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Angels in the garden


More Adventures in Extreme Cooking with the Magic Gardener


They are shooting skywards now. Rabbits have picked up on the presence of some newly planted ones in the forest garden and begun excavating their tasty roots. The two year old specimen (protected from the lusty young lapines) smells incredible just from touching the succulent stems and swelling leaf bracts. Time to harvest!


Angelica archangelica is a member of the parsley family. It has a wild cousin in the ancient flower-rich meadows that surround us, but the garden variety, used for medicinal and culinary purposes for centuries, is bigger (can grow up to 2 metres) and rather more spectacular. In high summer the older plants may flower (but only if they feel like it!) and put out huge spherical umbels of yellowy green florets, producing seed which sprouts quickly in surrounding soil, ensuring the continuation of the colony.


The energy in these plants is palpable. I remember doing tai chi in the garden one summer, and being totally unable to concentrate in the face of the etheric 'chorus' floating sunward from a great clump of these blooms. The Sami people made musical instruments with an amazing clarinet sound from the fluted stems: standing next to these joyful plants was like being up close and personal with a whole heavenly orchestra. In the end I stopped trying to do tai chi and just let the experience wash over me.


I was thinking about this yesterday when I cut some big branching stems from the two year old angelica plant (the optimum age for culinary use), and the captivating scent rose up instantly and enveloped me. In the kitchen I separated the leaves, put some in with the rhubarb to simmer gently, and prepared the stems for candying. The bigger leaves went into a plastic bag in the fridge to try making dolmades without the benefit of a grapevine. The leaves in the rhubarb were there to sweeten and reduce the need for sugar. I had thought to remove them after cooking, but left them in the serving bowls because they looked so green and pretty against the pink rhubarb. As it turned out, they too were delicious and sweet, so we ate them as part of the dessert.


Most people only know angelica from the vivid green sugary confection used to decorate cakes. This is the only part of angelica you will find in the supermarket (not counting such liqueurs as green Chartreuse which contain extracts of it), so the adventurous cook will need to grow this plant at home. To make your own candied angelica involves boiling the stems for a little while till softened, then cooling and peeling them. Equal quantities of sugar and water make the syrup. I simmered the peeled stems in this, and left them to cool in it overnight. I will repeat this the next day when the stems should have become glossy and translucent, and ready to dry out on silicone paper, dusted with icing sugar. When they are dry I will be able to store them in an airtight container for up to 2 years, although I can't imagine not using this delicacy up fast, not only on cakes but in fruit salads and trifles. The left over syrup, now thick and infused with angelica's irresistible flavour, will go well with fruit salads and can be drizzled over ice cream (providing you haven't boiled it to death and reached the hard ball stage – only desirable as a cheap alternative to dental extraction :-)


Along the way with the candying I discovered something nice: on day one I had some bits of syrupy angelica which were too small to process for later use. They were nice and soft and tasty. So I whizzed them up with some double cream, and a little castor sugar. Result was wow factor thick syllabub-like stuff. This made a great addition to fresh fruit salad, but would also have been a sensational fresh cream filling for a sponge cake.

For a savoury dining experience, try blanching the bigger leaves to use for dolmades (as a substitute for vine leaves, which don't suit Welsh mountains), with a filling of minced meat, cooked cooled long grain rice, and finely chopped celery, onions, tomatoes and fresh oregano. Pack the parcels into an ovenproof dish, with garlic cloves tucked in between, and a little water added. Cover the dish with foil and cook in a moderate oven - around 180 degrees Celsius - for about 45 minutes. Then leave the dolmades to cool in their juice.


Another approach (I discovered this when mounting a rescue operation) is to use the same mixture as for dolmades but without the rice. If, like me, on the first dolmades run, you blanched the angelica leaves for too long (oops! Note to self: leave in the boiled water, off the heat, for a scant 5 minutes next time....), all is not lost. Use the wilted leaves to line an oiled baking tin or dish. Load in the meat and vegetable mixture but without the rice, with seasoning added. Cover the top with more wilted angelica leaves. Season and sprinkle with a little oil. Cover tightly with foil and bake as for dolmades. The result is a moist meaty, loaf in succulent and tender angelica-flavoured greenery. This combo reminds me of the fresh contrast you get using Florence fennel, or the delightful counterpoint of nettles on the outside of Yarg cheese. The loaf is good hot, still warm after your afternoon in the garden (I try to cook before lunchtime so I can come in broken and winded from an afternoon's gardening and collapse rapidly with a meal I don't have to do much to), or cold next day with salad. The day I made this I also had a large pot of Greek Briam on the go and it went really well with that. (Briam is like ratatouille but crucially without the tomatoes: it is cooked gently in olive oil with the lid on, and includes chunks of waxy new potato, peppers, courgettes, garlic, onion, lots of oregano, and aubergine if you have some, but also excellent without. It freezes well so you can make huge batches when courgettes come into glut or when you have a lot of veg to use up fast.


Our exploitation of angelica can also extend to the roots and seeds. Roots can be boiled or roasted, and, if dried and ground, can be used as a baking ingredient. Angelica essential oil is extracted from the seeds, and these can also be dried and used for a medicinal and refreshing tisane. You could make a herbal tincture by steeping the seeds in alcohol (see any good herbal for how to do this). Angelica is credited with medicinal properties for respiratory problems and aids digestion. A soothing syrup made by simmering seeds in sugar and water could be a good thing to have on hand for winter coughs and sore throats, or you could use the sugar directly on the crushed green seeds straight after harvesting to leech out the curative properties. Layer green seeds and sugar in a glass jar and leave overnight. Strain and bottle the resulting liquid, and store in the fridge. (This method is also used with freshly sliced onions, and the result, surprisingly, is extremely palatable and effective for chesty coughs).


Going back to stems, these make nice roasties if chopped and mixed with onions in a little olive oil – this goes particularly well with pork or fish. Using a vegetable peeler to remove the ribs before roasting would be useful, as you might with celery. The leaves also make good wrappers for fish being poached in the oven, imparting their delicate flavour to the dish. You can even dry the leaves and put them in your pipe and smoke them – but you didn't hear that from me! Country people used to smoke wild lettuce and coltsfoot for their beneficial actions on respiratory complaints as well as for their soothing effects on the mind and nerves. As angelica helps respiration, this could be a hot tip for the herbally-minded smoker!


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