We had a plant sale at our allotment site yesterday and one herb that I was delighted to find there was Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis Odorata).
Sweet Cicely grew in profusion in my Birmingham garden – which was shaded by a ‘vast’ oak tree several centuries in the growing but never thrived when I took it with me to my sun-baked, moorlands plot. Now that I finally have a new plant I am taking no chances and nurturing it in a pot!
Sweet Cicely is a native plant also known as garden myrrh, fern-leaved chervil, shepherd’s needle, and sweet-scented myrrh, and usually found in hedgerows or along river banks. A pretty though perhaps not spectacular plant and a member of the carrot family (which also included hemlock and hogweed so foragers should be careful if identification). It has fern-like leaves and umbels of white flowers. It is a deciduous plant that grows to a little over 1 metre by 1 metre on 2 to 3 years and likes moist but well drained soil in dappled shade. Propagate by seed or by dividing in autumn.
This herb was used a great deal when war time rationing made sugar a scarce resource! As mentioned in my Bunch Courtney Investigations crime books>
If you intend to use it as a culinary herb it pays to cut off the flower stems to encourage more (and stronger flavoured) foliage. Though obviously you would need to leave some flowers if you want to bring in bees or gather any seeds.
Given that it is both fragile and not especially showy why would I be so thrilled to find one? Well mostly because it is surprisingly hard to buy in the average garden centre, which I find odd given its culinary use in sweetening cooked fruits – hence it name. In these days of reduced sugar use you would imagine growers would be eager to promote its abilities – especially those looking to reduce sugar for reasons of health!
Use chopped or crushed seeds in fruit dishes and ice creams. Use ripe seeds in cookies and pastries. Roots: Sweet cicely roots can be peeled, chopped, and eaten raw in salads or stir-fries. Use fresh or dried roots as a vegetable (similar to parsnip) in soups, stews, or salads.
It is the soft textured raw leaves, with their aniseed scent and flavour, that is the most useful for most cooks. They can be used finely chopped in vegetable and fruit salads or dips. They can also be cooked into soups, stews, omelettes. The more common used is for its natural sweetness, which can reduce the amount of sugar in recipes, especially when stewing tart fruits such as rhubarb and blackcurrants. Use the younger stems and leaves chopped finely and added when cooking.
How much you use in any recipe is a balance. I have heard of people using 50/50 fruit and herb to avoid using sugar at all – but though the aniseed flavour will vanish with cooking – leaving just the sweetness such a large amount will inevitably affect the texture and appearance of your dish.
For my money a better way is to use it is to ‘reduce’ the sugar required by adding 1 tablespoon of chopped cicely to every 400 gms or fruit, plus some sugar or honey to your taste. Trial and error is the only way to find the balance that suits you best. Below is one recipe found with a quick google.
Rhubarb crumble (from River Cottage)
For the topping
200g plain flour
A pinch of salt
140g caster sugar
2–4 tsp ground ginger, to taste
250g flaked almonds
200g cold, unsalted butter, cubed
For the base
750g rhubarb, trimmed
3 tbsp sweet cicely leaves, finely chopped, or 3 tbsp caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. For the topping, put the flour, salt, sugar and ginger together into a food processor and blitz briefly to combine. Add the flaked almonds and process just enough to break them up but not turn them to dust. Add the butter and process until well mixed.
The crumble should be in fudgy clods rather than in fine crumbs or, conversely, in one solid lump. Getting this right may take a little tweaking as the almonds can vary considerably. If the mix is too dry, add a little more butter; if it’s in one or two lumps, add a little flour.
For the base, cut the rhubarb into 5cm lengths, spread evenly in a baking dish and sprinkle with the sweet cicely or sugar. Scatter the clods of crumble mix evenly over the fruit, letting them sit where they fall rather than pressing them down. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes or until the topping is golden with a few darker brown patches. Serve with cream or fresh custard.
Apple crumble paired with blackberries, a few handfuls of raspberries, blueberries, or a few slices of fragrant quince all make great alternatives to the original rhubarb. Plums, mulberries, gooseberries and apricots make lovely crumbles too.