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Food Detective: Juniper

Food Detective: Juniper
As you sip your G&T this autumn, game season in swing, give thanks for the beguiling, bruise-coloured berries ripening on the bushes, writes Zoe Perrett.
Juniper has a fascinating, compelling history- even honoured with its own street- Juniper Lane in London's E6.
Its hardy nature means it survives in the most extreme conditions, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, and we know it was growing in the British Isles as far back as 12,000 years ago. The main producing areas today are Hungary and Southern Europe- the best from Italy's Amalfi coast.
The September-ripening berries will only emerge if male and female plants are cultivated together. Spot the difference from the spring flowers- the male's yellow and conical; the female's green and rounded.

Juniper's been linked with magic and myth since ancient Egypt, with first references discovered on papyri from 2500BC. 'Kyphi'- an aromatic mixture of juniper, herbs, honey, wine and myrrh- was burnt to honour the sun god Ra. Other uses were embalming, medicine and food- juniper was even discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb. In Syria, juniper symbolised the Canaanites' fertility goddess, Ashera.

In the Bible, a tree provided refuge for Jesus as well as sheltering Elijah from Queen Jezebel, and juniper is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Countries as disparate as Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Tibet and the U.K. historically believed juniper afforded protection, whilst burning at Celtic Samhain festivals is common practice. Native North Americans also hold juniper in high ritualistic esteem.

Sinister references occur in the Grimm brother's 'The Juniper Tree'- in which a wicked stepmother bakes her stepson in a pie, feeding it to his sister and father. Dreaming of the tree is unlucky; the berries, prosperous. Welsh folklore says felling a tree means death within the year, whilst in Iceland its believed juniper used without rowan in boat-building will sink the craft.

The first medicinal mentions occur on a 1500BC Egyptian papyrus- and juniper is vital to Hopi and Yugoslavian folk medicine. Over time, juniper's been used to treat most ills- Culpeper recommended it variously, and antiseptic properties have seen juniper burnt in sickrooms from Sweden to France and Britain.

Juniper famously lends itself to imbibing. Gin was born in 16th century Rotterdam, its name stemming from French 'genevrier'- juniper. Most famously linked with London, the Menorcans distil their own version from grapes. Historically, Scots used juniper in flavouring whisky, whilst Swedes use it in a 'health beer'- the French in a similar beverage called 'genevrette'.
Globally, culinary uses for sharp, resinous juniper vary widely, although it has a particular affinity with game. In Roman and Spanish cuisines, juniper was historically a cheap substitute for black pepper- and in North England was used to flavour bread and cakes. Whilst Native Americans cooked berries with wild buffalo, their fellow modern country folk included them in root beer recipes.

The Finns enjoy juniper-marinated roast chicken, and decorate for Christmas with sprigs on windowsills. On Christmas day, the Dutch eat a traditional starter of tomato soup with gin. In Nord-Pas de Calais, juniper's used to flavour 'potjevlesh' stew, and over in Belgium crops up in hare stew, sauced veal kidneys and thrush casserole. Similarly, Corsicans pair juniper with blackbirds.

As you sip your G&T this September, the glorious game season in full swing, give a little thanks for the beguiling, bruise-coloured berries ripening on the bushes.

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15 September 2009
By: Zoe Perrett
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