Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Sweet Cicely, Chartreuse and Summer Salad

Fennel Tops are the latest variety of leaf that is being added to bags of salad leaves (Steve’s Leaves have just launched fennel fronds, which have been added to baby spinach, green batavia and red chard which are now available from Waitrose). The young fennel tops have an aniseed flavour and fennel itself is a classic partnership with fish. However there is a lovely plant that is native to Britain that I think is far superior: Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata). The whole plant is edible: its leaves, seeds and roots taste a little like anise or subtle sweet liquorice and it has been used for centuries as a sweetener in cooking.

Sweet Cicely is an old cottage garden favourite and was traditionally grown near to the kitchen door. Bees love the flowers which open in early Spring and Sweet Cicely in flower looks a little like Cow Parsley or Queen Anne's Lace but is much prettier. The bright green, soft fern-like leaves are used to sweeten jams, desserts and cakes (they are particularly good with rhubarb, red currants and gooseberries); they are also good in salads, pasta, soups, omelettes, quiches, custards, ice creams and with fish. 
I usually stuff the belly of sea bass, trout or mackerel with the leaves of Sweet Cicely and it gives the fish a lovely flavour.

The un-ripe seeds can be used in salads and in salad dressings, when ripened they can be ground into a spice or used like cloves in apple pies and the roots can be roasted like parsnips or boiled and sliced into stir fries or salads.

Charlie Lee-Potter has a great recipe for Crab Salad with Sweet Cicely, Wild Flowers and Avocado as well as Sweet Cicely and Cucumber Cocktail with a Lovage Straw over on her blog
Eggs On The Roof.

Years ago the seeds were pounded into a paste and used to make a fragrant furniture polish in the north of England and children used to suck the ripe black / dark brown seeds as sweets. Apparently chewing the un-ripe seeds aids digestion.

You can make wine from Sweet Cicely, though I have never tried it, and it is famously used to make the liqueur,
Chartreuse. Chartreuse is made by Carthusian monks to a recipe that was given to them in 1605. The recipe for the liqueur was a gift from the Marshal of Artillery for King Henri IV and was an ancient manuscript titled "An Elixir of Long Life".

Today only two monks have been entrusted by the Order with the secret of producing the liqueur. Only these two know the recipe and how the ingredients are prepared!

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