An Ode to Alexanders

Well…..not an Ode exactly….but had I had a more poetic bent I might have seen fit to render my passion for this plant’s perplexingly pungent perfume in the form of lyrical verse. Alas I have neither the time nor the skill to accomplish such a task so I give you instead the modern subsititute: a blog post.

 

I have been meaning to write a new article pretty much since I wrote the last one. I have photographed countless plants and the foods I’ve made with them. But somehow I just never found the time.So here is an article that I wrote in my head if not on my machine in March and has as its subject that amazing plant; Alexanders (Smyrnium Olusatrum)

 

 

Alexanders are a plant that loves to grow near the seashore. So Leeds is probably not the best place to find it. However, should you ever be in a town near the seashore, you are likely to find it in huge quantities. It likes to grow by the sides of paths and roads and I have even spotted it outside Costco in Avonmouth in Bristol. The lovely specimens photographed here were picked while staying at my parents in law’s house in Modbury in Devon.

 

 

This is a wonderful little town with one of the most fabulous charity shops I know of and miles of beautiful countryside to explore. The lanes around their home are packed with alexanders, wild garlic, garlic mustard, and all manner of delicious edibles. And later in the year, the frothy white flowers of meadowsweet bob in the gentle breeze and fill the air with their ethereal fragrance.

 

 

 

Mama L is (if I’m not mistaken) the tenth generation of her family to have lived in Modbury and when Baba S retired, there was nothing stopping them from moving from Rochester where they moved when Peter was just four years old.  The first time I visited Modbury, we drove past a little bench that was set in a grassy oasis by a bend in the road. Peter pointed to it and said “That was Grandma’s bench”. She loved to go walking and she would sit on the bench and watch the world go by. I suspect that the view she had was a little different to mine, but it remains a lovely place to sit and ponder.

 

 

When I went to visit, I knew that it was the time of year for Alexanders to be making their debut and went off in search with them. Armed with a basket of Mama L’s that I wish I could have accidentally put in my suitcase and a kitchen knife, it wasn’t long before I spotted my first patch. Then I saw more, and more, and more…

 

This plant is one of the umbellifers, so called because their flowers grow in umbels. They are a family that one must exercise extreme caution when foraging. While they contain the delightful Alexanders, Wild Angelica andSweet Cicely, they also contain Fool’s Parsley ,Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort. So do be careful before going out to try and pick this plant!

 

 

When mature, it grows between 4 and 5 feet tall and is surprisingly easy to grow from the seeds. I managed to plant some by mistake when I threw some seeds on a grassy patch outside our Bristol home and was surprised to find young alexander plants growing there in the early spring! It was brought over by the Romans and is thus also known as ‘Roman Celery’ in some parts of the country.

 

 

As the name suggests, it has a flavour that is reminiscent of celery but is far more aromatic. Just a small quantity of the stems chopped up is enough to flavour a large pie. The stems can be blanched then sautéed in butter as a delicious foraged dish or can be added to soups, stews or pies. When the stems are larger and thicker, they can apparently be candied in much the same way as Angelica. Something that I definitely want to try and do this year!The leaves can be used as a parsley subsititute. The flower buds can be pickled in much the same way as elderflower buds to make an aromatic pickle.

 

So….recipes…. I just added it to my usual potato based pie filling with some nettles and wild garlic and topped it with puff pastry. As anyone who has come on a walk of mine will know… I love pie!

 

 

The Alexander and nettle pie pictured here with my lovely blackbird pie funnel was one of the yummy things we ate at the first wild food walk of the year along with the Wild garlic pesto pasta salad you can see in the background. Dessert was a bowl of preserved wild pears served with cream. So simple yet oh so delicious!

 

 

 

And because I am now officially Mina the crazy chicken lady….How can I end a post without a chicken picture? Since the last post, Troy our little white hen has turned into a pretty little thing and has started laying the cutest tiny white eggs. This is her trying to burrow under Marmaduke so she could lay her egg in the nesting box. And Nasdaq has grown up too…..and turned into a boy chicken.So we now have an accidental cockerel who, in typical adolescent fashion…is figuring out how to do what boys do and is chasing my girls round the garden. Lol!The Light sussex hen on my lap is now called Daisy and we added Gruffalo and Lulu to our flock. Bringing the total number of chickens up to 13.

 

 

We’ve also built 13 raised beds in our back garden to grow veg. This photo was taken early in the morning after we’d had a frost. We’re digging over the beds one at a time as we need them. So far we had dug over 2.5. Oh what I wouldn’t give for more time!! Also, this being the first time I have ever grown anything from seed, I wasn’t expecting everything to germinate. A month later and I have 30 pepper plants, 10 tomatillos (apparently I only need 2) and…..wait for it……120 tomato plants!!!! So if anyone fancies buying some cheap, good quality seedlings…. Email me!!

Muhaimina Said-Allsopp