I love Alexanders – smyrnium olusatrum. They are one of my favourite spring foragables. Driving around the countryside here on the Isle of Wight they suddenly pop up, lining the streets of parts of the Island from early March. We use the thin stems for a sautéed snack or side, the thicker stems for candying, make a syrup for drinks and cocktails, eat the florets steamed like you would broccoli, or pickled in vinegar. Later in the year we collect the seeds to use with pepper too. I know people use the roots and leaves too, but we haven’t gone that far yet.
When the Romans* introduced Alexanders to Britain to provide a food source for their soldiers, they knew what they were doing. It was “a traditional plant for cleansing the blood and a digestive herb for strengthening the stomach. Seafarers used it to treat scurvy and herbalists used it to relieve stomach and urinary problems. It was also a remedy for headaches, toothaches, swellings of the body, cuts and bruises, asthma and consumption, or tuberculosis.” ~ eatweeds.co.uk
One of my primary reasons for loving Alexanders, though, is that they are an opportunity for quiet mindfulness. I know that sounds odd, but, when you’re harvesting them, you spend time moving from plant to plant, sorting through the stems, carefully selecting the right sizes so as to reduce unwanted wastage. Arm full collected, you now have to remove the tough outer layer of the stems, so, using my nail, I pull off the first little bit of the skin, and the rest follows easily- but it takes time. Whether sitting in a field enjoying the spring sunshine, or at home at the kitchen table, it’s a repetitive, quiet, contemplative experience, where we talk, or listen, or just think. It’s one of my favourite aspects of eating Alexanders.
This recipe is for candied Alexanders. It is a three-day process, but don’t be put off, once the first steps are completed, it takes a few moments on subsequent days, but makes all the difference to the translucent green, sweet candies.
A note on size
If you use the thicker, older stems, the candies will be very tough and chewy, but if you use the small new stems, it’ll fall apart before you get to the candy stage. Use stems about pinky sized and add another boil if you need to, or boil less if you need to. The stems should be a translucent green, but not falling apart.
- You can add other flavours to the syrup, like star anise or cinnamon, but I love them just as they are.
- Definitely remove the skin after the bicarb boil – it’s the easiest and least sticky time to do it.
- Once you’re done, use a sieve to filter the syrup into a glass bottle. This syrup is good on ice creams or other desserts (and would probably work as a balsamic-style vinegar too), and the bits that collect in the sieve work wherever jam does too – we use it with the buttercream filling in macarons.
*This is the common belief, due to a seed found in an early Roman settlement, but there are some scholars that believe the Alexander is actually a native plant.
- About 500g Alexander stems - read the notes on sizes above.
- ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda /baking soda
- 1 cup sugar (250 ml/210g)
- 1 cup water (250 ml)
- Extra sugar to sprinkle
- Measure the stems to the length of the container you'll be storing them in (i.e. a glass jar) and cut to that size.
- Prepare a bowl of ice water (although cold water will do the job if you keep it running).
- Bring a pot of water to boil and add the bicarbonate of soda. Add the stems and boil for five minutes, then move quickly to the cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Once cooled, remove the outer, fibrous, green layer from the stems. This is time consuming, but well worth it!
- Throw out the bicarb water, then put a cup of water and the cup of sugar into the pot and bring to the boil.
- Meanwhile, pack the stems neatly into the glass jar (I find lying it on it's side makes it easier to pack them in) and pour the syrup over, to cover. Let this mix come to room temperature, then cover and leave for 24 hours.
- Next day, pour the syrup into a pot, and bring to boil again, adding the stems. Boil for two minutes, then pour everything back into the container. (Again, I find it easier to lay the jar on its side, filling it with stems before pouring the syrup over again.)
- Do the same thing two more times. (It doesn't matter if you miss a day!)
- After the final syrup boil, set them out on a rack to cool down a little.
- Sprinkle some granulated sugar onto a baking tray, then lay the stems onto the tray and sprinkle sugar lightly over again.
- Lay onto a drying rack and leave overnight to dry (sometimes it takes a bit longer) before storing in an airtight container.
- Save the syrup for cordial or cocktails.