Tag Archives: herbs

Gin and Juniper

Picture by Guttorm Flatabø, at flickr.com

If there’s one piece of knowledge that separates those unknowledgeable about gin to those who know where their towel is at in regard to this storied spirit, it is this: gin is made and/or flavored with juniper berries.

In fact, gin is so tied with the berry that its name derives from the dutch word jenever, which literally translates to “juniper”. Without junipers, gin becomes something else entirely, something distinctly not gin.

Juniper berries are not the sort of item that are a regular part of an American’s pantry. So the question is – “What the hell is juniper, anyway?”

First and foremost, it’s not technically a berry, but rather a cone, albeit a fleshy, berry-looking one. In fact, it is this relation to conifer trees that give the juniper it’s “piney” taste, one that lesser gins are more than willing to exploit.  Many a poor gin tastes more akin to pine trees (or even Pine-Sol, if there’s a strong, chemical taste)  than true juniper. In other words, juniper can have a pine taste, but it’s only one of several taste characteristics it has.

While there are several varieites of juniper out there, there are primarily two whose berries are used in the creation of gin.  There’s Juniperus communis, which should be considered the European juniper berry used in gin, and Juniperus occidentalis, which should be considered the New World variety used in some artisinal gins.

The berry fresh off of the stem is considered near worthless, as it’s too bitter to be palatable for either man or farm animals. However only when the berries are dried, or combined with other ingredients, is its true value understood.

Side Note: While we use the deep dark purple-ish berries to flavor our meats, sauces, and soups, it’s the fully-grown-but still-green berries that are typically used in gin production.

How did juniper end up in gins? As with many things alcoholic, one first needs to look to the history of pharmacology to understand. Juniper berries were used as a medicine for everything from increasing physical stamina (the Greeks) to a diuretic (Chinese, Germans), to even a contraceptive when applied to the genitalia (the Greeks yet again).

From this path, it’s only a short jump to adding junipers into fermented alcohols such a beer, to adding it into mashes to be distilled. And once added to any intoxicant, its popularity would have increased, especially if its addition made the intoxicant more palatable.

The better gins look to get the most out of the juniper berry, an idea I’ll explore in a later post regarding other botanicals.  Juniper, when applied well, is more than a pine taste, but a complex interaction of several characteristics that are used to balance with other flavorings.  But for now, the two things you need to take away from this post is that 1) Gin is Juniper; and 2) Juniper is more than a piney taste.


Apollo, Daphne and Bay Leaves

Apollo was a bit of an arrogant sod, and prone to bouts of his own sense of superiority. One day, after felling a mighty serpent, he came across Eros playing with his bow and arrows.

Amused at the sight of the mere boy playing with weapons, Apollo joked “What have you to do with warlike weapons, saucy boy? Leave them for hands worthy of them. Behold the conquest I have won by means of them over the vast serpent who stretched his poisonous body over acres of plain! Be content with your torch, child, and kindle up your flames, as you call them, where you will, but presume not to meddle with my weapons.” He then showed the god of Love the snake carcass.

Eros sighed, picked up an arrow, and shot Apollo. The arrow made the god of archery fall in love with the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus. Eros, being one who enjoyed a joke at Apollo’s expense, also shot an arrow into Daphne. But instead of making her fall in love with Apollo, the arrow was designed to make her repulsed by any thought of love.

Apollo wooed Daphne as best as a god can, but she rebuffed him, and every other suitor, at every turn. Apollo’s love only increased for her, and Daphne soon feared for her own safety, as everywhere she ran, Apollo followed, possessed with the thoughts of her beauty.

It was when he cornered her at a the river did she beg her father for help.

“Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!”

Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a treetop, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty.

Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips. “Since you cannot be my wife,” said he, “you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown. I will decorate you with my harp and quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be always green, and your leaf know no decay.”

The tree was what we would call the Laurus nobilis, the same tree that provides us with the Mediterranean Bay Leaf. It became one of the symbols of Apollo.The laurels that sit atop of Olympic athletes and the baccalaureate’s that college graduates receive, all are traced to this myth.

Technorati Tags: Bay Leaves, Myths, Food History

Bay Leaves

In our never ending quest to read up on all things food, we’re continuing our quest for information on herbs and spices.We’ve also started to refer to ourselves in the collective, mostly because it’s way early and I’ve had no caffeine.

Regardless, I wish to talk about Bay leaves, mostly because I know very little about them.

There are two different types of Bay leaves in the market. There are:

  • Mediteranean Bay Leaves:Laurus nobilis Is typically found in the, say it with me now, Mediteranean area of the world. They’ve been around for quite some time, having been popular in Greece and Italy. In fact, the wreaths of laurel that adorned Olympic winners were made of these little leaves.
  • California Bay Leaves: California bay tree produces this leave and is also known as ‘California laurel’, ‘Oregon myrtle’, or ‘pepperwood’. It is similar to the Mediterranean bay, but has a stronger flavor. It’s genus name is the Umbellularia californica.

The most common form of bay leaf as an herb is the dried whole leaf. Dried leaves are typically less bitter than those fresh off the tree.

There’s some who think that Bay Leaves are poisonous, but this is simply not the case. Whole Bay Leaves are often removed from dishes, as the sharp edges of the leaves are reputed to cause intestinal distress.

After having a taste, I can describe it’s flavor as a very bitter flavor, with a hint of an earthy mint tea. It’s a flavor that goes well when pared with artichokes, beet, celery root, chicken, corned beef, fish, potatoes, duck, roast pork and tomato sauce. Use them in soups, sauces, marinades and stews.

Technorati Tags: Herbs, Bay Leaves