A pungent pine flavoured culinary spice that is the dried berry of a small shrub Juniperus communis. Juniper berries provide a fresh tasting counterpoint to many rich meat and game dishes as well as forming the flavour basis for several alcoholic spirits, most notably, gin.
Anatomy and Origin
The plant that provides us with the spice is a small shrub ranging from 1.5 - 2 metres in height. The shrub has small grayish, needle like leaves that protrude at right angles, making the harvesting of juniper berries a painful business. Some other non-culinary species of juniper grow to full size trees, with heights of up to 12 metres.
The berry itself grows following a small yellow flower. They are initially light green in colour, taking an incredible 3 years to reach harvesting maturity, at which point they will be the familiar deep blue to black and up to 10mm in diameter.
The tree is native to northern climes, including Arctic Norway and Russia, the North-West Himalayas and North America.
Upon crushing the berry, one is immediately reminded of the aroma of gin. They have a lingering pine like, resinous freshness that the Swiss once employed to freshen stale winter houses by burning them with heating fuel.
It is this same freshness that cooks seek when using juniper. The foods most closely associated with juniper; pork, venison, duck and game based terrines all have one thing in common. They all possess a heavily rich, fatty flavour. Junipers pungently refreshing taste serves to cut through any perceived richness.
The flavour of juniper is so closely associated with gin that the Dutch word for the spice jeneverbes*, provides the floral spirit with its English name.
If possible, choose juniper berries that are slightly soft and yielding to touch. Any that are rock hard will have been dried for too long and will have lost some of their fresh tasting essential oils. Always crush juniper berries just before you add them to a dish, so as to avoid any loss of flavour.
*Thanks to Professor Pi for the linguistic help. You wanna know it in Dutch? Go ask the Professor.