April 2009 – For centuries Alexanders was cultivated as a delicacy, but now grows wild in hedgerows and on waste ground alongside equally wonderful fungi…
This lush green plant, is frequent along hedgerows, wasteland and verges across southern Britain, but is most often found near the coast. This is because it needs mild growing conditions, for it was introduced from the Mediterranean by the Romans who prized this thick-stalked, early-growing, plant as an important vegetable.
Its principle element is the stalk – particularly the self-blanching section beneath the leaf-sheath – but the whole plant is edible. Not surprisingly, in the absence of many of the modern vegetables we take for granted, for 1,500 years it was an important plank in the diets of both aristocracy and priesthood, being cultivated in all monastic gardens until their dissolution in the 16th century. It then began to go feral (indeed it is still often found growing wild near ancient ruins), but as late as the 17th century John Evelyn was recommending it’s inclusion in kitchen gardens. It only really lost favour when replaced by the blander French favourite, celery, during the 18th century.
The plant has an aromatic quality that works well both cooked in soups and raw in salads. It is best harvested in late winter or spring, cutting the stems low down, just before the plant flowers. The stems should be peeled and then steamed, served with black pepper and melted butter, while the leaves can be added to salads or used as a garnish.
This article is reproduced by kind permission of Daniel Butler www.fungiforays.co.uk