Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
When I went for a stroll the other day I was quite surprised to see this patch of Alexanders flourishing so early in the year. Normally I wouldn’t expect them until late February/ early March, but it appears this year they are taking advantage of the mild winter to get a head start on the other plants.
All parts of this plant are good to cook with; the young shoots, flowering stems and buds, seeds and roots. I wouldn’t usually recommend uprooting plants, but Alexanders can be found in such large colonies that it will do little harm to take a few roots here and there. Some councils even spend a significant amount of time and money trying to get rid of them as they can become quite invasive. Alexanders is particularly prolific in coastal areas, especially along the banks of roads and sea defences, as well as cliffs, although it can also be found inland from time to time.
It was first introduced to Britain by the Romans who used it in the same way that we use celery nowadays. It fell out of favour once wild celery was brought into cultivation, however alexanders tastes quite different to the celery you can buy in the shops. It has a unique flavour which for most people is an acquired taste rather than an instant hit, but it is well worth experimenting with as it is a versatile ingredient and can be found growing wild in large quantities.
Now is a good time to try cooking the stalks, because at the early stage they have both a softer flavour and texture than those found on a more developed plant.
When picking use a knife and cut the stalks right at the base where they meet the root in order to get as much stalk as possible. You might have to stick your knife under the soil to do this properly, though be careful not to damage the root.
I find it is best to remove the leaves and set them aside to be added towards the end of cooking as a herb/green. I use the stalks as a vegetable, they normally need peeling as their fibres can be quite tough. Once this is done try alexanders lightly boiled or steamed and served with butter or oil, as flavouring for soup or in stir frys for their crunchy texture.