Friday, 30 August 2013

30/08/13 - Juniper Berries

There are around sixty different species of juniper, scattered generously across the northern hemisphere like confetti on a bridesmaid’s hat. It’s a coniferous plant of the cypress family, ranging from sprawling shrubs and bushes to tall, sylph-like trees depending on variety and location. Their leaves can be needly or scaly, and they’re perhaps best known in the cultural sphere as the bushes owned by a crazed naked hermit with a massive beard in The Life of Brian. (‘They’re all I’ve bloody got to eat…’, etc.) And here we arrive at the crux of the matter: juniper berries. They’re very versatile little things. Aromatic, spicy little nuggets with myriad uses. You may think that they’re just the fleshy accoutrements of some obscure and uninteresting plant, but they creep into your daily life more than you might think. Behold, JuicyPips reader, the many functions of the juniper berry…

The world  would be a pretty shitty place without gin.
The good ol’ British gin and tonic is one of those beverages that’s entirely unfathomable to a juvenile palate. The first time you taste your mums gee ‘n’ tee as a kid, your immediate thought as you stick out your tongue in bewildered disgust is ‘why on Earth would anybody choose to drink such a revolting concoction for pleasure?’. But of course, kids are stupid. And when you grow up, you learn that gin and tonic is one of the best fusions of flavours since, er, salt and vinegar or rhubarb and custard. As standalone drinks, they’re pretty gross – gin isn’t really a supping spirit, and tonic is horribly bitter. But stirring one into the other, with a sliver of ice and a soupçon of lime, brings forth a sumptuous concatenation of flavours. Nothing beats a good gin and tonic.
…and it’s the glorious juniper berry that makes gin so damned effective. There are all manner of botanicals that go into different kinds of gin to create their unique flavours; anyone who’s been to Vinopolis and played with the ingredients in the Bombay Sapphire bar will be well-versed in the addition of angelica, coriander, liquorice, cassia, orris root and grains of paradise, but basically all gin is juniper-flavoured. It’s alcoholic juniper juice. It’s one of your five-a-day.

Another thing the world would be pretty shitty without: cured meats. When my wife was pregnant, there were a number of things that she wasn’t allowed to ingest that she craved to varying degrees: gin, brie, red wine, pâté, heroin… but one of the hardest to miss out on was cured meat. So as soon as the nipper appeared, I hightailed it to Sainsbury’s to stock up on prosciutto, salami, bresaola, chorizo, saucisson, and any other charcuterie I could lay my hands on. (Well, no, that’s not the first thing I did. The first thing I did was to cut the umbilical cord with a tiny pair of scissors. Have you ever done that? It’s like snipping the rubber hose on your barbecue’s gas bottle with a pair of nail scissors and finding that it’s full of cherry jam. But I digress…)
Prosciutto crudo is pretty labour-intensive to make, taking anywhere from nine months to two years to mature. The raw ham leg is cleaned, salted, then left for a couple of months, during which time it’s very slowly pressed to drain the blood. Then it’s cleaned again to remove the salt, hung in a dark room and left to dry for a load more months. Now, the regional variations of prosciutto (Parma ham, San Daniele, etc) have their own unique characteristics, much like different kinds of gin, thanks to the various herbs, spices and other botanicals that are used to season and flavour them throughout this drying process. The prosciutto of Tuscany uses a cure made from juniper berries, salt, pepper, rosemary and garlic, and this is obviously the best one because, er, we’re talking about juniper berries.
I could really go for some prosciutto right now, actually…

Pralines & Cream
One of Häagen-Dazs’ most popular varietals is Pralines & Cream. Or, as anyone who’s ever watched Wayne’s World will be utterly unable to prevent themselves from calling it, ‘Pralines & Dick’.
My favourite fact about Häagen-Dazs, incidentally, is that the name is entirely made up. The company was founded by a Jewish couple, Reuben and Rose Mattus, in the Bronx in 1961; they chose a fictional name that they thought sounded kind of Danish in honour of Denmark’s favourable treatment of Jews in World War II. They even put a map of Denmark on the label. The fact that he was from Poland and she was born in Britain (and that, er, the umlaut doesn’t even exist in the Danish language) seems entirely immaterial.
But anyway. Pralines & Cream has earned its inclusion in this list for the fact that the flavour of pecan-based pralines is notoriously difficult to sustain at low temperatures. The addition of juniper berries to the pralines acts as both a binding agent and a flavour accelerant. Again, you’re eating fruit without even knowing it. Häagen-Dazs is health food.

Formula One fuel
Race fuel is very different to the stuff you pump into your car at the Texaco garage, right? Well, no, not always. For dragsters that run on methanol or historic racers that use tetraethyl lead then yes, that’s not really all that similar to your average unleaded pump fuel, but Formula One petrol is surprisingly close to what’s swishing around in your Fiesta. Those Shell adverts that talk about selling ‘Formula One fuel for the road’? They’re not that far off the truth. F1 regulations force teams into developing ingenious workarounds for tight restrictions - current engines, for example, have to be a 90-degree V8 of 2.4-litre displacement, with only one fuel injector and spark plug per cylinder, no variable valve timing tech, and so forth; for the 2014 season, all-new engines will appear in each car, due to the new regulations stipulating turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 engines with energy recovery systems, fuel-flow restrictions, and numerous other things to make it all less environmentally impactful. They must also use a control fuel that’s very similar to domestic petrol. Using everyday constraints to create clever and super-efficient race engines is something of a black art.
But what is it that turns common pump fuel into fancy Formula One fuel? Why, the juniper berry, of course. In the same way that it acts as a binding agent for flavour in ice cream, mixing juniper extract with petroleum exponentially increases its octane rating, making it highly potent while also remaining stable under extremes of pressure and temperature. Is there anything those berries can’t do?

OK, I totally made up the thing about the petrol. And the ice cream. Juniper berries can do two things, gin and ham. They’re not even that nice to eat.

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