JUNIPER BERRIES (Juniperus communis)
There are many different species of juniper, ranging from small shrubs 1.5 to 2 m high that provide us with the juniper berry of culinary use, to 12 m tall trees. Juniper bushes are compact with grey–green, ridged, sharp needle-like leaves that protrude at right angles, making the berries painful to harvest unless one is wearing strong gloves. The greenish-yellow flowers are indistinct and are followed by small, 7–10 mm diameter berries that take three years to mature. Initially hard and pale green, juniper berries ripen to blue–black, become fleshy and contain three sticky, hard brown seeds. When dried, the berries remain soft but if broken open, one will find the pith surrounding the seeds is quite friable. The aroma of juniper is immediately reminiscent of gin, with a woody, piney, resinous smell that is somewhat flowery and contains notes of turpentine. The flavour is equally pine-like, spicy, refreshing and savory, making it an excellent foil for rich, gamey or fatty foods. Although considered harmless to most, pregnant women and people with kidney problems are advised to avoid too much juniper.
Origin and History
Juniper trees are native to the Mediterranean, Arctic Norway, Russia, the north-west Himalayas and North America. Juniper has been regarded as a valuable item for medicinal purposes since the birth of Christ and has been considered throughout the ages as a magical plant. The Greek physicians Galen and Dioscorides wrote of juniper’s virtues around 100 AD and it is also mentioned in the Bible. Because of its air-cleansing piney fragrance, the foliage was used as a strewing herb to freshen stale air, and the Swiss burnt the berries with heating fuel in winter to sanitise stale classrooms. Juniper berries were sometimes utilised as a substitute for pepper, and they have been roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Gin, the alcoholic drink that derives its unique flavour from juniper berries, is named from an adaptation of the Dutch word for juniper, jenever.
Because juniper berries take three years to mature, a tree will bear both immature fruits and ready-to-be-harvested blue–black berries at the same time. The best-quality berries are picked by hand when ripe (usually in autumn) as any form of mechanical harvesting will crush these small pulpy spheres, allowing them to dry out and lose much of their flavour. We found picking juniper berries – nestled among their treacherous, needley foliage – so painful that we resorted to removing them with chopsticks. This was an inordinately slow task, which at least had the side-benefit of greatly improving our chopstick-handling skills.
Buying and Storage
Juniper berries are at their best when they are still moist and soft to the touch, squashing relatively easily between one’s fingers without crumbling from excessive dryness. It is not unusual for some berries to have a cloudy bloom on their indented, smooth blue–black skins, and although this is a harmless mould, berries that have not been properly dried may be excessively cloudy in appearance. Always wait to crush or grind juniper berries just before you use them, as the volatile component evaporates rapidly once exposed to the air. Store in a cool place in airtight packaging.
Juniper berries perform a unique role by contributing as much to the character of food through their ‘freshening’ ability as they do by way of their specific taste profile. As well as flavouring a dish, juniper cuts the gaminess of game, reduces the fatty effect of duck and pork and removes a perception of stodginess from bread stuffing. For this reason juniper berries are included in recipes for all sorts of game, such as venison, including reindeer in Scandinavia and wild duck in Ireland. They are added to fish and lamb and blend well with other herbs and spices, especially thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice and onions and garlic. One application I am particularly fond of is in a simple chicken casserole, moistened with plenty of rough red wine and spiced with all the above plus a few juniper berries.