What is Juniper?

FR: Genievre GER: Wacholder IT: Ginepro

SP: Enebro, Jun’tpero, Nebrina

BOT: Juniperus communis and other species

FAM: Cupressaceae

There are many species of Juniper. They range from the dwarf juniper (Juniperus Nana) which grows high in the Alps to species which grow into large trees and are found in the warmer countries. The species used as a flavouring (Juniperus Communis) is found over the entire northern hemisphere including Britain. The plant is a bush, usually waist-high, and so exceedingly prickly that if one wishes to pick the berries one must wear strong gloves. The berries take three years to ripen, and, at any time, berries of several stages are to be found on the same bush. Only the ripe berries, which are blue, are used as a flavouring, and these are usually ripe in autumn, depending on altitude and locality. Juniper is usually found in separate male and female bushes, and, naturally, only the female bushes bear the berries. Juniper is easy to grow in most gardens.

What is Juniper? Photo Gallery

Juniper berries vary considerably in strength, and, in general, the further south they grow the more essential oils they contain and the stronger the flavour. Berries from Italian hillsides may be two or three times as strong as those which grow in Sweden or Britain. The flavour of the ripe berries is sweet, aromatic and rather of pine because they contain elements of turpentine.

Juniper berries are used to flavour gins, steinhager and other spirits. The word gin is derived from ginepro or some similar word and not from the town of Geneva. Nowadays, of course, the flavouring in gin is often added in the form of distilled oil of juniper. This oil is also medicinal.

Dishes flavoured with juniper may be found in almost all European countries from arctic Sweden to Spain, but particularly in mountainous or wild areas where the plant grows – in Italy, central

France and Provence, the Alps and Germany. It is used in marinades for wild boar, pork and venison; in stuffings for chicken, blackbird, thrushes and the countless other small birds indiscriminately slaughtered for food in southern Europe; and in pates. In Germany, juniper berries are a common flavouring for sauerkraut and are made into a conserve (Latwerge) for eating with cold meats. In English cooking, juniper was used more in the past than it is today, especially in curing ham, but I have known at least one Cumberland farmer’s wife who used juniper in beef stews as a matter of tradition. Juniper berries are usually crushed before use. They go well with most other herbs -parsley, thyme, fennel, marjoram, bay – as well as with garlic, spices, wine, brandy and port when these are used in meat dishes, e.g. Garenne a l ’Alsacienne (Alsatian wild rabbit with red cabbage, bacon fat, white wine and brandy).

Juniper is rather a neglected flavouring in English and American cooking. The berries may be bought dried although these are often quite useless (or the wrong species) or gathered during October holidays on the Mediterranean hillsides. It is the latter which are so aromatic with some of the best flavourings of European cooking. Other species of juniper with which this might be confused have red berries and are quite harmless, though lacking in flavour.

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