Botanical name Juniperus communis ▪ Family name Cupressaceae
Juniper is an evergreen coniferous tree of the cypress family. It is a dioecious tree, having male and female counterparts, both of which must be cultivated together in order that berries are formed. Juniper berries are the only example of a spice in the botanic group of the coniferae, and also one of the few examples of a spice from cold climatic regions, although the best quality juniper berries come from Southern European countries.
Native range Europe, North America, Asia (juniper has the largest range of any woody plant)
Major producers Italy, Hungary
Harvesting There is some cultivation of juniper but a significant part of the juniper berry harvest is from wild trees which are common on chalky, hilly sites in the northern hemisphere. The purple-black, smooth berries which take about 2 years to ripen are about the size of a small pea, and are typically harvested in the autumn months. The berries are often covered with a greyish powdery substance called “bloom” which disappears as they ripen.
Taste and aroma The aroma of juniper berries is pleasantly woody with hints of turpentine, and unmistakably like gin. The taste is clean and refreshing with notes of pine, resin, and gin.
Culinary uses Juniper is an important spice in many European cuisines, especially in Alpine regions, where it grows abundantly. It is a key component for the Southern German specialty sauerkraut. Since juniper berries have a strong taste, they should be used sparingly. They are an ideal seasoning for meat stews or marinades for meats (especially game) that are going to be roasted or barbecued. Crushed in a mortar with garlic and rock salt, juniper berries make a tasty rub for lamb, pork, and venison. Crush juniper berries just before using, as their essential oils are quickly lost when in contact with the air.
Although juniper berries are harmless for healthy people, their use is discouraged for people with liver and kidney problems, and for pregnant women (as they can cause contractions of the uterus).
Other uses The main use of juniper berries is as a flavouring for gin - in fact, the word “gin” is derived from the French word for juniper berry, genièvre, which is also the name for gin in France. Juniper is a powerful antiseptic and is used in insecticides, soaps, and perfumes. One of the essential oils extracted from juniper berries is widely used in aromatherapy.
Historical uses In the Middle Ages juniper branches were hung over doors as protection against witches, and when burned the branches were thought to keep serpents and snakes at bay. Juniper’s use as a flavouring for gin and other spirits dates back at least to the 17th century.
Storage Juniper berries will keep for many months in an airtight container.
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