Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring forage: Alexander buds and Balsam Poplar

Today is officially the first of summer, and suitably equinoctal it is too - daffs in full fettle and lots of blossom in the hedgerows. For the first forage of the year, I was out gathering alexanders. This was once a potherb, so they say, brought by the Romans and naturalised around the verges and cliffs of England. It's a handsome plant whose stems can be eaten like asparagus, and the young leaves of which add a bit of zing to a spring salad. But I was gathering buds and flowers.

The flowers grow in bracts of creamy greenish white and are very attractive to insects. Under the open flowers you can find furled up against the stem a round ball of the flowers yet to come. These taste a little stronger than the flowers and can be used like capers.

A pinch of partly opened flowers (the buds are about the size of a pinhead) is a nice snack while walking, tasting something like cucumber with mustard seed: a very fresh green taste with a bit of heat to it.

Sprinkle them raw on salad leaves. We like french bread with a slice of goats cheese sprinkled with alexander buds and a little black pepper and grilled- actually the black pepper is slightly redundant, as the buds have enough zing in them. They are also good on hardboiled eggs.

I picked enough to pickle some for later use: bring some cider vinegar to the boil, drop in the buds and leave to cool before storing in a sterilised jar.

An experimental forage - not sure how it will work out - is some buds of balsam poplar. The smell of this tree in spring perhaps the most heavenly countryside scent I know, but it's oddly fugitive. Alan Bennett in his autobiographical writings describes getting a whiff of it while in company with a fellow undergraduate and thinking his companion had the odour of sanctity. He says he took some into Penhaligans, the very posh perfumier, and asking if they had something similar, but no joy.

You get a breath of it around this time of year, but it is hard to tell exactly what part of the tree it comes from. I think it is the brown carapaces of the new buds, which exude a stickiness when in sunlight. Anyway, I gathered a handful of these from a long row of the trees, a slow forage as I only wanted to take a couple from each tree in case it harms them.

Half I have put in a little jar and covered with almond oil and half in a jar with vodka - not to drink, but as a potential transporter for the scent. Last year I experimented with talcum powder but it didn't quite work: we shall see how it goes this time around. It would make an ambrosial perfume, I think, if I could get medium right.

Watch this space!

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