Monday, 2 April 2012
Wild Food - Alexanders
After my farmers market in Ramsey on Saturday I hopped into the car and drove south to Knockaloe to attend the Isle of Man Beekeepers AGM (Annual General Meeting). It was a beautiful afternoon so I took the Jurby road down through Ballaugh to have a bit of a drive in the countryside before connecting up with the main road heading down to Peel. The daffodils are out in full glory at the moment and I even spied some early red Valerian uncurling its magenta petals. But the hedgerow plant that dominates at this time of the year is Alexanders.
Alexanders are a type of ancient cultivated food that the Romans brought to Britain with them along with Ground Elder, a notorious weed, and more conventional vegetables and herbs such as radishes, cabbage, rosemary, mint and coriander (cilantro). The story goes that after the Romans left Alexanders were further cultivated in monasteries and eventually established themselves in the wild. The practice of growing them as a garden vegetable died out long ago but you will often find Alexanders growing at old churches and the ruins of former monastic sites.
Considering this history, it's interesting that I found it growing outside the Old Ballaugh Church. Though I imagine that it's taken up residence outside the gateway as a wild plant rather than the remnants of ancient cultivation.
In any case I stopped to have a look at the church and Alexanders growing there but foraged for them elsewhere. There are literally miles of hedgerows this time of year bursting with the strong shoots of this tasty wild vegetable. The UK law goes that you may forage wild stems, leaves and flowers as long the plants are not harmed but you should not dig up any roots without the landowners permission. So if you see Alexanders growing near you feel free to help yourself. In fact, a local farmer commented on my Facebook page that he considers Alexanders an invasive plant that he's always trying to get rid of. I'm not sure if he'll try cooking some of it himself but apparently his sheep love it!
I'm a newbie to eating Alexanders myself though I've known what they are for the last couple of years. They have a wonderful scent that is reminiscent of Elderflowers and they grow in such profusion that they can literally take over an area once they've become established. If you're interested in trying some yourself, do try to get out to collect some within the next couple of weeks. You want the stems while they're young, thin and solid since they become stringy and tough when they get too big. And definitely avoid the big hollow stems since in my experience today they seem to be the stringiest.
For my first meal with Alexanders I kept it basic so simply cut the stems into segments and steamed them for eight minutes. And I can confirm that once dressed in a bit of butter and sea salt they are a both a delicious and unique vegetable. I've heard from other sources that the taste can be like asparagus, celery or even parsley but I found myself they have a similar texture and taste as asparagus but with a reminiscent flavour of Elderflower. It's really unlike anything I've tasted before and I'm interested in trying it in some more recipes. I think it would be lovely in a goat cheese pastry but that it could go really well with a side of pan-fried salmon as well.
I'll definitely be going out to forage more in the next week and encourage you to do the same if Alexanders thrive in your region. It's always a bit unnerving trying a particular wild food for the first time but Alexanders are really quite easy to identify - especially at this time of the year when there are less larger plants out to mistake it with. So go out for a walk, take in the sweet scents of spring and come home with some free foraged vegetables.