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Juniper Berries
Aunt Sophie came by a while ago with her secret remedy to vanquish arthritis. Aunt Sophie is, how can I best put it, of a certain age. This is a certain age that often has much in common with walkers, canes and wheel chairs; but Aunt Sophie is in great shape and is full of, as the expression goes, piss and vinegar, or, as I found, in her case, raisins and gin.

“Have a few of these, every day,” was her command as she handed me a hand-packed container of her favourite concoction—raisins plumped to almost the size of grapes, redolent and swollen with Beefeater’s best. “Another bubbe-mayse,” I thought, as I munched some—a tale from the old country. But after a little research I decided this one might not be so far-fetched.

The flavour of gin comes from juniper berries. These come from conifer plants, evergreens common in Europe and North America. New berries appear in the fall and can take two or three years to ripen. They are rich in vitamin C and terpenes, the essential oil which, in large quantities is manufactured into turpentine. During the Middle Ages the berries were kept in nosegays to help block the scent of the plague. For centuries, medicinal usage favoured using them in anti-inflammatory prescriptions. Hence, perhaps, Aunt Sophie’s arthritis remedy.

Many health food stores sell juniper berries. Left to soak in a little warm water they become sweet with a slightly piney but not unpleasant after-taste. If you have a juniper tree, you can harvest them around now when they are fresh, deep blue and plump and either use them fresh or dry them. Their lovely deep-forest flavour is unusual in the realm of herbs and spices. It makes the berries an excellent flavour enhancement to meat stews or dishes that call for venison, rabbit, wild fowl and other gamier meats. They are also good in pork and beef marinades. Many vegetable recipes suggest adding a half dozen when cooking new potatoes or mixing them into sauerkraut. Alternatively, as the great New York Times food writer Craig Clairborne once recommended, “if juniper berries are not in your market, simply add a dash of gin....” I can tell you for certain, it goes great with raisins.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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