Christmas comes with a palate of warming winter spices that can be found in everything from mince pies, to mulled wines and ciders, chutneys and stews. We’ve explored some native alternatives to the more exotic ingredients, as well as identifying the classic festive flavourings that can always be found on British shores
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Other common names: clove root, Bennet's Root, Old Man's Whiskers, herb Bennet, colewort and St Benedict's herb
The clove (Syzygium aromaticum) is a strong and versatile spice that was first brought to Europe around the 4th century by Arab traders. It was very popular in medieval recipes as a means of masking spoiled foods but continues as a key ingredient in many curries, sauces, preserves and heavily spiced cakes and desserts. Clove is native to hot wet tropical regions, and today it is farmed in India, the West Indies, Brazil and Sumatra. Unfortunately for British kitchen-gardeners, it will not grow in temperatures below 15°C but our colder climes do offer an alternative — wood avens (Geum urbanum), which contains eugenol: the same aromatic oil found in clove.
Wood avens doesn’t form small stud-like seeds like the clove (from which cloves get their name, the Latin Clavus means nail), instead its flavour compound is found in its aromatic roots. Wood avens is a very common herb from the Rosaceae family which blooms from May to August, producing 1cm-2cm yellow flowers that later form burrs. Its fine tangled root, which smells distinctly of clove, is best collected in the early spring before the plant redirects its energy to the leaves — which can also be eaten and are popular deep-fried.
The root can be used in much the same way as clove to flavour mulled wines, stewed fruits, cakes, pies and sauces, as well as making a chai-like drink when boiled in milk. It is also used to flavour beers during the brewing process. To store, it can be either dried and ground or cooked into a syrup.
Common Hogweed seed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Other common names: co parsnip, eltrot, hogweed
Common hogweed is one of the most prolific hedgerow plants and its versatile and slightly herby young shoots are a favourite with foragers — although this plant should only be eaten cooked because of the presence of phototoxic furanocoumarins. During late summer, its white flower head umbels turn to green seeds that can be collected for toasting or pickling and have a flavour similar to cardamon — although some say dried coriander.
Cardamon refers to the intensely aromatic seed pods of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum that are native to the Indian subcontinent. As well as being used in curries, chai and as a rice garnish, it is also popular in cakes, especially in Nordic counties where it is used in the Scandinavian Yule bread Julekake.
Prepared common hogweed seed can also be used in baking, as well as curries and pickling liquors. In Persia, its close relative Heracleum persicum is a highly-regarded wild spice known as Golpar, which is often sprinkled over vegetables as well as being used to flavour other savoury dishes.
Care needs to be taken with identification of common hogweed as there is a risk it could be confused with poisonous umbellifers or the seriously phototoxic giant hogweed.
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Other common names: sandthorn, seaberry, sallow thorn, swallow thorn, willow thorn
Replaces: orange zest
This thorny, deciduous shrub with its packed rows of vivid orange berries is a familiar sight on the sand dunes of the east coast of England and Northern Ireland, but has also been widely planted elsewhere. It prefers dry conditions and is a tough, hardy, dense shrub able to survive down to -50°C.
The berries ripen on female plants in late summer/early autumn, and in some regions can be picked through to the first frost. They are revered for their high vitamin C content — at least 15x that of an orange — and are also high in vitamins A and E, and Omega oils. The fragile juicy berries have a vibrant flavour but are very sour raw, although this is reduced by cooking or freezing. They are often pressed into a juice — which is considered a “superfood” and commonly sold in health food stores — and made into jams and jellies. Their acidity is reminiscent of a citrus fruit (in Germany it was known as the “lemon of the north”) but it has enough flavour that it can be used to replace orange zest in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Sea buckthorn is sometimes confused with the landscaping/hedgerow plant firethorn (Pyracantha), which is not edible, but there is nothing else that resembles sea buckthorn in its natural habitat.
Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
Other common names: cowberry, partridgeberry, foxberry, whortleberry, mountain cranberry (and up to 25 other names)
Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is the lesser-known cousin of the cranberry (Vaccinium subg. Oxycoccus) and provides the closest like-for-like replacement of the festive plants and spices on our list.
In Scandinavia, the low creeping evergreen shrub is almost considered a weed. They can be eaten raw or made into sauces and preserves, and form part of classic dishes such as the Swedish favourite meatballs with cream sauce and lingonberry jam. They can also be found in Canada and northern America in the states of Alaska, Massachusetts and Maine. The bush can grow successfully in the UK and, as you might anticipate, it is most often found in Scotland and on higher hills, moorlands and coniferous forests in northern England.
Juniper (L. Juniperus communis)
Speaks for itself!
Without juniper berries there is no gin (its name comes from the French for juniper, genièvre) — and its most famous use is in flavouring this spirit. Its oily aromatic wood has a long history in perfumery, however, and historically its boughs were burned to ward of the devil. While it’s instinctive to think that conifers berries cannot be eaten, juniper berries — which are in fact fleshy cones — are edible and are often used to flavour game dishes and meats.
This long-lived native evergreen is most often found as a low-growing shrub or small tree, although it can reach a height of 10m. The dusky grey-blue berries are ready for harvesting from September to the end of December. Care needs to be taken to sustainably forage the plant as has a “near-threatened” conservation status and the berries can take up to two years to ripen. With that in mind, it is best to try and find a cultivated tree in a friend or neighbour’s garden where they are used in hedging.
Always make sure you are 100% sure of your identification before consuming any plant or mushroom