As the Britannic tribes stood on the coast ogling the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55BC, they probably weren’t under the impression that this band of invaders would be a good thing. Although the first recce was short and sweet it wouldn’t be for another 100 years till the Roman presence was truly felt in Britain.
The Romans did plenty for Britain and the rest of the empire, as pointed out by the People’s front of Judea in Life of Brian. Big pimpin’ Villas sprawled across the South Downs with swanky mosaics, baths and hypocaust systems (that’s under floor heating to you and me). Along with the latest in swanky household installations from I-Claudius (before the Scandinavians renamed it IKEA), the Romans were also responsible for some new culinary sensations that our ancestors would never have seen, let alone tasted, before.
So named because of its Mediterranean origins, the “Parsley of Alexandria” was used as a potherb, to feed both humans and horses. The abundance of Alexanders today shows just how well it adapted to the British landscape back in the day and you will come across them all over Britain, especially in coastal areas. The fact that Alexanders were part of the kitchen garden up until the 18th century shows its value as a useful vegetable for the table.
So you can imagine my excitement when I came across it’s glossy leaves coating a couple of the hollows in my urban foraging stomping ground of Battersea Park. I was out and about on the bike to gather around 100 nettle tops for a batch of Battersea nettle beer (more on that another time), when I happened upon them. You may have heard the saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, well that’s a load of guff, because there is…I gathered enough of the meaty young stems (that’s the bit you want) to enjoy lunch for one, it is worth noting that the leaves can also be used raw in salads.
It took me a while to come around to this wonderful wild vegetable. When I first picked some ages ago in Devon, I found the aromatic/ floral smell and taste of the peeled raw stem not to my taste. If your one of those strange folk that enjoy Palma Violets, then you will probably beg to differ.
The transformation occurred one day when I decided to see if I would prefer them cooked, so reading up on the prescribed methods, I put them to the test. Once peeled and boiled, I stacked them on a plate, added a knob of butter and seasoned with a little salt and pepper. I had read of the Alexanders uncanny resemblance to Asparagus and I can confirm this…fully! They are absolutely delicious: the best bit is you don’t have to part with a silly amount of money for the pleasure of putting one in your mouth.
When gathering Alexanders, look for young stems, cut off the top 2/3 of the plant so there is still some left growing. Back in the kitchen, chop the stems into manageable lengths and peel the dark green skin off. You can either steam or boil the stems for 6-8 minutes until tender, serve with butter and season well. Another option is to boil an egg, crack off the top, put a few drops of white wine vinegar in the runny yolk and you have a lazy hollandaise dipping sauce (my personal favourite)!
The Roman Empire may have disappeared overnight, but their legacy lives on, I for one will raise my goblet to Romans for giving us this fantastic, if somewhat forgotten vegetable…I suggest you do the same.