, it is a biennial and sprouts early in the year and it can often be found flowering by April. In Food for Free, Richard Maybe states that “its…glossy leaves can sometimes be seen pushing through the January snows”, Which is exactly what this was doing.

Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Pretty much the whole plant can be used at different times of the year, but it is the young stalks and leaves that are available at this time of year. They smell quite strong raw, almost celery like, and the taste is similar but not unpleasant. However, once cooked the flavour becomes much milder but still retains a subtle but distinctive flavour of its own. Simply simmer the stems in stock until tender or chop and add to stews. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads but more commonly they are used as a herb to add flavour. If you find yourself with large amounts of it (and it is quite prolific) Robin Harford has a good Chutney recipe for it here.

Last year we made a wonderful stew using the stems, flower buds and roots of Alexander with Pheasant and Ground Elder. It was sort of a celebration of the Romans, as Ground Elder was introduced into this country by them as well, and they were supposedly responsible for introducing the Pheasant into Europe. With the end of the Pheasant season coming up this would be a fantastic way of cooking older birds and although the flower buds on the Alexanders aren’t around yet the stems and roots could still be used.


Kev Palmer

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