Mellissa’s Spice Route – G is for Juniper
Gin’s piney, citrusy flavour is courtesy of a Nordic speciality – and let’s face it, they know all about celebrating warm weather – the juniper berry. Gin and tonic, that ubiquitous long summer-afternoon drink is a favourite tipple in this balmy part of the world, but how many of us know that this classic drink is just as delicious when served in a tasty tart or delectable dessert. Personally, I’m willing to give it a try, and judging by the recent explosion of gin cocktails and flavoured gins, it’s a worldwide trend and it’s here to stay.
Juniper berries are a bit sour, a bit sweet, and have a slight suggestion of pepper and pine, which is why gin tastes as wonderful as it does. Earthy, aromatic and botanical whispers are intrinsic to the flavour of gin. Apart from pairing excellently with a sliver of lime and fizzy tonic water, and, of course vermouth, for the unforgettable martini, it also holds its own as a base liquor for home-made liqueurs. Think of orange peel or rooibos infusions with a scattering of pink peppercorns or fresh thyme.
But understanding gin first means understanding the juniper berry, which is not only the primary botanical, by law, but anything that seeks to be classified under the gin label needs to have juniper as its dominant flavour and aroma. The word gin itself comes from either Dutch (jenever) or the French (genièvre), both meaning juniper.
Juniper is dioecious (plants are either male or female), and the berries are the female flowers which start life as small scale-like clusters and ripen into dark purplish-blue berry-shaped cones after pollination. This is when they are ready to be harvested to add to a botanical assortment to make the gin. The berries contain seeds which are dispersed by birds, and it is interesting to note that while all juniper species grow berries, many are too bitter to eat and some are toxic.
Juniper is well known throughout history for its medicinal, ritual and gastronomic properties. The ancient Egyptians used it to cure tapeworm infestations and the berries were found inside ancient Egyptian tombs; the Romans used it as substitute for the exorbitantly priced pepper, as well as to cure stomach ailments; it was used to flavour and preserve food with its spicy and bitter flavour; and Culpeper mentioned it as a cure for turgidity, for which juniper oil is still frequently used today. The Greeks incorporated juniper berries in their Olympic events because of the firm belief that they enhanced physical endurance.
Juniper wood releases minimal visible smoke when burnt, and is also highly aromatic, thus making it perfect for using in sacred ceremonies, which it often was. It was also commonly believed the smoke stimulated contact with the dead and aided in the arts of clairvoyance. In the rather illiterate times of the Middle Ages, during the plague, doctors often used juniper in their masks as a basic filter and burnt swathes of it to ward off contagion.
Juniper’s use as an alcoholic sidekick goes back further than we realise. Due to the minimal smoke from burning the wood, illicit Highland whisky stills often used juniper as the limited amount of smoke didn’t attract the beady eye of the local duty officers.
Fortunately, we don’t have this trouble today. A good old-fashioned G & T is as close as the next bottle store, and if you feel so inclined, buy a bottle and flavour it with some rooibos and thyme. Eliza Doolittle referred to gin as mother’s milk, and who can argue with the late great George Bernard Shaw? Here is a recipe to help you start spring in style, just add a few pretty-in-pink pomegranate seeds and a few sprigs of mint.
• 5 to 6 rosemary leaves
• 2 pomegranates
• Zest from 1 lemon
• 1 bottle of gin
• 4 tbsp maple syrup to taste.
1. Place the mint leaves into a large, clean jar
2. Divide the pomegranate in half through the middle and holding it in one hand over a bowl, face down over your fingers, whack the back with a wooden spoon until the seeds fall out
3. Repeat with all 4 halves and add the seeds to the jar
4. Add the lemon zest to the jar and pour the gin over
5. Stir in the sugar or honey
6. Seal the jar tightly and leave in a dark, cool place to infuse for 2 weeks, shaking the bottle gently every day
7. Taste after 4 days, the longer it stands the more intense the flavour will become
8. Strain and serve in a jug with thin slices of lemon and fresh mint sprigs and pomegranate seeds if desired, topped up with crisp tonic, soda water or sparkling wine.