One of England’s forgotten vegetables, Alexanders are at their most magnificent in April, their stately stems thick and tall on verges and grassy banks. Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) love the coast and grow in greatest profusion within a few miles of the sea, though isolated patches thrive even far inland, often close to monastic sites, where it was once cultivated.
Cut and steam the stems and buds, ideally just before the flowers have opened, for an absolutely distinctive, even peculiar, vegetable, a little like celery, parsley or chervil.
The Cottage Smallholder recommends:
Its best use is when the spring growth produces good sized stalks. If they are not too woody, these can be cut, and peeled, then braised in a little butter in a pan for a few minutes until soft. Serve with a sprinkle of pepper. This tastes rather like asparagus and is a real delight. The yellow-green flower buds can be eaten raw or added to salads and have a pleasant, nutty taste.
Roger Phillips, in his excellent collection of photos and recipes, Wild Food, gives advice on the simplest preparation of Alexanders – little more than 6 to 8 minutes’ boiling to serve hot with butter and black pepper.
The history of alexanders
Alexanders were once grown in kitchen gardens as Alexandrian parsley. Like so many other naturalised edible plants, Alexanders were introduced by the Romans and enjoyed centuries of popularity before eventually falling out of fashion with the introduction of new varieties of celery in the 19th century
John Evelyn, in his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699) describes Alexanders as “moderately hot, and of a cleansing faculty”, comparing them favourably to parsley. He recommends:
The gentle fresh sprouts, buds, and tops are to be chosen, and the stalks eaten in the spring; and when blanch’d, in winter likewise, with oyl, pepper, salt, etc by themselves, or in composition: They make also an excellent vernal pottage.
Just such a pottage was described by Robert May in The Accomplish’t Cook (1660) with the beautiful concision rarely seen in modern recipes:
Chop ellicksanders and oatmeal together, being picked and washed, then set on a pipkin with fair water, and when it boils, put in your herbs, oatmeal, and salt, and boil it on a soft fire, and make it not too thick, being almost boil’d put in some butter.
Roger Phillips’ Wild Food quotes a recipe of 1907, demonstrating that Alexanders’ popularity just about survived into the 20th century.