I know I'm well overdue for a gardening post, but first I want to tell you about this foraged plant. In my foraging challenge last year, I tried and failed to find alexanders, though I did find the somewhat similar fennel instead. On Tuesday of this week, Ian and I went for a walk by the sea, from Aberaeron, which is a little further south than our closest bit of coast, at Aberystwyth. Whether the latitude makes a difference, or whether it's just where the plants happened to get established, I don't know, but alexanders grow in great abundance around Aberaeron.
Having had such trouble finding them last year, I couldn't resist picking a bunch, as they were there...
Having conveyed my booty home, I then had to ask myself,
What do I do with an armful of alexanders? This is a strongly flavoured vegetable - tasting something like both fennel and celery - so simply eating all that as a side vegetable was a bit unlikely. Some form of preservation - possibly several forms - would be in order.
My first effort was crystallized (candied) stems, following a River Cottage recipe. This is a slow process in which the stems (first cooked to soften) are soaked in sugar solution that is gradually strengthened by pouring it off and boiling off some of the water once a day. After three days of this, the (very sticky) stems are taken out of the syrup and dried. I've put them on the drying rack in the conservatory, though unless we get another sunny day or two (it could happen!) I suspect I'll need to finish them off in a low oven. In the meantime, they're delicious, if very sticky.
Next, I wondered about a pickle. Specifically, I thought I might try a lacto fermentation. The blackcurrant bushes are covered in little leaves, so I picked a few of those to kick start the fermentation. I decided to use the flowers, then after I started, narrowed this to the tight flower buds that look a little like tiny cauliflower florets. I kept things simple and added only salt and blackcurrant leaves, then covered with water that I'd left standing for a bit to let the chlorine evaporate. I'm not at all convinced that's necessary, but it's no bother to fill a jug of water before I start filling the jar, rather than after. I had my doubts about whether this would work, but it had started bubbling by bed time. Blackcurrant leaves are obviously quite potent!
I tried one today and was surprised to find that the dominant flavour is not aniseed, but lactic acid. That not quite such an interesting pickle as I expected, but will probably be quite good. I'll give it a bit longer.
Next I made a drink from the leaves. I considered a liqueur recipe in the River Cottage book, but as I don't really drink liqueurs, passed on that one. I'd picked a handful of Japanese knotweed and wasn't sure what to do with that, either (apart from NOT putting it on the compost heap), so I chucked that and a load of leaves in a saucepan and boiled it until the knotweed was disintegrating, then strained and added sugar. It's not as strong as a cordial - it need 1:2 or 1:3 dilution with water, but it's a very pleasant soft drink.
I still had a big bowlful of leaves that were only slightly limp after sitting on the kitchen counter for three days. My next experiment was jam: I had some plain crab apple jelly that I don't find terribly interesting, so I thought I'd try adding some flavour. Using the syrup from the crystallized stems, I soaked some finely chopped leaves, also including a few sprigs of mint. Some hours later, I heated this up with the apple jelly then when it was all melted together, poured into jars. I didn't boil for long because the flavour of alexanders is much reduced by cooking. That was a mistake, and I had to do it again the next day. I now have a fairly subtly flavoured jelly, which is quite a lot more interesting than the apple jelly I started with.
Finally, I added chopped leaves to a white sauce that I had with fish for dinner this evening. That was disappointing - very bland. Either I should have used a lot more, or the cooking just destroyed all the flavour.
There you have it: Many uses for an armful of alexanders. I'm so glad I found some this year.