Before moving from London to coastal Kent, I’d never knowingly seen Alexanders, although they seemed to be high on the list of enthusiasms of many other foragers. But they seem to be a coast-loving plant, and hey presto, they’ve been waving to me almost since I arrived, from roadsides and pathsides. Another treat that made the headache of relocating worth the effort. And they’re much more of a treat than I’d expected, though they can be a challenge to prepare for eating.
Once you’ve identified them, they become pretty unmistakeable – generously plump, umbelliferous sprays of yellow-green flowers, tall branching stalks and out-sized leaves compared with most other umbellifers. However, do familiarise yourself with the very poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort, which also has generous flower sprays and smaller but also flat parsley-like leaves, as well as loving watery habitats. And if you see purple splotches on the stem, you’re probably looking at the similarly nasty Hemlock.
But it’s the smell and flavour that really marks this plant out, and certainly even before eating, the smell should be a great guide in identifying it: it’s a powerful and slightly pungent, floral, vaguely aniseedy aroma, but not overpoweringly so.
I’ve picked and prepared Alexanders in two different ways so far – the first time very successfully (and deliciously), the second not at all. So what was the difference?
For my first harvest I followed Richard Mabey‘s advice: “The most succulent part of the plant is the stem. You should cut those leaf stems which grow near the base of the plant, where they are thick and have been partially blanched by the surrounding grass or the plant’s own foliage.”
This is likely to mean getting down and rummaging around at the base of the plant with your face nuzzled into the foliage, so look out for sneaky nettles lurking. And as, in my experience, they do seem to love roadsides, do be careful of traffic if that’s where you spot them. I also followed Mabey’s advice to cook in boiling water for 10 minutes, like asparagus, and then toss them in butter. (I may have steamed rather than boiled, though – I don’t recall now.) This made for a delicious side veg, and was worth the effort, I think, of first peeling to get rid of the celery-like stringy threads.
Roger Phillips described the flavour as myrrh-like. I’ll take his word for that, not having myrrh in my kitchen (though the smyrnium part of the name apparently refers to this association). And he suggests adding it to soups or stews, or raw in a salad.
On my second Alexanders harvest (at an astonishing seaside colony of them between Seasalter and Whitstable), frustrated by the limited amount I could gather quickly under Mabey’s advice, I decided to do as John Wright suggested in his fantastic ‘Edible Seashore‘ guide, in which he advises: “Use the straight lengths between the branches.”
I may have misunderstood Wright’s advice, but in any case I ended up with incredibly tough stalks that wouldn’t yield to knife or teeth after a good long steam, and I ended up disappointing some guests by deciding not to serve it. Though when I did nibble on them later, I found I could use my teeth to squeeze out delicious pulp from either sliced end, so it wasn’t entirely wasted.
The difference was almost certainly down to my harvesting the wrong part of the plant – and my impatience with having to nuzzle around for the blanched lower stalks. But the plant is apparently better young, too, so the two or three weeks before my first and second outings may have made a difference too. But I will be back for more if I have time.
The sweetness of Alexanders (though not too sweet to be used in savouries) did make me think I should attempt a jam from it if I can find enough, so I was happy to see John Wright also suggest an Alexanders and Rhubarb jam, which sounds pretty exciting to me. And Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free has a recipe for Alexanders cordial, as a mixer for gin, Pernod or absinthe.